Last night it was J.A. Happ, felled by a line drive, bleeding from the ear – and yet out of the hospital within 16 hours.
Last year it was Brandon McCarthy, felled by a line drive, walking off under his own power and pronounced fit and then suddenly requiring especially dangerous brain surgery (and not utterly incidentally, still having not had one good start since).
Yesterday it was the 56th anniversary of the day it was Herb Score – who was thought to be on his way to the career Sandy Koufax wound up having – felled by a line drive. 38-20 with 547 strikeouts in his first 512 innings in the majors, 17-26 with 290 strikeouts in his agonizing last 346.
In 2011 it was Juan Nicasio and it was 2000 it was Bryce Florie and in 1994 it was Mike Wilson and in 1991 it was Wally Whitehurst. And before them it was Steve Shields, repeatedly. And it’s been Kaz Ishii and David Huff and Matt Clement. And Joe Beckwith – who got hurt not because he was hit with a line drive, but because he did such a superb job of quickly getting out of the way of the line drive that in doing so he altered the vision in one eye and had to have corrective surgery on the good eye before he could resume his career. And in youth and college baseball, where the bats are aluminum and the skulls aren’t always finished, it was Gunnar Sandberg of Marin Catholic High in northern California who spent weeks in a coma and a year off the field (and if all this isn’t enough for you, here are more – if you have a stomach for them).
So once again the debate begins about giving helmets or at least lined caps to pitchers, and half of baseball insists it will have to happen after this incident, and the other half (including nearly all the pitchers) insisting it never will happen.
It already has.
Branch Rickey not only fostered the introduction of the helmet for batters, but later helped to develop (and actually own most of the stock in the company producing) the kind of helmet worn today – the one that can fit over a cap rather than force the batter to swap the one for the other After his successes in Brooklyn Rickey was squeezed out by Walter O’Malley and he went on to Pittsburgh where, in 1952, he mandated that his batters use them. A year later he announced that all the Pirates would wear the new helmets – at the plate and in the field. The Pirates were said to not even pack ordinary cloth caps on road trips.
Several accounts have the Bucs’ pitchers quickly – within weeks – discarding the helmets for the same reason today’s pitchers dismiss the idea: they were too heavy and clunky and sweaty. Critics called them “Miners’ hats” and said they were for timid men and bush leaguers.
But Pirates’ pitchers didn’t dismiss them, not entirely anyway. Nearly all the Pirates’ publicity and pre-game photos through the 1956 season showed their players – including the pitchers - in the helmets.
While photos of Pirates’ pitchers in ordinary cloth caps begin to reappear during the 1957 season, the helmets were still worn at least intermittently, at least before games – and with such great frequency and chronological ‘nearness’ (I don’t think Fred Waters went in and changed back into a cap before that game started – not in 1956) that it’s probably safe to say the pitchers at least wore the helmets sometimes during actual games.
When Rickey had said “all Pirates,” he meant it. The coaches and managers wore them – at least until Danny Murtaugh took over the latter job in the middle of the 1957 season.
As late as the 1959 team yearbook there are team portraits of pitchers (and other players) wearing helmets. This shot of Bob Thorpe (who made a cameo with the 1955 Cubs and died at the tragically young age of 24 in 1960) is significant because a) Thorpe was a pitcher, and b) he didn’t join the Pirates’ organization until 1958.
So did Rickey’s forgotten experiment have any practical impact? There are no accounts of Pirates’ pitchers being saved from line drives by the helmets. Statistically? Since we don’t know how consistently they were worn (or exactly when) we can’t be sure if either of these facts are relevant: among them Pittsburgh pitchers compiled exactly one sub-4.00 ERA in ’53 and ’54; on the other hand, Pirate Bob Friend led the league in ERA in 1955.
Did he do it while wearing a helmet? This is Friend’s 1958 baseball card. Either like Waters (above) he was photographed by Topps at the Polo Grounds in New York 1956, or they got him in ’57. In either case he wasn’t wearing it special for the photographer – that’s for certain.
So why the focus on the idea that this secondary controversy (“How can you expect manly pitchers to wear padding or protection?”) was already broached by Branch Rickey while Jackie Robinson was still playing for the Dodgers? Why not debate the merits?
Because there are merits on only one side of the debate.
With taller pitchers taking longer strides against stronger hitters using harder bats, the pitcher is even closer to the hitter as he delivers the pitch than he ever was before – and even if he’s 5’7″ he’s still closer to the hitter than the hitter was to him when he released the pitch. The ball off the bat is going 15 to 20 miles per hour faster than the fastest pitch any pitcher can throw. Among the men in imminent danger of having insufficient time to react to a line drive, the plate umpire, the catcher, the batter, the first base coach and the third base coach must now all wear a helmet (and the catcher and ump have helmets) .
Only the pitcher is – inexplicably – unprotected.
And if the miners’ helmets of the 1950’s are too clunky or too sweaty for 2013, there are more comfortable and stylish liners or reinforced caps that can at least do something – even if it’s only to give the pitcher, in that split second of recognition, a slightly increased chance of moving his head half an inch so the helmet takes the brunt and not his skull and the flimsy cloth that now protects it.
