Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ was released from the hospital on Wednesday, less then 24 hours after he was drilled in the head by a ball off the bat of the Rays’ Desmond Jennings. He was in good spirits, said that he has a small fracture as the base of his skull, but that it will heal on its own. He’s on the 15-day disabled list. “I feel very fortunate,” he said on Wednesday at Tropicana Field. So do we. Can we not go through this again?
But likely we will. There’s not a scarier sound in sports than that of a batted ball hitting a player in the head. You heard it quite distinctly in this video — a sickening thwack of the type heard nowhere else in nature. This latest one, Tuesday in Tampa Bay, was accompanied by the sight of the ball caroming all the way to the Jays’ bullpen, and Jennings legging out the “hit” for a triple — that’s some serious shit. This wasn’t ball-bouncing-off-Jose-Canseco’s-head-for-a-home-run comedy, this is fuck-that-dude-could-be-dead grimness. And baseball needs to step in with some safety measures before someone is actually killed.
Does it make sense that the people at home plate are armored up like an episode of Game of Thrones, while the pitcher, who is the most vulnerable of all, and at whom the ball is traveling 10- to 15-mph faster, has virtually no protection at all? The batter has a helmet, and sometimes plastic elbow guards, and shin guards. The umpire is padded up, and has a mask. The catcher is of course armored from head to toe. This protects them from baseballs hurtling at them from 80-98 mph, and the occasional foul tip. But that’s the same 60 feet 6 inches going the other way.
There are about 700,000 pitches thrown in MLB games each season, and about 0.0004 percent of them result in comebackers that make contact with the pitcher’s head, according to Forbes Magazine. That’s three or four per season, a rarity to be sure. But it only takes one to ruin your day, and sometimes your career, as the folks in the slideshow below can attest.
Tragically, there’s probably never going to be meaningful change in protecting the pitcher until someone actually dies. On July 22, 2007, Mike Coolbaugh was coaching first base for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers in a game in San Antonio when he was hit in the neck, just below the ear by a line drive, killing him on impact. The following year, both the MLB and MiLB instituted a mandatory helmet rule for base coaches.
Not everyone was happy with it. Dodgers third-base coach Larry Bowa, for instance, began the 2008 Grapefruit League season helmetless. He said at the time:
“That’s not for me. My question is, how can I be in the league 40 years and the league says who wears a helmet and who doesn’t? These are very cumbersome.
Bowa vowed to never wear a helmet, saying that he would pay the fine for every game during the season. But when it was pointed out that the fine would accompany an ejection from every game, he gave in and started wearing one the next day.
But it goes to show how resistant the baseball establishment can be to change. Would a mandatory helmet rule for MLB make sense?
Actually, some pitchers at one time did wear helmets. And it was none other than Branch Rickey who started the trend.
As Keith Olbermann pointed out in his column Baseball Nerd, Tuesday was the 56th anniversary of the day that the Indians’ Herb Score was hit by a line drive (see slideshow above). That was in 1957. Five years earlier, Rickey, then GM of the Pittsburgh Pirates, introduced the batting helmet. But he also brought in helmets for players in the field, including pitchers. And for a while, they actually wore them in games (pictured: pitcher Fred Waters, circa 1956).
The batting helmet caught on, of course. The fielders’ helmet? Not so much. Olbermann:
After his successes in Brooklyn Rickey was squeezed out by Walter O’Malley and he went on to Pittsburgh where, in 1952, he mandated that his batters use them. A year later he announced that all the Pirates would wear the new helmets – at the plate and in the field. The Pirates were said to not even pack ordinary cloth caps on road trips.
Several accounts have the Bucs’ pitchers quickly – within weeks – discarding the helmets for the same reason today’s pitchers dismiss the idea: they were too heavy and clunky and sweaty. Critics called them “Miners’ hats” and said they were for timid men and bush leaguers.
But Pirates’ pitchers didn’t dismiss them, not entirely anyway. Nearly all the Pirates’ publicity and pre-game photos through the 1956 season showed their players — including the pitchers — in the helmets.
But it would be a tough sell today. There are Kevlar inserts and various other types of padding that could be added to pitchers’ caps, and they look pretty comfortable. Hell, if David Wright can wear this, then pitchers can wear a slightly bulkier cap. But don’t look for MLB to adopt the technology anytime soon. For the time being we’ll just have to cross our fingers and hope something truly awful doesn’t happen.
I’ve heard that ball-hitting-noggin sound first hand one time, and that was enough. It wasn’t a batted ball, actually, but it did occur near the pitcher’s mound. It was during a youth baseball game for 14- and 15-year-olds, and the one umpire on the field — the second ump didn’t show that day — was stationed behind the pitcher’s mound so he could call balls and strikes and still see to make the calls on the bases. So the runner on first attempts to steal second, the catcher uncorks a throw … and the ball hits the umpire directly in the back of the head. He had turned to look at the base to make the call, and got nailed — the ball bouncing straight back to the catcher on one hop.
He was a big man, but he hit the ground hard. Luckily there was a doctor in attendance, and it turned out the ump wasn’t seriously injured — although I haven’t talked with him lately about post-traumatic issues. I’ll never forget that sound, however — the only thing like it is when you’re splitting wood and miss the awl, hitting the stump with the hammer.
Oh ghost of Branch Rickey, come down and bestow wisdom on those who run Major League Baseball. Fortify their caps, so that no pitcher may ever be seriously wounded in the noggin again. Amen.
Photos: Associated Press/Topps.