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.
In Spring Training of 2011 I wrote of the lost joy of pre-game “infield practice,” in which a team’s manager or coaches hit grounders and flies to their position players while barking out game situations. Then-manager Jim Riggleman of the Nationals had reintroduced the ritual (and gotten chastised by confused groundskeepers at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, who told him he was screwing up their field).
I’m not talking about shortstops standing behind screens at first base nor pitchers shagging fly balls during batting practice. This was one or two catchers, all the starting infielders and outfielders, and many of the reserves, on the field, twenty minutes before first pitch, chasing everything from pop-ups behind third to long drives into the right field corner. It was a mini-spring training.
Teams used to do this before almost every game. Earl Weaver thought it was the most important thing his club did, next to hitting three-run homers. And when done well, it achieved nearly the qualities of ballet. It gradually faded from the scene because some managers were concerned it gave away too much real-time information on the health of fielders and particularly the game-day strength of outfielders’ arms, and the players happily used this as an excuse to go and hide in the dugout the moment BP ends.
So imagine my joy when my old friend Robin Ventura came into Yankee Stadium for the first time as a manager last night, and at about 6:20 his Chicago White Sox were doing this under the guidance of another old friend, third base coach Joe McEwing (number 47), with back-up catcher Tyler Flowers to his left, and bullpen catcher Mark Salas.Before the joy of watching his team “take infield,” I had already had a long conversation with Ventura, who was probably the champion of dry-witted baseball figures during his time as a player. He was the one who spread the story that when Rickey Henderson joined the Mets in 1999, he asked first baseman John Olerud why he wore a helmet in the field (Olerud had suffered a brain aneurysm in college and benefited from the limited plastic protection). Ventura quoted Rickey as saying “A guy I played with in Toronto did that too.” The guy, of course, was the self-same John Olerud, with whom Henderson had been teammates six years before.
Henderson was many things, but he did not have a bad memory about players. The story was entirely apocryphal, but Ventura sold it so well that for years it was treated as gospel. And everybody kept Robin’s name out of it. When somebody finally confronted him about it he simply smiled. This was exactly the insurrectionist attitude that I thought would serve Ventura so well as a manager. When I reminded him of that he deadpanned “Yeah, but every day the writers still ask me if I’m afraid I’m going to lose control of the club.”
I took this long side trip into the persona of Robin Ventura for a reason. Take another look at that picture of the White Sox. I’ll ask you what Sox co-owner Eddie Einhorn asked me as I marveled that his club was actually taking infield: “Do you notice if anything’s missing?”
There’s no baseball.
They were taking infield practice, for ten minutes or more, without any baseballs. It took me at least two minutes to even notice it, and another two to convince myself either my vision or my circulation hadn’t gone bad. No baseball. They were pantomiming it.
I shot a brief video:
At one point catcher Flowers came running right at me in pursuit of an imaginary foul ball. I thanked him for making sure it didn’t hit me.
Eddie Einhorn said his club calls it “Phantom Ball.” In the Negro Leagues in the ’30s, the teams used to entertain fans pre-game with a high speed version that including leaping catches and plays at the plate, which they called “Shadow Ball.” Under whatever name, it was a joy to behold, and the Sox insist it’s terrific for honing instincts and reducing the risk of injury because there’s no ball in use.
As I left the field Ventura asked me how I liked it and insisted it was Joe McEwing’s idea. “See?,” he added, still deadpan. “There’s a reason they keep asking me if I’m going to lose control of the club. I can’t even get them to use a baseball.”
Ventura might just win that division.
Update, 9:45 PM EDT: Ben Walker of the Associated Press, who loves “Infield” as much as I do, sent me an email mentioning that he asked Ventura and McEwing about this tonight and the skipper said they did this at least once under the guidance of coach Cookie Rojas when they were with the Mets – that would date to the 2000 season. This reminded me that Ventura told me last night “Every once in awhile we go all Cookie Rojas out there.”
DAYAN VICIEDO AND MONTY MONTGOMERY
He sure as shootin’ will if the Sox keep doing stuff like this. Three hours after Phantom Ball ended, Dayan Viciedo tore into a David Robertson pitch and all of a sudden a nice safe 3-1 Yankees’ ninth inning lead was a White Sox 4-3 victory.
Not long after, an ESPN researcher tweeted that it had been a long time since that had happened to the Yankees: that the last time a visiting team trailing by two or more went ahead on a home run in the 9th had been in 1972, when Bob Montgomery did it to them.
And a distant bell went off in my head.
I was at that game too, and boy was I cheesed off.
The Yankees trailed the third-place Red Sox by just a game-and-a-half when they met for a twi-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium on July 28, 1972, on day two of a five-game series that would probably decide which one of them might still challenge for the AL East Division crown. As an aside, for those of you who think the rivalry was always like it is now, the attendance for two Yankee-Sox games that night was 20,129.
I was one of them, and I happily watched my favorite, Mel Stottlemyre, hold the Sox to three hits and two runs until the ninth. The Yanks were up 5-2 when Stott got wild and walked Reggie Smith and Rico Petrocelli. Manager Ralph Houk brought in relief ace Sparky Lyle, and I got worried because Lyle had recorded his 20th save the night before, but had pitched 2-1/3 innings to do so.
Sure enough, Danny Cater (whom the Yankees had astutely traded to Boston for Lyle in one of the worst one-for-one trades in baseball history) singled to drive in a run and cut it to 5-3. Shortstop John Kennedy worked the count full but then struck out. This brought up Bob Montgomery, Boston’s third string catcher who had, to that point in the 1972 season, hit exactly no home runs and driven in exactly two. In fact, in the middle of his third big league season Montgomery had hit exactly three career homers (he would go on to a long career as a Boston back-up, be the last man to regularly bat without a batting helmet, and then become a beloved color commentator on the Red Sox tv broadcasts).
Montgomery promptly put Lyle’s pitch into the right field seats and, just like last night, a two-run Yankee lead had become a one-run visitor’s victory.
I was not happy. And this is not memory speaking. It took me five minutes to find my scorecard. The blasphemies directed at Manager Houk (“Lyle? 2 Days in a row…You are a fool!”) will not be illustrated here. The scorecard will:40 years is a long time between any two similar events.
Just how long is underscored by what’s on the page behind that scorecard. It lists the names and numbers of the pitchers of the American League teams. For the future 1972 World Champion Oakland A’s, there are only nine pitchers listed.
For those interested in the other stuff I’ll be appearing as a guest Sunday morning on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos.