Major League Baseball made a big step earlier this off-season in making professional baseball a safer game for players with its adoption of the new rules regarding contact between a runner and the catcher at home plate. Commissioner Bud Selig has made it very clear with several decisions in recent years that he believes the game of baseball needs to not only modernize, but also improve upon safety concerns. General managers of most teams across the league have agreed that introducing new tweaks to the game to move it along in its evolution have been positive, especially since these changes have meant less risk to their players. The next concern to step up to the plate? Pitcher safety.
Last week, Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman found himself squirming on the edge of the mound in excruciating pain after his near-100 mile per hour fastball was turned around in a flash, striking him just above the eye. To get a sense of just how hard the ball was hit back at Chapman, it was fielded by the Reds third baseman over by the third base dugout on a roll. Although this type of incident is not very common, as the sheer odds of a come-backer finding the head of the pitcher is extremely low, when it does happen it evokes shock and anguish out of fans and fellow players alike. After Chapman fell to the ground, several team members and Salvador Perez, the Royals batter who hit the line drive, knelt around the mound in support, some with their hands covering their faces and others shaking their heads in worry.
It has been obvious since the very beginning of baseball that the pitcher is in an extremely unsafe position when he releases a pitch. He is completely vulnerable to a liner up the middle unless he somehow miraculously can get his glove up fast enough to guard his face. Yet, even though this danger is impossible to deny, there has been no big push to have pitchers wear some type of protection in the Major Leagues.
The main obstacle, as in any sport, to introducing new safety measures are the ever-obstinate players themselves. Sporting equipment manufacturers jump at the chance to design new safety gear because it means higher sales for them. General managers put in numerous requests to discuss additional safety regulations because they keep their precious assets safe and out on the field. Fans typically do not oppose as long as they can see their favorite stars play in more games without getting cast to the Disabled List. What stands in the way of progress in terms of safety are the players because more safety equipment means less mobility and, at times, more discomfort.
Back in the olden days of the game, batters did not even wear helmets up at the plate, but that’s not unique to baseball. All other major sports in the United States have gone through their own safety turmoil and have battled to protect their athletes–football with face masks and hockey with helmet visors–but eventually the changes went through and the games profited from the extra efforts. Even after seeing Chapman just barely escape death by what seems like pure luck, pitchers will continue to take the mound, day in and day out, without accepting any new form of protection.
Athletes, and baseball players particularly, do not like to change up their routines out on the field. Whether it be for the sake of comfort or superstition. Changes to their equipment are usually not too welcome and therefore, no kind of padded hat or helmet made for pitchers has taken on in the MLB. The safety equipment does exist and is allowed by the MLB for pitchers to wear, yet we have seen no success in this aspect of game safety. Pitchers are still willing to stand 60 feet from a batter who could return his pitch straight back to his own head, without protection.
It would be a terrible shame if it took more frequent and more serious injuries to pitchers in order to convince players that they should start making a change in how safety is approached in baseball. It is impossible to eliminate all risk to pitchers because they are indeed throwing a ball, basically almost as hard as a rock, 90 plus miles an hour so that a batter can hit it with possibly even more force. Any slight improvement, though, would be a huge step for the game, mainly because of what it would mean for baseball at lower levels.
What professional baseball players need to really take to heart is that they have millions of aspiring baseball players all over the world watching their every move out there on the field. Young baseball players dream of becoming their greatest hero and playing professional ball and therefore will emulate the behaviors and tendencies of who they love to watch the most. And that, so vitally, includes wearing safety gear. Kids do not want to be wearing bulky protective equipment if they are not seeing real major leaguers wearing something similar. For many youngsters, the style of the game is almost as important as the game itself, but what many parents are constantly aware of is that the game is dangerous no matter what level you play at. Non-professional levels almost without exception play with aluminum bats and although these bats have been modified in recent years to give them less pop, the reality remains that it doesn’t take much for a baseball to cause injury to a pitcher.
If professional baseball players were to start adopting additional protective equipment, they would be able to encourage younger, less skilled (and possibly more prone to injury) players to also pick up on the trend. Eventually this would become the norm and baseball could continue on its evolutionary path to a more modern, sustainable game. This is not something that the MLB should force upon players, but something that players should take upon themselves as they think about what more the game means outside the foul lines. Baseball has seen major changes and it should see changes again. The responsibility lies with those currently risking their safety to mitigate the risk of those who look up to them.
Photo: Melvin Baker/Flickr