Baseball must mandate protective headgear for pitchers after latest injuries

Orioles pitchers discuss proposed solutions for comebackers that have sidelined their peers

  • Members of the Rays look on as pitcher Alex Cobb is tended to by trainers after being hit in the head by a line drive June 15.
Members of the Rays look on as pitcher Alex Cobb is tended to by… (DANIEL WALLACE, MCT )
June 26, 2013|Kevin Cowherd

Go watch the video of Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Alex Cobb being hit on the head by a shot off the bat of the Kansas City Royals' Eric Hosmer, ball meeting skull sounding like a cantaloupe dropped on a sidewalk.

Go watch the clip of Toronto Blue Jays hurler J.A. Happ being drilled in the head by Desmond Jennings' line drive, the Rays outfielder gnawing on his jersey with growing alarm as trainers work feverishly over a downed, twitching Happ.

Or watch Brandon McCarthy after he took a rocket to the head off Erick Aybar's bat, the dazed pitcher, then with the Oakland Athletics, sitting on the mound and rubbing his head over and over like he just took a haymaker from Wladimir Klitschko.

Then tell me baseball doesn't need to do something to protect pitchers.

And do something fast. Before someone gets killed.

"It's part of the game," Orioles' reliever Tommy Hunter says about these frightening shots pitchers have taken. "It [stinks]. But it's the game."

Maybe. But it's part of the game that has to be changed, pronto.

Look, we all know what's happening here.

Pitchers are throwing harder than ever. Batters are bigger and stronger than ever. And the mound is still 60-feet, 6-inches from the plate.

The laws of physics when ball meets bat haven't changed, either. It's a recipe for disaster. And this fatalistic attitude pitchers have — knowing they could have their heads taken off by a line drive, but shrugging it off as part of the game — seems as outdated as telephone booths.

Times change. Hockey goalies used to play without facemasks. That was insane, too.

The good news is that Major League Baseball is looking into protective headgear for pitchers. The proposal gaining the most attention would call for pitchers to wear a thin, padded lining under their caps made of Kevlar, the synthetic fiber found in bulletproof vests.

Hunter says he'd wear the lining, although he questions how much good it would do if a pitcher took a line drive that struck below his cap. But he has a simpler solution for pitchers who don't want to get whacked in the head: pitch to the corners of the plate.

Line drives back to the pitcher's head, he says, are "usually [the result of ] off-speed pitches that are up and over the plate where a [batter] can get extended. Throw every ball inside, stay on the corners, and you're not going to have a ball come back at your face."

OK, fine. But pitchers miss with pitches. They don't always hit the corners. They're not robots.

Orioles reliever T.J. McFarland missed with a pitch, and it could have cost him his life. This was in a summer game between his junior and senior years of high school. He threw a pitch that came back at him like a missile homing in on his face.

"It actually hit me in the perfect spot," McFarland says.

Except McFarland's definition of the "perfect spot" is a little different from yours and mine.

"It hit me underneath the eye socket," he says, "so it didn't shatter the eye socket. Left of my nose, so it didn't break my nose. I took 20 stitches."

"Off-speed pitch in the middle of the plate?" asks Hunter, who's been listening in.

McFarland nods.

"BAD off-speed pitch," he says grimly.

Fine, a cap lining wouldn't help with a line drive to the face. But if it helps deflect a shot off the skull and possible brain damage, isn't that better than nothing?

It is, say the Orioles pitchers I talked to. But guys would be reluctant to wear anything bulky, they say — anything different, anything they think throws off their balance and timing on the mound.

Major league pitchers can be total whack jobs about any little change in their routine.

"Some guys complain about the spring training hats we wear," starter Jason Hammel says. "The stretchy fit of it — even that annoys us."

How about being laid up in a hospital with a bad concussion because you now have the word "Rawlings" imprinted on your forehead from a scorching line drive — wouldn't that be even more annoying?

In the same breath, Hammel admits that his wife, Elissa, is worried sick about him getting clocked in the head by a line drive.

"Honestly," he says, "my wife was like: 'I'm gonna invent a [protective] cap and you're gonna have to wear it.'"

Me, I think it's baseball's job, not Elissa Hammel's, to find a way to protect pitchers from these terrifying shots like the one Alex Cobb took June 15 that left him with a concussion, vertigo, nausea and violent headaches.

And if it's a protective cap lining that baseball comes up with, make the pitchers wear it, period. If they resist, make them watch the video of Cobb nearly getting his head torn off. Make them watch it over and over again.

"Did you see the video?" I ask Hammel as our conversation ends.

He nods and makes a face.

"I watched it once," he says," and I couldn't watch it again."

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kevincowherdsun

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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