Baseball injury triggers concern, talk of pitching helmets

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It’s one of the scariest images you’ll see on the baseball field, and it’s prompting some to call for helmets for pitchers.

Tampa Bay pitcher Alex Cobb was struck in the head by a line drive during the weekend. Cobb collapsed and went to the hospital. He did not break any bones, but he is now sitting out games while on the MLB’s seven-day concussion list.

The play caught the attention of 12-year-old Damien Wallace, but he said it wasn’t because he was surprised.

“I actually felt really bad for him,” Wallace said.

Though he’s no Major Leaguer, Damien had his own close call on the Little League mound recently.

“(The batter) hit a line drive right back at me,” Wallace said, “but I didn’t have enough time to react and it hit me in the chest and knocked me over.”

“He was very lucky,” said Sarah Schoemaker, Damien’s mother. “He ended up with a bruise that hurt his chest for probably about a week to two weeks.”

Ryan Goss has been a Little League umpire for 13 years and he said he’s seen his share of vicious line drives that have struck pitchers.

“I’ve seen a couple kids get hit like that over the years,” Goss said. “It’s one of those situations, there’s just times you can’t avoid it.”

Dr. Kevin Gebke with IU Health Sports medicine said even though younger players don’t throw as hard, they use metal bats and have slower reaction times.

“The ball coming off the bat, many times, is coming faster than the actual pitch itself,” Gebke said. “Fortunately, we don’t see it very often, but we see it at all levels and it can lead obviously to catastrophic outcomes.”

Little League already addresses player safety by regulating bats. The league only approves bats for use in games if they comply with something called a Bat Performance Factor (BPF), which aims to keep bats from becoming too dangerous.

“I think the restrictions are there for their safety and I think it’s a very good idea,” Shoemaker said.

But why not take it a step further? Gunner Sandberg was 16 when a line drive hit him, and he now advocates for pitcher’s helmets. Easton makes a version of a helmet that fits over a baseball cap and is less obtrusive than a normal batting helmet.

Still, there is no guarantee the helmets will catch on.

“It really comes down to what will the players and what will the sport agree to,” Gebke said.

The mother of one player says, for now, she’ll let her son decide.

“I’m not sure what type of headgear would work,” Schoemaker said, “but if he would wear something to protect himself then of course I would do it.”

The pitcher’s helmet only protects about 40 percent of the head and it may not have helped Cobb at all because he was struck near the ear. Though some say the design needs work, advocates say it’s better than nothing.