MLB's Lack of Proactive Safety Puts Players in Danger

Jason YoderContributor IApril 26, 2010

HOUSTON - APRIL 24:  Pitcher Chris Jakubauskas #39 of the Pittsburgh Pirates is treated by team trainers after being hit in the face with a line drive off the bat of Lance Berkman of the Houston Astros in the first inning at Minute Maid Park on April 24, 2010 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Major League Baseball, like many other sports leagues, has historically been reactive rather than proactive when it comes to player and fan safety on and off the field. Unfortunately, it often takes a tragic event to improve the safety of a sport.

For example, when the little girl was tragically killed at a Columbus Blue Jackets game the NHL responded by adding more netting around the rink.

When Mike Coolbaugh, first base coach of the Tulsa Drillers, was struck and unfortunately killed by a line drive during a game in 2007, MLB took nearly four months to begin requiring first and third base coaches to wear helmets—which didn't go into effect until the beginning of the 2008 season.

One of two recorded Major League Baseball players to be killed in the field of play, Ray Chapman (the other being Mike "Doc" Powers in 1909), may be the best example of MLB's lack of proactive behavior. Chapman died in 1920 after being struck in the head by a pitch thrown by the New York Yankees' Carl Mays.

It is widely believed that his tragic death was the main consideration for the later rule change requiring the use of batting helmets—though it took over 30 years after his death for this rule to be adopted. Chapman's tragic passing is also believed to be partially responsible for the ban on "spitballs" the following season (1921).

In recent years, incidents involving batted balls striking pitchers has become more and more common. Just recently, Chris Jakubauskas of the Pittsburgh Pirates was struck in the face by a ball hit by the Astros Lance Berkman. Last spring, in an exhibition game just prior to the start of the season, San Francisco Giants reliever Joe Martinez was struck in the head by a Mike Cameron liner at AT&T Park.

I was actually watching this game live, and my immediate reaction was that Martinez was dead. Luckily, he escaped with "only" three facial fractures and a concussion. I use the word "only" there because it looked like the outcome could have been gravely worse.

Other pitchers struck by batted balls in recent years: Chris Young (SD Padres), Matt Clement (Red Sox), Billy Wagner (Mets), and Hiroki Kuroda (Dodgers)...and those are just the guys I can remember. I am sure there are a lot more.

Whether this apparent increase can be attributed to equipment or the athlete, is unclear to me as I believe factors from both ends of the spectrum contribute. Maybe the balls just "jump" more now. Maybe bats are just more solid now. Maybe athletes are just "that" much stronger now. Maybe pitchers aren't as prepared to field their position now.

Either way, I fear that it is going to take a pitcher being killed on the field from a batted ball to elicit some sort of safety measure to protect the pitchers on the mound. I don't know that it's practical to think that pitchers should be wearing helmets out there, but I do think it is time for Major League Baseball to be proactive for a change—before someone is killed on the mound.