Headshots in baseball?

This prototype pitcher's helmet made by Easton-Bell weighs just over five ounces and is already...

This prototype pitcher's helmet made by Easton-Bell weighs just over five ounces and is already being worn by high-schooler Gunnar Sandberg, who nearly died after being struck in the head by a line drive a year ago.

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:10 PM ET

"What we're talking about is saving kids' lives. These injuries are rare. When they do happen, they are very traumatic, catastrophic." -- Stephen Keener, President, Little League International

Baseball goes into this season just one line drive away from becoming the next sport embroiled in the controversy surrounding hits to the head.

First it was the Pittsburgh Steelers and linebacker James (Hitman) Harrison sparking debate over concussions; then Sidney Crosby and Max Pacioretty took the hockey world on a trip into fairyland. Now it's baseball's turn.

With line drives reaching the mound (and potentially a pitcher's head) in less than half a second, the sport is just beginning to join the debate.

Only one player, Ray Chapman in 1920, has ever died from being hit in the head in the major leagues by a baseball, and he was a batter at the time. But there are numerous documented cases of pitchers suffering brain injuries, even deaths, in minor baseball, colleges or little leagues.

And, the major leagues has had its share of scary moments.

May, 2010: Cleveland pitcher David Huff is hit in the head by Alex Rodriquez' line drive.

July 2010: Texas pitcher Dustin Nippert is hit on the right side of the face by a line drive off the bat of Tigers' Austin Jackson.

Sept. 2010: Cardinals pitcher Blake Hawksworth is hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of Cubs' Sam Fuld.

April 2010: Houston's Lance Berkman lines a pitch off the head of the Pirates' Chris Jakubauskas. "When I got there, he was just saying something like: 'Oh my God, Oh my God,' " third baseman

Elastic with sizing adjusters

Andy LaRoche said at the time. "His legs were kicking ... I just said a prayer and hoped he was OK."

Hoping and praying. It's been about the only solution. Until now.

Easton-Bell, purveyor of baseball goods, this spring unveiled (to little fanfare) what appears to be the first usable pitchers' helmet. "One injury's too many," said Easton CEO Paul Harrington of the helmet the company hopes to have in production later this summer or autumn.

The company spent most of the past year developing the lightweight lid designed to slip over a pitcher's regular cap.

OK, it's a bit dorky.

But, better than not wearing one and being, well ... dead cool.

The image of a pitcher hurling a baseball while wearing a cap is engrained in Americana like apple pie, motherhood and ol' glory itself. But with batters getting bigger and stronger, and balls rocketing at faster and faster speeds, this is not the time to get all Rockwellian.

The helmet weighs about five ounces, combining the stretchy strap of ski goggles, an absorbent mesh liner like those inside a football helmet and the hard, energy-absorbent plastic similar to hockey helmets.

There will be resistance and don't expect to see someone like Roy Halladay showing up wearing one. Chances are it'll have to be grandfathered into baseball like hockey helmets were into hockey. They became mandatory in the NHL in 1979, but players already in the league were given the option of whether to wear one. Craig MacTavish played without a helmet as recently as 1997.

In-molded front protection

Major league players' acceptance of the pitching helmet will be similarly slow. But it will come. If Oakland area high school pitcher Gunnar Sandberg had been wearing one last year he would not nearly have died. Cole Schlesner, a 14-year-old pitcher from Loveland, Ohio, wouldn't have spent months learning to walk again, after being struck in the head by a line drive. And, last year San Diego State pitcher, Bryan Crabb, suffered a cracked skull and bruising of the brain from a batted ball.

Sandberg introduced, and has resumed playing, with the Easton helmet prototype. There is a realization, at least at baseball's grassroots, that a pitching helmet should be just as much a part of baseball as batting helmets or bats.

Baseball, rooted in tradition, comes to change with reluctance. Once, the idea of playoffs before the World Series were ridiculed. Today, anything but is unthinkable.

There was a time when catchers didn't wear masks. Once upon a time a batter walking to the plate with a helmet risked being thought a sissy. Ted Williams was initially adamant about refusing to wear them, saying "I'm not going to wear one of those space helmets. It bothers my hitting." Eventually, he acquiesced. It has become an accepted part of the game for hitters to pile on the padding ever since, to the point where Jose Canseco and Barry Bonds looked like the Michelin Man.

Gloves once had less stuffing then your average Q-tip. Former Blue Jay, Charlie O'Brien, pioneered using modified hockey masks for catchers in the 1990s.

Today, it's unimaginable to send a hitter to the plate without headgear. Pitchers will have that same protection walking to the mound someday, soon.

Hopefully nobody has to end up like Chapman before that day arrives.

bill.lankhof@sunmedia.ca


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