Thursday, May 9, 2013

Avoiding the Inevitable: James Anthony Happ and the Inherent Risk

Sixty feet, six inches separate the pitching rubber from home plate. Subtract a yard or so for pitcher follow-through. Now add a tightly-wound, fist-sized missile. There is not much time to react. Yet since the game's humble beginnings, pitchers have managed to escape a fatal blow to the head. Tuesday night, Toronto pitcher J.A. Happ took a Desmond Jennings comebacker off the left side of his skull. The ball trickled toward the outfield. Happ collapsed to the ground. With all of the pitches, in all of the games, in all of the seasons in Major League Baseball's history, Happ's brush with fate may be the one to finally initiate the conversation of pitcher safety.


August 16, 1920. Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman takes a wild pitch from New York submarine hurler Carl Mays off the side of his head. Within 12 hours, Chapman would be dead. The only player to die from contact with a baseball in Major League history. The events of that day as well as those leading to it are intricately profiled in Mike Sowell's book The Pitch That Killed, which I highly recommend. There was not a massive outcry for batter protection back then, but as the game evolved, the entirety of organized baseball would see batting helmets become mandatory. Is it likely that pitchers will also don some form of headgear, or will Happ's close call be seen as merely an exception in the billions of safe pitches completed? For now, he is on the Blue Jays' 15-day disabled list. Happ has assured fans of his return. When he does, however, will he choose to wear some form of protection on his head?

Organized football has been fighting with this problem for quite some time. As players age, the signs of brain damage become ever present. In recent years, there have been a few instances of former players taking their own lives, asking in a suicide note for their brain to be studied in hopes the next generation will not have to bear the lasting pain of head injuries. Football's answer is more sophisticated helmets and stiffer penalties for hits to the head. Time will tell how that will effect players, post-retirement. Can baseball execute a similar campaign to ensure pitcher safety? Because it is impossible to enforce a penalty for hitting a ball back toward the pitcher, baseball's main solution must be sophisticated headgear. Personally, I don't see pitchers ever wearing helmets. They are too bulky and could break concentration. What is possible, however, is a protective lining inside the pitcher's ball cap. Technological advances from Kevlar vests to memory foam have allowed there to be a reasonable solution to pitcher safety.

The next time J.A. Happ takes the mound, he'll surely be a bit pensive. I don't think anyone will blame him. In the time between the present and the day he pitches again, he has a decision to make. Will he play the law of averages and say  it's impossible for lightning to strike twice? Will he be a part of a league experiment, testing some yet unheard of protective device? For now, he needs rest. The skull fracture behind his left ear needs to heal. For a moment Tuesday night, there was lingering doubt as to Happ's chances of escaping from the injury. Tonight, he walks away as an answer to the exception. He walks away at all.

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