Baseball, without equal and with much pride, resists change. Lights at Wrigley Field, the designated hitter, the batting helmet — all standards today — were considered sacrilege at one time and only grudgingly accepted. More than a century of baseball makes it so. Which is why this spring training has become so darn interesting.
At least a dozen MLB pitchers have agreed to wear a padded, protective liner inside their caps. It's a test run, to see if they can pitch with the same confidence, with the same fluidity of motion, without surrendering an ounce of their machismo. Hitters wear helmets with ear flaps, arm pads, elbow pads, knee pads, ankle pads. The image of Barry Bonds standing at home plate looking like the Michelin Man with all his protective gear is difficult to forget.
The pitcher, meanwhile, stands on the mound protected by nothing except agility and his glove.
This vulnerability was highlighted in two incidents involving the A's and Giants last season. Oakland pitcher Brandon McCarthy was rushed to the hospital and underwent emergency surgery after being struck in the head by a line drive off the bat of the Angels' Erick Aybar on Sept. 5.
Swelling in McCarthy's brain became life-threatening, and the pitcher missed the rest of the season, though he's expected to be ready to go for spring training.
In Game 2 of the World Series, a ball off the bat of the Giants' Gregor Blanco smacked Detroit pitcher Doug Fister in the back of the head, on national TV. Though the incident was alarming to viewers, Fister was unharmed and stayed in the game.
Despite these two high-profile incidents, pitchers generally have low odds working in their favor.
"It happens so rarely," said Justin Fitzgerald, the former Cardinal Newman pitcher who spent the last two seasons pitching for the Giants' Double A team in Richmond, "that I don't think it (padded cap insert) is necessary. When you are out there, you are taking a risk. Every season I have at least four or five balls hit my legs or arms. It comes with the territory. You just hope it doesn't happen to you. I don't see a place for it."
I ran Fitzgerald's opinion past Damon Neidlinger, SRJC's baseball coach. He wasn't surprised.
"A lot of guys (pitchers) will tell you the same thing," Neidlinger said. "There's a competitive fearlessness out there on the mound. You need that to pitch effectively."
On the other hand ...
The liner came off that bat like a rocket. It was last October. SRJC was playing Chabot College. A Bear Cub tagged it and hit the Chabot pitcher. The sound Neidlinger will never forget.
"It sounded like a branch snapping," he said.
The ball ricocheted and traveled so far in the air that SRJC's third baseman caught it on a dead run toward home plate. The Chabot pitcher took one step and collapsed, with his arms out.
"Your first instinct," Neidlinger said, "is always to run to the mound. Not this time. There was no need to assess the situation, not what I saw. I got out my cell phone and called campus police and asked them to get paramedics and an ambulance over to the field as fast as they could."
The pitcher was fortunate. He sustained a sizeable bruise near the temple area, stayed at Santa Rosa Memorial for a few days and then was released.