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PETALUMA

The best ideas, all too often, are the simple ones, the obvious ones, the ones that don't need a lot of back story or explanation. Like a car seat belt. How could we have ever driven without one? This is one of those obvious ideas, as obvious as a shattered nose, a nose shattered by a batted softball smacking a girl's unprotected face.

It doesn't have to happen. It's easily preventable. Doesn't require a lot of discussion. Just a simple nod of the head will do. It's really that uncomplicated and indisputable. Wear a face mask. Make it mandatory. Like they do on the Petaluma Earthquakes, a travel ball organization. Each of the 91 girls who pitch, catch or play the infield on the Earthquakes' five age-division teams, must wear a face mask. Wearing a face mask in the outfield is optional but 40 percent of the girls wear one out there as well.

"Our belief is that it belongs in the sport," said Earthquakes assistant coach Mike Machado. "Why take the chance? All it takes is one ball to change a kid's life. It's just not worth it."

Last November, Earthquakes president Ken Wilson and his six-member board voted unanimously to make it mandatory for infielders, pitchers and catchers to wear a face mask. Wilson had been tossing around the idea for nearly three years, after he learned of Marin Catholic pitcher Gunnar Sandberg getting hit in the head by a batted ball, forced into an induced coma to save his life.

The response Wilson and his board received? Not one whit of resistance from the parents, he said, especially the mothers.

"Women are a lot more safety conscious than men," Wilson noted.

The cost of the helmet-mask, $45, is borne by each parent, again without resistance, Wilson said.

"It's about the safety of the kids," he said, "and the parents are very appreciative of that."

The girls' reaction?

"It (face mask) makes me more confident going after the ball," said Katelyn DeLaMontanya, 14.

"I feel it makes me a better player," said Katie Machado, 10.

"I wear my face mask even when I am playing catch," said Maddy DeLaMontanya, 9.

It is another piece of equipment, the players claim. Glove. Bat. Mask. The routine has been established. The elimination of fear sells the players on the idea. The marked decrease in chance of catastrophic injury sells the parents. The opportunity to see his players in the game sells Wilson.

"I admit there's a selfish component in it for me," said Wilson, 61, a sales manager of a restaurant equipment company. "We play 55 games in travel ball. Most of the girls play in a rec league that has 15 games. That's 70 games the girls are out there. So wearing the face mask means a much better chance of keeping my players in the game. I would like to see this (mandate) spread."

The idea of a face mask mandate has not been raised in either the North Bay League or the Sonoma County League, say the commissioners of each league. But both David Ashworth (SCL) and Marie Sugiyama (NBL) said they like the idea, would not stand in the way of its passage and would even promote it if given the chance.

"I have no problem with it at all," Ashworth said.

"And we would love to sell it (making the wearing a mask mandatory)," said Machado, an area sales manager for a soft drink company. As he continued to speak about the subject, Machado's voice rose, his speech quickened. It was obvious he was emotionally invested in the topic.

With good reason. For the past 10 years, Machado has been an umpire at girls fast-pitch softball games. He has seen so many injuries from a batted ball, he said, "there's too many to count." He has seen teeth knocked out. He saw an eyeball come loose from its socket. He saw a pitcher hit so squarely that her face required 35 stitches and she lost three teeth.

If you were to call Machado a wide-eyed, face mask activist, he would not feel insulted.

"Softball is such a fast-paced game," said Machado, also the junior varsity softball coach at Sonoma Valley High School. "You see a lot of slap hitting in the game, a lot of bunting. The corner infielders do a lot of charging of the plate. And remember the distance from the pitching rubber to the plate. It's 35 feet for 10 and unders, 40 feet for 12 and unders, 43 feet for 14 and unders. Knock off about three feet from those numbers because of the stride of the pitchers. The girls are very close to the hitters."

Reasonable protection, that's all Machado and Wilson want. They don't want to deck out their girls in Kevlar vests, shin guards. They are softball players, not S.W.A.T. dudes. They don't want to remove the element of surprise from softball. It's one of the inherent attractions. They do, however, want to remove the element of facial reconstruction.

"My parents like the idea that I am safe," Katelyn DeLaMontanya said.

That idea, it would seem, is obvious. As is the solution to make it so.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.