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Column: Baseball must act now to protect pitchers

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Bryce Florie wonders why any pitcher would resist wearing a little extra protection on his head.

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Maybe it would be different if they could look at the world through his eyes. Specifically, his right eye - the one that was struck by a line drive nearly 13 years ago.

To this day, his peripheral vision remains a blurry mess.

``Normally when you get hurt, the bruise heals, the injury heals, and you forget about it,'' Florie said Friday from his home in Charleston, S.C. ``When you get hit in the head, it's a little bit different. I couldn't get away from it because I couldn't see well out of one eye.''

Baseball has always been a sport that moves at a glacier-like pace.

Well, it's time to speed things up after watching another pitcher crumple to the ground, the frightening outcome of being struck in the head by a line drive.

Baseball should immediately mandate some sort of added protection for the pitcher's head, and the players should enthusiastically agree to it. It might be nothing more than a thin strip of padding that offers minimal defense. That's OK. Something is better than nothing, and nothing is what they've got at the moment.

Seriously, what's it going to take to wake up a sport that revels in its traditions?

A player dying right on the field?

Surely, that was the immediate concern for anyone who saw Toronto's J.A. Happ get smashed in the head by a line drive this week, leaving him with a skull fracture behind the left ear.

The doctors believe the injury will heal on its own. Who knows if Happ will ever fully regain the courage it takes to throw a ball while knowing he's going to end up about 55 feet from a big-league batter.

Florie pitched only seven more games in the big leagues before his career was cut short by his vision problems. He also concedes that he never really got over what it did to him mentally.

``I always thought I was as tough-minded as they come,'' he said. ``When that happened, my brain was saying things like, `Watch it.' I had never heard that before. I wasn't scared. But it's in there. You can't explain it until it happens to you.''

Other than putting up a screen in front of the pitcher's mound, like they do in batter's practice, there's no way to totally eliminate the danger that a pitcher faces during the course of a game.

Still, it seems puzzling that baseball has yet to get past the research-and-development phase, even in light of several harrowing episodes over the past year. More troubling are all the players who say there's nothing on the market they'd be willing to try at the moment - a group, amazingly enough, that includes Brandon McCarthy.

Last September, you might recall, McCarthy was hit on the head by a liner while pitching for Oakland. He was left with a skull fracture, an epidural hemorrhage and a brain contusion that required surgery, putting him in the hospital for nearly a week. He's lucky to be alive.

Now with Arizona, McCarthy took to Twitter after Happ's injury to proclaim that any call for mandatory headgear would be the ludicrous, even in light of what he endured.

``There is nothing acceptable out there,'' he wrote, ``so the discussion at this point is worthless.''

While we understand that pitchers are reluctant to wear something that could affect their performance, to balk at anything other than the perfect product is mind-boggling.

From all indications, several companies are working feverishly to develop a product that will address the two main concerns: pitchers don't want to anything that is heavy enough to affect their windups when their heads rock back, or is so thick that it causes them to sweat more - especially on blistering summer days.

Legitimate concerns, to be sure, but pitchers would surely adjust to whatever they had to wear (just as the batters did when finally ordered to wear helmets in the early 1970s). And what's a little extra perspiration compared to the possibility of avoiding a potentially career-ending or even life-threating brain injury?

I'm reminded of all the NASCAR drivers who objected when their governing body, in the wake of Dale Earnhardt's death at the 2001 Daytona 500, ordered everyone to wear a bulky device around the neck, known as the HANS, which helps to eliminate the sort of skull fracture that had killed the sport's biggest star.

These days, no one would think of getting behind the wheel without strapping on the HANS. More important, no drivers have died since then.

Baseball certainly doesn't rate with auto racing on the danger scale. There's no denying that someone getting struck by a baseball - especially in the head - is still a very rare occurrence.

But it's time for baseball, at all levels, to acknowledge there's a problem that must be addressed immediately.

While everyone focuses on the big leagues, the bigger issue might be at the grassroots level. There are no mandates for protecting a pitcher's head in the college game. Heck, there's nothing in the Little League rules.

That needs to change, too. Shouldn't be a problem, either, since they don't have to worry about a player's union getting in the way.

Little League spokesman Brian McClintock said one of the organizations corporate partners, Easton, is among those working on a device that would provide additional protection for a pitcher's head. But he said Little League is more focused on teaching proper techniques, such as making sure pitchers wind up in the best fielding position as soon as they deliver the ball.

``This is a very rare occurrence when these injuries do happen,'' he said Friday. ``Having extra protections is really something that hasn't been developed yet. ... We're absolutely open to it as long as everything is vetted properly.''

While the big leaguers could set an example that filters down to the lower levels, McClintock pointed out that Little League actually mandated batting helmets before the majors did.

We don't care who does it first.

Just do it.

Now.

---

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

Copyright 2014
The Associated Press
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