CINCINNATI — Dusty Baker calls it part of the perils and dangers of the game because, in reality, the pitcher is a target for any good hitter.
Baker was talking about the possibilities of a pitcher getting hit with a line drive, a subject brought to the forefront Tuesday when Toronto pitcher J.A. Happ was wheeled off the field after Tampa Bay’s Desmond Jennings lined one off Happ’s head.
“As hitters, we were always taught to stay on the ball and try to hit it right up the middle,” said Baker. “The pitcher is falling away and that leaves the biggest hole on the field for which to hit.
“I’d be willing to bet that half of Pete Rose’s (4,256) hits were up the middle. I know Bob Gibson and Don Newcombe hated it when balls were hit right back at them, but that’s the way we were taught. It is unfortunate when pitchers get hit, but it is one of the hazards of the game.”
Pitcher Bronson Arroyo is in his 11th major-league season and has a litany of stories about getting hit on various parts of his pencil-thin body, but never in the head.
“If you get hit in a couple of different places in a short period of time, it will make you gun shy, for at least a while,” said Arroyo.
“If you go long enough without getting hit solidly in a vulnerable spot, you won’t think about it because it isn’t on your plate for a while. In the last three years, I’ve been hit hard twice. Once was in spring training in the hand.”
The other was so memorable that Arroyo can conjure the moment as if it happened 30 seconds ago.
“It was in St. Louis, a full-count change-up to Rafael Furcal and he hit me in my leg and that bruise lasted almost two years,” he said. “If you get hit hard like that, when you don’t have a chance to move and it hits you before you know what happened, then you realize how possible it is to get hit squarely in the face.”
Arroyo says once you take one hard off the body, the possibilities lodge in your brain, which isn’t a good thing when you are trying to make a perfect pitch to Bryce Harper with the bases loaded and two outs.
“It will be on your mind for a bit,” he said. “You try not to worry about it, but at the end of the day, sometimes you walk around in your space thinking the only reason I’m putting on a certain pair of socks is that I’m trying to avoid pain. You get hit hard enough, you are going to think about it like that.”
Whenever an incident like what happened to Happ surfaces, the discussion turns to pitchers wearing a protective helmet — and it has been that way ever since Cleveland pitcher Herb Score’s budding career was cut short in 1957 by a line drive that struck him in the eye and shattered facial bones, a ball hit by New York’s Gil McDougald.
It is required that the first base and third base coaches wear batting helmets and some women’s softball pitchers wear helmets with facial masks.
“I saw some prototypes that are out there and I don’t think they’ll do much,” said Arroyo. “There are so many other places you can get hit, other than the side of the head. The only thing that would protect is your temple area. It is such a small area. Maybe some guys will wear them next year, but they don’t look that comfortable to me.”
Arroyo’s point is that a helmet would protect a small part of his body, a part that is rarely hit, while the rest remains vulnerable, spots in which Arroyo has felt the sting of a smashed baseball.
“I’ve had ‘em whiz by my head, but I’ve never been hit in the head or throat,” he said. “I’ve been hit in the collarbone, knees, thighs, hands, shoulders and about five years ago in Atlanta I took one off the spine and that lump lasted a half a year.
“There isn’t anything you can do about it because it is on you so fast when the ball is headed in your direction,” he added. “Before you can even blink, it has got you. You are striding out seven feet so you are about 52 feet away. It’s not fun, man.”
Homer Bailey was pitching for the Reds the night Happ got hit and after his outing he said, “It is scary and unfortunate and I feel sorry for Happ, you never want to see that happen, but it has been part of the game since its inception.”
Bailey is not in favor of protective gear for the pitcher.
“The game has been played a long time and when something like that happens it is very unfortunate. But this is way it has been,” said Bailey. “We still have to keep it as our game. There is not a lot of evolution and what there is, most of it is for the betterment of the game. I like things the way they are. How often does that happen? Once every 10 years? I don’t think we can adjust the whole program just for one unfortunate incident.”