But this is baseball. The sport had its first fatal major league hit batsman in 1920, yet the helmet wasn’t even used experimentally until the 1940’s, didn’t become mandatory until 1971, and the last grandfathered batter (Bob Montgomery) took his last cloth-cap swing on September 9, 1979.
We might very well not only have to wait for a pitcher to be killed before baseball does anything about this – we might have to wait until then and add 51 years to the wait.
My friend Dirk Hayhurst is getting a lot of ink – and a lot of grief – for correctly identifying that Clay Buchholz of the Red Sox was doing something to his pitches in Toronto. Whether Buchholz is mixing rosin with sweat, water, or some other kind of gelatinous abomination, Hayhurst noted the trick, called it out, and gave a combination of rebuke and complement today.
I’ll leave it to The Baseball Police to determine to what degree Buchholz is cheating (i.e. acceptable or legal cheating, or unacceptable and thus illegal cheating). I’ll laugh out loud at the contention that Hayhurst is in some way homering this, or trying to make a name for himself, or trying to tear Buchholz down. Hayhurst was a major league pitcher, which means the odds that he cheated in some way are about 101 out of 100 (I’m on the pitchers’ side on this. All rule changes since 1893 have been designed to screw the pitcher into the ground to increase hitting).
Pitchers doctor the baseball in the big leagues. Buchholz isn’t innocent because nobody ratted him out before Dirk did. Teams don’t push it because then their pitchers will be policed (‘So seven of our guys cheat? We have tape of twelve of your guys cheating – and five of them are hitters’). If you look back at the bizarre Kenny Rogers ‘hand discoloration’ saga from Game Two of the 2006 World Series there is reason to hypothesize that Tony LaRussa went to Jim Leyland and said ‘this is over the top. Get that crap off his hand – and all your other guys’ hands – or I’m going to the Commissioner.’ I mean, that could easily explain why Tigers pitchers Todd Jones, Fernando Rodney, Joel Zumaya, and Justin Verlander made errors in the next 22 innings: they were having trouble holding on to the baseball.
But this is not really about any of that.
This is about a simple fact: I doctored a baseball.
I was taught to do it by an ex-big league pitcher, I used the skill while throwing out a ceremonial first pitch – and it worked like a charm.
“Hey, why can’t I hear you clearly?” asked my friend the ex-MLB pitcher (not Dirk Hayhurst).
I explained I was on the ferry to Staten Island to throw out the first pitch at a Yankees’ minor league game and the cell reception was mediocre. “Oh. I suppose you know what to do to raise your chances of not humiliating yourself, right?” I told him I hadn’t really thought about it. “Well first, what happens when somebody throws a ceremonial first pitch in the dirt?” I told him that to the best of my recollection, people booed or laughed derisively. “But what happens when they throw it over the catcher’s head?” I said there was a lot of ooh-ing and aah-ing. “So aim high, not low.
“Second thing, don’t go up on to the mound.” No? “No! The mound is for pitchers. You are not a pitcher. All you can do with a mound is fall off it. Stand on the skirt of the mound in the front. This’ll give you the illusion of standing on the mound.
“But most importantly, get the baseball as early as possible.” Here he got very quiet. “Pick at the seams.” What did you say? “Pick. At. The. Seams. With your fingernails. Just pull up on the stitches with your nails. Get the baseball half an hour before the game, or if you have to, just find a ball somewhere and start picking at the seams, then use that for the first pitch.” Seriously? “Why would I make this up?” But what could it possibly do? “You’ll see.”
So given the undeniable logic of his first two suggestions about throwing high and not actually getting on the mound, as soon as I got to the Staten Island ballpark I grabbed a loose baseball and tried to pick at the seams with my fingernails.
I don’t know if I expected them to come loose, like that wandering thread in your suit or your sweater that turns out to be 44 inches long. All I know is, nothing moved. I could’ve used a nail file or a drill bit and I wouldn’t have been able to budge them. After 20 minutes of this, I realized that my friend the pitcher had just foisted one over on me. He had gotten me to pick at the seams of the ball as the equipment manager gets the naive batboy to go search for the “key” to the batters’ box.
Nevertheless, I went over to the catcher, P.J. Pilittere, and warned him I would be aiming head-high to avoid all those boos, and I stopped moving after I reached the skirt of the mound. And I pulled the ball whose seams I had pointlessly and with eminent futility pulled at for 20 minutes, went into a mock wind-up, and let go a pretty decent pitch that I could instantly see was going to hit the mitt, which Pilittere was appropriately holding face-high.
And about fifteen feet in front of the plate the ball dropped like it had been hit by a poison dart. It split the strike zone perfectly and nearly hit Pilittere in his privates except that he deftly swung the glove down and grabbed my textbook cutter. And as I stood there amazed he ran out towards me with a big smile on his face and said exactly four words: “Picking at the seams?”
I got my friend the ex-pitcher on the phone immediately. “Told you so.” I asked him how on earth the ball could have been defaced when I had no sense whatsoever that the picking had had any impact at all. “That’s physics. I was a Communications major. All I know is: it doesn’t take much. That’s why they throw out your first inning warm-up ball and give you a fresh one nowadays. But in school I used to get the game ball half an hour before first pitch and I never threw anything except strikes, just like that one. An artificial cut fastball. Which all the batters would then be convinced I had in reserve all game long.”
He added one more thing: “You’re welcome.”