In era of safety, pitchers remain dangerously exposed

The horrifying scene of a pitcher struck by a line drive played out again Wednesday night at Surprise, Ariz.

One of the greatest fears shared by major-league pitchers — and hitters — was realized at a spring training game in Surprise, Ariz., on Wednesday night: Aroldis Chapman, the fireballing Cincinnati Reds closer, was hit flush in the face by a line drive off the bat of Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez.

The circumstances were downright frightening: A fastball from perhaps the hardest-throwing pitcher in the sport was pulverized by a powerful young hitter. The impact to Chapman’s head came a fraction of a second later.

"The worst I’ve ever seen," one Reds player told our Ken Rosenthal.

The player told Rosenthal he heard the pitch had been clocked at 99 mph — and the line drive at 110.

"I know it was the hardest ball you can hit," he said.

Roy Smith, the former major-league pitcher and current New York Mets scout, was at the game and told Rosenthal: "I had a clear view. … It was a bullet, a missile, as bad as I’ve seen. I took one off the head myself, so I know. It’s as flush as I’ve ever seen. Usually, guys turn their head a little bit. This was like right on."

Smith continued: "I was sitting next to (Reds executive) Cam Bonifay, my friend. I like grabbed him and turned around. I couldn’t look. The entire stadium went silent for the next 15 minutes. They started to put music on the loudspeaker. People were like, ‘Really?’ And then it was just silent. The players, you can imagine their reaction. It was really scary. … This was like getting punched right in the face. It was straight on."

Later Wednesday, the Reds announced Chapman was taken to the Banner Del E. Webb Medical Center in Sun City, Ariz., where "tests indicated fractures above his left eye and nose." Chapman then was transferred to Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center for further testing and overnight observation.

In the minutes and hours that followed, players across the league tweeted their prayers, best wishes and expressions of support. They did so out of genuine, human concern for the well-being of a peer.

Left unsaid was the disconcerting reality that pitchers are woefully under-protected from such peril.

AROUND THE HORN

A pitcher’s helmet might not have protected Chapman in the precise area where he was hit. And it’s impossible for everyone on a baseball field — pitchers, catchers, hitters, position players, base coaches — to be completely protected from serious injury or even death. But the sad reality is, as a practical matter, pitchers aren’t much safer now than on Sept. 5, 2012 — when Brandon McCarthy, then with the Oakland Athletics, was hit in the head by a line drive.

Even though McCarthy did not lose consciousness on the mound, he later was diagnosed with an epidural hemorrhage, brain contusion and skull fracture. The injuries were described as "life-threatening" and required a two-hour surgery. McCarthy missed the remainder of the 2012 season but returned to pitch for the Arizona Diamondbacks last year.

McCarthy has become an advocate for preventing and treating head injuries, and earlier this year Major League Baseball approved a pitcher’s protective cap for optional use in 2014. But McCarthy has elected not to wear it. He told ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark in January that the cap is "too big" and "too hot" and doesn’t fit properly.

It’s unclear if any pitcher actually will wear the protective cap during the regular season. Obviously, that is a problem — and underscores the urgency for MLB and the MLB Players Association to work even harder on research and development. The goal must be a shell that marries the fit of a cap with high-density protective lining. It can’t be bulky or awkward in a way that inhibits a pitcher’s balance or performance; that would be counterproductive.

Whatever engineering expertise needs to be mustered — and however large the checks that need to be written — an $8 billion industry should be able to find the answers.

The scary part: If anything, the risk of these incidents only will increase. Pitchers are throwing harder. Batters, while not as chemically enhanced as at the height of the Steroid Era, are impeccably conditioned and exhibit whiplike bat speed. Managers and general managers speak of their desire to have "power" on their roster, in various forms.

Major leaguers, as a group, never have been as athletic and well-trained as they are today. Usually, that makes the game more entertaining than at any point in its history. Wednesday, those same traits made it terrifying. And so the next step is both obvious and imperative: Baseball must find a way to offer its pitchers a little more protection, to lessen the chances of our national pastime witnessing the worst kind of tragedy.

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