DETROIT - Ever since Doug Fister took a vicious line drive off his melon in Game 2 of the World Series, without obvious effect, people have been marvelling at just how lucky the Detroit Tigers pitcher is.
Question is, how much should luck be involved?
The Detroit training staff was able to determine rather quickly that Fister was all right. He had all the right answers to all the trainer’s questions and has since passed a couple of follow-up exams just to make sure there was no hidden injury.
“It’s akin to a rock skipping off a pond,” Detroit’s head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said. “Then the ball continued 100 feet into center field. That’s probably the best way I can describe it.”
He was not taken for a CT scan, which would be able to show evidence of any intracranial bleeding, but the doctors determined it was safe for him to fly home with the team after the game. Case closed.
Well, not quite.
Just last month Oakland Athletics pitcher Brandon McCarthy wasn’t so fortunate. He sustained a skull fracture, an epidural hemorrhage and a brain contusion after being struck by a line drive on Sept. 5. He spent several days in hospital and required a couple of hours of surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain.
In the wake of these two unsettling incidents that could have gone so very wrong, there is a smattering -- not an outcry -- of opinion that MLB should look at some sort of headgear protection for pitchers.
Let it be clear that it’s not going to happen anytime soon.
Some sporting good companies are messing with prototypes that amount simply to protective padding but we haven’t yet heard of a pitcher who is even slightly interested in wearing any sort of head protection, including Fister.
“I’ve just got to be better with the glove and get it up sooner,” he said.
San Francisco’s Saturday night starter in Game 3 of the World Series, Ryan Vogelsong, feels the same way.
“We haven’t worn a helmet in this game for a hundred and whatever years and I don’t think it’s time to start now,” said Vogelsong. “It’s obviously scary and something you don’t ever want to see happen but I don’t think wearing a helmet is the way to go.”
The gears of change grind slowly in professional sports.
In August of 1920, Ray Chapman of the Yankees died 12 hours after he was hit in the head by a pitch from Carl Mays. Helmet use began haphazardly after that incident but it wasn’t until half a century later, in 1971, when batting helmets were mandated for all players, no exceptions, in Major League Baseball.
The NHL was nearly half a century old when Jacques Plante defied convention, enduring ridicule from his peers, by wearing a goalie mask for the first time in the 1959-60 season, blazing the trail for others. Henceforth, professional goaltenders could no longer be identified by the roadmap of scars on their mugs.
It took 11 years from the time Minnesota North Stars player Bruce Masterson died after hitting his head on the ice in an NHL game in 1968 before helmet use became mandatory for all entry-level players. Veteran use was still optional. The last player in the NHL to play without a helmet was Craig MacTavish, who retired in 1997.
After minor-league first base coach Mike Coolbaugh died from a brain injury suffered when he was struck by a batted ball in 2007, baseball was quicker to respond in mandating helmet use for first and third base coaches, who are especially vulnerable because they are not always facing the plate. Even then, there were coaches who accepted the new rule only grudgingly.
For pitchers there is definitely a wall of resistance and it will have to be taken down, brick-by-brick, over time.
“I’m not a big fan of it, I don’t want anything on my head, I don’t even want to feel my hat when I’m pitching, so to have a skullcap on my head is going to bother me. I’m against that idea,” said Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt. “But I also haven’t been hit in the head. I don’t know about how the guys who have been feel about it, and could something happen? Yeah.”
As in the case of the introduction of hockey helmet, which players fought tooth and nail, pitchers are going to be a tough sell. It’s going to take a few more terrifying moments, like Fister’s, and a couple more fractured skulls and then maybe even something worse before that wall gets broken down.
Contacted by a San Francisco reporter after the Fister incident, McCarthy, whose brush with brain surgery is fresh and very real to him, wondered what the Tigers were thinking when they let Fister fly home without a CT scan.
“Why even risk it?” McCarthy told the reporter. “Five days off, why not do the safest thing possible?”
Indeed, why not? It’s a question that professional sport has spent 100 years trying to avoid.