Jan 29, 2015
Baseball Headed For More Protection?

By Dennis Read

Despite the introduction of new bat standards in college baseball, the debate over the relative safety of non-wood and wood bats shows little sign of letting up. Meanwhile, some coaches are looking beyond the type of bats used and focusing on other ways to keep batted balls from injuring players. The big question is: Should pitchers, or even all infielders, wear some type of protective gear? The next question is equally important: What would this equipment look like?

Nino Giarratano, Head Coach at the University of San Francisco, has been working on both questions. Last February, he watched one of his pitchers, Matt Hiserman, suffer a skull fracture when he was hit by a batted ball during an intrasquad scrimmage. It was Hiserman’s second severe head injury–in high school a line drive broke his sinus bones, yet he was still interested in competing.

“He started talking about the idea of developing some protective equipment, and I felt it would be a great project to get his mind stimulated and keep him connected to baseball and the team,” Giarratano says. “He used it as a project for his master’s program with the idea that he could change youth baseball and make it safer for kids.

“There’s no way I would’ve felt comfortable letting him return to the mound without some kind of protective gear,” he continues. “And I think the protective gear became a driving force to getting him back on the field.”

Giarratano and Hiserman worked together to develop something that would protect the temporal bone, which is what Hiserman cracked last year. They quickly decided that both sides of the head needed to be protected to guard against brain damage. They also wanted the equipment to be lightweight and stable, so it wouldn’t cause any distractions as he delivered a pitch. At the same time, Hiserman did not want the gear to make him look odd or even different from any other pitcher.

“We started out with a batting helmet, but that didn’t work, because it was heavy and blocked his peripheral vision,” Giarratano says. “Then we started to cut the helmet to make it lighter, but Matt still wasn’t able to see well enough to hold runners at first base. He then contacted a manufacturer that built a prototype for him.”

Rather than a full helmet, Hiserman’s gear consists of two protective shields (made from a catcher’s rib protector) that cover his temples and are connected by a strap. The gear fits under his cap, but sticks slightly out the sides. Hiserman wore it during 10 appearances in 2010, when he threw 51 innings.

The whole experience has changed Giarratano. “When I started researching this I couldn’t figure out why gear had not already been instituted at the younger levels,” he says. “I’ve become an advocate of trying to change–not the sport of baseball, but the safety of baseball–before we have other catastrophic injuries.

“The batter is 60-feet, 6-inches away from the pitcher, and he wears a protective helmet,” Giarratano continues. “The catcher and the umpire have protective helmets. The base coaches are 90 feet away and they wear protective helmets. But where the ball is being projected the quickest–toward the pitcher–there’s no protective equipment.”

On a broader level, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) has been working on a standard for such equipment through requests from the CIF, NFHS, USA Baseball, and the NCAA. It issued a draft standard in October that was adopted as a proposed standard in January.

“The standard calls for the gear to be about 10 percent more resilient than current batting helmets,” says Gregg Hartley, NOCSAE Vice President. “There are also standards for force dissipation in an optional face mask. The drawing in the proposed standard looks much like a batting helmet, but we may see some creative designs from manufacturers.”

The proposed standard will face a one-year comment period, after which the NOCSAE board could elect to adopt it as a full standard. This would typically take effect a year later, which would be in January 2013. Then it would be up to the NFHS and the NCAA to decide if and when they wanted the equipment to be made mandatory.

Although manufactures are free to start building equipment based on the draft standard, it’s unlikely that any mandate for protective equipment will result until NOCSAE issues its final standard. For now the CIF is simply requesting schools recommend that players use protective gear, without specifying what it would consist of.

“It’s just my guess, but I think within the next few years we’ll end up mandating it,” Ishida says. “However, before we do, we want to make sure there’s gear that meets safety standards.”

Still, there will probably be resistance from players, just as there was resistance to batting helmets when they were first introduced. Despite their teammate’s severe injury, none of the other pitchers at San Francisco elected to wear the equipment Hiserman helped design.

“Nor do I anticipate that anybody would wear it unless it was mandated–most kids think they’re indestructible,” Giarratano says. “To push it through, it’s going to take players like Matt and coaches like myself who say this is what we need to do. But we also need to get the backing of professional baseball and the NCAA.

“The awareness is there now, and we’re lucky who both kids that had these catastrophic injuries in our area are still alive,” he continues. “Hopefully we can move this forward before someone else gets injured.”

With all the concern over player safety in baseball, it’s easy to overlook the dangers coaches and batting practice pitchers face. Unfortunately, there are stark reminders, such as the 2007 death of minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh after he was struck by a batted ball while coaching first base. Frazier O’Leary, Head Coach at Cordozo High School in Washington, D.C., says he could have easily been the latest tragedy.

Last May, O’Leary had just started throwing batting practice to his team at Nationals Park, where high school teams from the District were allowed to practice once during the season. Since the mound was off-limits, O’Leary was throwing from behind a screen in front of the mound when one of his best hitters smacked a line drive right back up the middle.

“It was the perfect hit,” he says. “I never had a chance to move.”

Fortunately, O’Leary was wearing a goalie style catcher’s mask that protected him. “The ball would have hit me square in the face,” he says. “And there is no doubt in my mind it would have killed me.”

O’Leary started wearing protective equipment about four years ago after a friend was injured while throwing batting practice. O’Leary wore a batting helmet before switching to a catcher’s mask for greater protection a year or two ago. “Where I was hit, a batting helmet wouldn’t have helped at all,” he says.

In addition to wearing equipment himself, O’Leary requires anyone throwing live to hitters on his mound or in his cages to wear a helmet or mask. And when O’Leary became Commissioner of the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association baseball league, that mandate extended to the entire league. “That was my first rule,” he says.

Dennis Read is Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning.

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