March 08, 2011
The image of a pitcher hurling a baseball while wearing only a cap made of wool is as old as the game itself. But with batters getting bigger and stronger, and balls rocketing back toward the mound at faster and faster speeds, might that traditional picture soon change?
High school pitcher Gunnar Sandberg (above) thinks it could. The Bay Area prepster from Marin Catholic just returned to the diamond after suffering a major head injury last spring — read more about his comeback at Cam Smith's Prep Rally — and he did so while wearing Easton's new pitching helmet. Designed to slip over a pitcher's regular cap, the helmet aims to protect the player while he or she stands just 60 feet and 6 inches away from home plate — and about 15 feet closer if we're talking about Little League.
During the creation of the pitchers helmet, designers at Easton-Bell's helmet technology center — known in-house as "The Dome" — studied film of more than 5,000 pitchers from delivery to follow-through with an eye toward which parts of the head were most vulnerable to injury.
The challenge was to create something that did not impede performance or weigh down a pitcher toiling under the summer sun. There is more work to be done. Paul Harrington, Easton-Bell's chief executive officer, said he hopes the pitchers' helmet will hit shelves this fall at a price to be determined.
It's not too hard to see the pitchers helmet being widely adopted in youth or high school leagues. Perhaps it's the wise adult in me, but the helmet doesn't look bulky or even — and this might be a bigger obstacle when you're talking about kids — uncool. They actually look kind of sweet in a futuristic Super Baseball 2020 sort of way and, as Sandberg points out, wearing one is a lot better than spending months in the hospital with a head injury. Little League officials say they're already looking into it.
"What we're talking about is saving kids' lives," (Little League CEO) Stephen Keener said. "These injuries are rare. When they do happen, they are very traumatic, catastrophic."
If we're talking about seeing these in the major leagues, though, we're probably talking about a much longer path to being accepted. Those "Great Gazoo" batting helmets have been slow to gain approval in the bigs over the past year (David Wright(notes) was roundly mocked for wearing one) and pro ballplayers are notorious for refusing to adopt any changes that the player's union doesn't officially require.
But with a 100-mph line drive reaching the rubber in less than half a second and concussions having the potential to wreak havoc on a career (see Morneau, Justin), why wouldn't you seek to put an extra layer of protection over your noggin?
Unfortunately, my guess is that we'll probably have to see a head injury before we see any big league pitchers coming around to the idea of this new lid anytime soon.