Face masks make baseball better and safer, study says

June 05, 2008|By John Keilman and Colleen Kane | John Keilman and Colleen Kane,Chicago Tribune

Christy Collins' vision for the future of baseball can be glimpsed through the polycarbonate bars of a face mask.

The Ohio researcher examined data from dozens of high school teams and concluded that the best way to reduce serious injuries on the diamond would be to require that all infielders, from pitchers to shortstops, wear helmets and face protection.

Her suggestion, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, would mean a huge change in the game's gear. Few think the idea will come to pass soon - if ever - but it has become part of a larger discussion about safety in America's pastime, where a long-held culture of toughness is slowly giving way to more cautious attitudes.

Major League Baseball's general managers, for instance, required first- and third-base coaches to wear helmets beginning this season, after the July death of minor-league coach Mike Coolbaugh.

"To have a starting pitcher wear a helmet the whole time could be a burden, but you have to weigh the pros and cons and the dangers of being hit in the head," said Mike Napoleon, head coach at New Trier High School in Chicago. "Does it happen enough [to warrant a helmet]? I don't know. I haven't seen it happen, but one time might be enough."

Baseball is among the safest high school sports, with a total injury rate well below that of football and even soccer. But when it comes to serious harm, a 2000 study showed that it trails only wrestling for injuries that keep players sidelined for a week or more.

As part of a wider survey on sports injuries, Collins, a researcher at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, looked at two seasons of high school trainers' reports. She found that extreme injuries - fractures, concussions and dental damage - were more likely to afflict players who had been hit by a batted ball.

"It can be pretty costly to treat head and face injuries," she said, "as well as having an impact on the player - keeping them out of play, changing their outlook on sports. ... Sports are one of the major ways kids can have a physically fit and healthy lifestyle. If a player sustains an injury, they may quit in the long term, and we definitely don't want that to happen."

Though some have tried curbing those injuries by limiting the size of bats or allowing only wooden ones, Collins said the best defense would be for all infielders to sport helmets and face shields, or at least mouth guards and protective eye wear. She speculated that the same advice would benefit younger athletes, who play on smaller fields and whose reflexes aren't as sharp.

However, baseball players interested in wearing the equipment seem as rare as a Honus Wagner baseball card.

Little League Baseball, whose rules govern more than 2 million players in the U.S., doesn't require any of the equipment Collins encourages, though the group said knee and ankle injuries prompted it to switch this year to "safety bases," which dislodge when players slide into them.

Fast-pitch softball has upgraded its safety equipment in recent years by requiring batters to wear helmets with masks, after players too often fouled rising pitches off their faces.

Kelly McKeown, spokesman for the Amateur Softball Association, said the Oklahoma City-based organization has not considered mandating masks for infielders, but it seems to be catching on anyway.

New Trier sophomore Kelsey Lee had the "scariest experience of [her] life" two summers ago when a line drive struck a teammate in the face while she was pitching. Now both players wear protective face masks when pitching.

"At first, it took a while to get used to it," Lee said. "I didn't want to pitch with a plastic mask over my face, but now I think it's the greatest thing. I feel so safe out there."

Collins, the researcher, said further study is needed to understand why most players seem hesitant to adopt the gear.

Kathleen Kalant has no sympathy for that viewpoint. Three years ago, her son Bill, then a 16-year-old pitcher at Oak Lawn High School in Chicago, took a line drive to the right side of his head.

Bill Kalant remembers walking off the field laughing and thinking it didn't hurt much, but within minutes he passed out. Doctors performed brain surgery and put him in a drug-induced coma for nearly two weeks. He spent four months in rehabilitation, and though he's still mending, he has recovered enough to attend Moraine Valley Community College.

However, he probably will never play baseball again.

"They all should wear [helmets and face masks], whether they're 5 or 55," Kathleen Kalant said. "If you're playing a baseball game, you need protective eye and head gear. You may think you look like a bunch of fools out there, but it's for your own good."

John Keilman and Colleen Kane write for the Chicago Tribune.

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