Protective headgear for pitchers on ‘fast track,’ MLB says

David Brown
Big League Stew

Watching line drives deflect off the respective heads of Oakland Athletics pitcher Brandon McCarthy and Detroit Tigers pitcher Doug Fister in recent weeks was enough for Major League Baseball. Rather than waiting for a tragedy to happen, the league will move this offseason to protect its pitchers from batted balls. That includes the possibility of kevlar lining for caps and other potential solutions, MLB senior vice president Dan Halem said Friday night, adding that the safety issue is on a "fast track."

MLB medical director Dr. Gary Green has been talking to companies about protective headgear for pitchers, Halem said. A report is on the agenda at baseball's winter meetings in December.

A cap liner with Kevlar, the high-impact material used by military, law enforcement and NFL players for body armor, is among the ideas under consideration.

Halem said baseball already was exploring options when McCarthy was hit in the head by a line drive last month, causing a skull fracture and brain contusion.

"After that, it kind of pushed up our timetable," Halem said. "We decided to fast track it."

Whatever is implemented, MLB would start first in the minor leagues, where the baseball players union has no authority to affect policy. Whatever is done in the big leagues would have to be negotiated into existence, but players seem willing to discuss it. Especially after what happened to McCarthy, who needed surgery to relieve pressure on his brain after he was hit with a line drive in early September. And then Fister, who amazingly showed no ill-effects after Gregor Blanco of the Giants hit a line drive off his head in Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday.

"I definitely think it's something worth exploring," Game 1 winner Barry Zito said after the Giants worked out Friday night at Comerica Park. "We've had high-profile examples of those injuries lately, what happened with Brandon and then here in the World Series."

Putting up a fence — like the one teams use during batting practice — isn't an answer. It would interfere with play and become a safety issue in its own way. And making pitchers wear batting helmets, like they do in youth leagues, is just not a workable solution for today's generation or major league pitchers. Imagine a pitcher trying to throw a 95 mph fastball wearing a batting helmet. OK, Barry Zito, imagine a pitcher trying to throw an 85 mph fastball wearing a batting helmet.

"You don't want it to be too drastic," Zito said. "Little things can affect a pitcher's delivery."

A baseball's a little thing too. And it could end a pitcher's life if properly placed. The Associated Press reports that MLB made batting helmets mandatory in 1971 for new players — which doesn't seem so long ago — and that veteran players could "opt out" if they didn't want to wear them. Comfort is important to anyone. Routine and performance are important to baseball players. It's just kind of amazing it's taken MLB (and the players union) this long to improve safety for its pitchers. They're lucky the injury to McCarthy is expected to be fleeting, and that Fister seems completely unfazed by his close encounter with cowhide. Consider these blessings a warning.

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