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Pitchers to test protective cap liners, but change won't be easy

Published: Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 10:42 p.m.

Baseball, without equal and with much pride, resists change. Lights at Wrigley Field, the designated hitter, the batting helmet — all standards today — were considered sacrilege at one time and only grudgingly accepted. More than a century of baseball makes it so. Which is why this spring training has become so darn interesting.

At least a dozen MLB pitchers have agreed to wear a padded, protective liner inside their caps. It's a test run, to see if they can pitch with the same confidence, with the same fluidity of motion, without surrendering an ounce of their machismo. Hitters wear helmets with ear flaps, arm pads, elbow pads, knee pads, ankle pads. The image of Barry Bonds standing at home plate looking like the Michelin Man with all his protective gear is difficult to forget.

The pitcher, meanwhile, stands on the mound protected by nothing except agility and his glove.

This vulnerability was highlighted in two incidents involving the A's and Giants last season. Oakland pitcher Brandon McCarthy was rushed to the hospital and underwent emergency surgery after being struck in the head by a line drive off the bat of the Angels' Erick Aybar on Sept. 5.

Swelling in McCarthy's brain became life-threatening, and the pitcher missed the rest of the season, though he's expected to be ready to go for spring training.

In Game 2 of the World Series, a ball off the bat of the Giants' Gregor Blanco smacked Detroit pitcher Doug Fister in the back of the head, on national TV. Though the incident was alarming to viewers, Fister was unharmed and stayed in the game.

Despite these two high-profile incidents, pitchers generally have low odds working in their favor.

“It happens so rarely,” said Justin Fitzgerald, the former Cardinal Newman pitcher who spent the last two seasons pitching for the Giants' Double A team in Richmond, “that I don't think it (padded cap insert) is necessary. When you are out there, you are taking a risk. Every season I have at least four or five balls hit my legs or arms. It comes with the territory. You just hope it doesn't happen to you. I don't see a place for it.”

I ran Fitzgerald's opinion past Damon Neidlinger, SRJC's baseball coach. He wasn't surprised.

“A lot of guys (pitchers) will tell you the same thing,” Neidlinger said. “There's a competitive fearlessness out there on the mound. You need that to pitch effectively.”

On the other hand ...

The liner came off that bat like a rocket. It was last October. SRJC was playing Chabot College. A Bear Cub tagged it and hit the Chabot pitcher. The sound Neidlinger will never forget.

“It sounded like a branch snapping,” he said.

The ball ricocheted and traveled so far in the air that SRJC's third baseman caught it on a dead run toward home plate. The Chabot pitcher took one step and collapsed, with his arms out.

“Your first instinct,” Neidlinger said, “is always to run to the mound. Not this time. There was no need to assess the situation, not what I saw. I got out my cell phone and called campus police and asked them to get paramedics and an ambulance over to the field as fast as they could.”

The pitcher was fortunate. He sustained a sizeable bruise near the temple area, stayed at Santa Rosa Memorial for a few days and then was released.

So, yes, Neidlinger can see the value of a protective pad. “But if it's not comfortable,” he said, “the pitchers won't wear it.”

But ah, said Rob Vito, his protective liner is comfortable. Vito is the president and CEO on a Pennsylvania-based equipment manufacturer that will provide those padded liners to MLB pitchers this spring training. The liner consists of a three-layer synthetic composite including military grade DuPont Kevlar and a polymer that makes the liner feel like rubber. The liner is an eighth-of-an-inch thick and weighs 3.9 ounces.

“Pitchers do not need to increase their hat size,” Vito boasted.

And more importantly ...

“You can't tell if a pitcher is wearing it,” he said.

This is a critical component to the process. Opposing teams look for weakness anywhere they can find it and no pitcher wants to be called, “Hey, Salad Bowl Head!” from the opposing dugout.

While some will say this padded liner experiment is just MLB's knee-jerk reaction to horrific pitcher beanings, the sport has given every indication it's moving immediately to increase pitcher safety. MLB senior vice president Dan Halem told ESPN last December that MLB is having discussions with six equipment manufacturers. Halem said McCarthy's injury — skull fracture, brain contusion, epidural hemorrhage — “pushed up our timetable.” Halem even went so far to say that padded caps could be made available to minor league pitchers this upcoming season.

It's going to be a tough sell. Baseball players build a protective aura about them. Get hit on the hand by a 95-mile an hour? Shake the hand once and trot to first base. It's the culture.

“There are a couple of colleges that are requiring their hitters to wear full face masks when they are batting,” Neidlinger said. “And some players have decided not to attend that school for that very reason.”

While player safety has become a screaming headline in the NFL, baseball has given sincere but fleeting attention to injury issues. John Goelz, SSU's baseball coach, has been around the game so long he once actually shook the hand of Abner Doubleday.

“This is the first time I ever talked about it,” Goelz said in our interview. “It makes me a little uncomfortable talking about it now. You talk about it (serious head injury to a pitcher) and the next thing you know it happens. I'm a little superstitious that way.”

Oh yes, superstitions. They have been in baseball longer than John Goelz. They provide some of the romance in the game. To some players, and as odd as this reads, their superstitions help provide insulation from the serendipity of getting hitting in the noodle by a line drive. Yes, baseball is a manly game played by manly man full of mucho machismo and maybe it does help somehow to skip over the foul line before heading out into the field.

Or ...

“We're working on undergarments,” Vito said, “that protect the body when a player slides, reducing the chance of skin abrasions and the like.”

What, no rashes in baseball? That's, um, un-American. Next thing you'll tell me is that there'll be no organ music between innings. Instead the Giants will be playing a pop song from South Korea, with words no one can understand, with not a single reference to baseball, with the singer on the big screen pretending to ride a horse … and people will be loving it in the stands at AT&T.

Well, when put that way, maybe this is the real tradition in baseball — the tradition of change.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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