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No reason to wait: In guarding athletes, the time to act is now

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Back in the day, I have to give some thanks to my pretty smart wrestling coach.

He used to make all his wrestlers wear headgear during practice. At the time, head gear was required during matches, but it was common practice that wrestlers would avoid wearing it during workouts.

Ever see a former wrestler with cauliflower ear? Eww.

He made us do something most of us thought was stupid, so a big ‘Thank you’ there from a guy with normal-looking (I guess) ears. On the other hand, wrestlers used to pull ridiculous stunts to cut weight, and many of the coaches of my time allowed it to happen.

It wasn’t that they didn’t care about their kids. More likely, they weren’t aware of the repercussions.

As time passed, people got smart. The National Federation of State High Schools Association added rules that protected kids from trying to lose too much weight. I would tend to bet every wrestler from my era (Stone Age) would try to find a way to circumvent the rules. After all, we knew what was best, didn’t we?

The rules got stronger to protect silly kids.

Thank goodness.

Right now, high school softball and baseball are facing similar challenges created by an evolving society. Our kids are bigger, stronger, faster. High school baseball pitchers can throw 90 miles per hour. Softball pitchers can hurl in the 60 miles per hour range.

So think what happens when a bigger, stronger hitter connects with such pitches. It means rockets flying back past the pitcher, or worse yet, into the pitcher.

Then when you think of the nature of softball, where the third baseman and first baseman sneak toward home plate to protect against the bunt, you have more players in the line of fire.

It all creates a dangerous situation. No, this isn’t just my opinion.

The current poster boy of pitching disasters is Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman, who was crushed in the face when Royals catcher Salvador Perez hit a ball back at him during spring training. The impact broke bones above Perez’s left eye and nose and caused doctors to place a metal plate into his head to replace crushed bones. Reds Medical Director, Dr. Tim Kremchek, said Chapman “was a lucky guy” because he can still see and wasn’t killed. That lucky guy was just activated from the disabled list Saturday.

Think that just happens in the majors? Umm, no.

On Friday I spoke with East Jessamine (Nicholasville, Kentucky) softball coach Tom Hamm, whose daughter and pitcher, Haylee, was crushed by a ball hit back at the pitcher in a high school softball game. She suffered injuries very similar to Chapman’s injuries. She has the titanium rod in her head to prove it.

Hamm, who has coached softball for 10 years, was one of those non-believers before his daughter’s incident. He was one of those guys who watched hundreds of games and believed lightning is a fluke thing that always strikes someone else. He felt that way until April 11 when he held his daughter in his arms in the pitching circle thinking she might die.

The problem is that he must convince people who were like him, or at least like him until a couple of months ago. People who believe it’s all no big deal.

Major League Baseball thought batting helmets were no big deal for a half century until the National League started making batters wear them in 1956. The American League followed suit in 1958. Today when we think of hitters facing pitchers without a batting helmet, one word comes to mind.

Courage? No, not that one.

Stupid? Yup.

Goalies in the NHL used to not wear masks.

Enough said.

Eventually, those in command of such sports come to their senses. Here’s hoping those who govern high school softball and baseball do the same.

The National Federation should enact a rule that says softball pitchers, third basemen and first basemen must wear masks. As more girls already use such protective equipment, the market has opened up, and more choices are available. The designs are allowing wearers to keep their peripheral vision.

Such a rule is going to happen anyway, so why wait?

In baseball, where the players are farther away from home plate, the National Federation should push for studies to find suitable facial protection for pitchers. That search should start immediately. This is the old, “We can walk on the moon” argument. We should be able to design something comfortable that baseball pitchers can wear.

We are talking about high school kids, so we can expect to hear some arguments about wearing something that is being forced upon them.

Fortunately, I will be able to hear those arguments, because of my own high school coach making me wear some fairly ugly headgear.

Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at or 379-5632.

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