Halftime Sports

Saving the Players and the Game

September 16, 2014

National League MVP candidate and Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton caught an 88-mph fastball just below the left eye Thursday causing various facial lacerations, fractures, and dental damage. This was the most severe of the recent uptick in gruesome on-field accidents.  The All Star left the field, almost certainly for the final time this season, by stretcher.  It was an unfitting end to the season for one of the game’s most feared sluggers. This incident only adds momentum to the increasingly loud call for greater measures of safety within the game of baseball. New commissioner Rob Manfred, set to take over for Bud Selig in January, will now have to contend with movement, led by MLB Players’ Association, to make the game safer for players.

However, the question remains: can baseball really do anything to prevent these incidents from occurring without drastically changing the game? As in any sport, an element of danger lurks throughout every facet of baseball. But at the same time, this danger plays a part in the game’s widespread popularity. The public holds stars such as Stanton in high esteem because of their refined and unique skill sets. But fans elevate these players to another level, recognizing more than just their superior talents. Players are admired and sometimes even considered heroes. Why? Beyond the skill, these players flirt with disaster on a daily basis.

A rock-hard object flies at 90 or more miles per hour in the batter’s direction, but if the pitcher releases the ball at just the wrong angle, it could come hurtling towards the player’s head. Every at-bat has this potential for disaster, a tightrope that every batter must walk each time they step up to the plate. Pitchers also face hazards, as there is always the small chance that a batter will square up the ball so precisely on the barrel of the bat that it screams back towards its origin. But this risky, living-on-the-edge element of baseball is part of the game’s culture and has been since its invention.

So how does one make baseball safer? Critics of the current state of affairs in Major League Baseball have offered many suggestions. One possible solution is the enlarging of helmets and hats of batters and pitchers respectively in order to squeeze in more protective padding. Trial runs of the larger protective hat have featured Padres’ relief pitcher Alex Torres. However, aside from the ridiculous, astronaut-like appearance, the new caps present mobility issues for pitchers with particularly violent deliveries. The larger helmet for batters presents similar problems, potentially slowing down base runners by a few key milliseconds that could mean the difference in a pennant race. Other suggestions offer more dramatic changes such as moving back the pitcher’s mound, or requiring extensive padding for batters.

The retirement of Bud Selig should spark a new debate on safety before the 2015 season. While change in baseball has developed slowly, the 2014 season saw two stars, Aroldis Chapman and now Giancarlo Stanton, experience grotesque injuries during game action. Chapman, closer of the Cincinnati Reds and now the poster boy for the dangers of pitching, was drilled in the face by a line drive off the bat of Royals’ catcher Salvador Perez in spring training, and needed metal screws in his forehead. Manfred will face tremendous pressure early in his tenure to eliminate these kinds of events. Ultimately, Major League Baseball will likely have no other choice than to ramp up its safety measures. The injuries have become too frequent and the players too high-profile.

The new commissioner cannot avoid action-the MLBPA will not allow it. However, he also should not blindly make changes for their own sake. The risk that Manfred runs, and the one his critics fail to consider, is that by completely altering baseball he could compromise the gritty personality of the game. The commissioner could jeopardize the age-old battle between pitcher and batter, in which two world-class professionals meet for a few, tense moments. Of course, Manfred must protect his players. This is a necessity. But baseball’s unique risk adds an intangible sense of toughness. Change must come, but not at the expense of the game’s distinctive character.

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