There are few things scarier and more dangerous than a baseball being propelled off a bat at 100 MPH and striking a pitcher in the head. Since the pitcher is only 60 feet and 6 inches away from a batter, he has little time to react and protect himself. Up until now, it has not been possible to create protective headwear for pitchers because their body movement while throwing a pitch would cause the helmet to shift and obstruct their vision of the plate. Anyone who has tried pitching while wearing a helmet can attest to this.
As a result of two pitchers being struck in the head with batted balls within seven weeks, MLB is looking into creating headwear protection for pitchers made from Kevlar, which would be worn underneath the cap as a liner. Kevlar, made by DuPont, is a lightweight and strong woven synthetic fiber which is used commonly in bullet-proof vests and stadium roofs, among other applications. The incidents involving Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy and Detroit Tigers Pitcher Doug Fister has prompted the league to look into the development of such protective equipment for pitchers.
Although this will not happen overnight, since the product must first be developed and thoroughly tested in the lab and on the field, it is a positive step by the league to prevent further potentially serious, and even life threatening, head injuries. Up until now, it has been mostly batters who have sustained serious head and facial injuries as a result of being beaned by pitchers. In 1971, the league made it mandatory for all batters to wear helmets while at the plate.
Two years after the mandatory helmet rule was introduced, there was another horrifying incident at Shea Stadium involving New York Mets young star pitcher Jon Matlack. On May 8, 1973, Marty Perez of the Atlanta Braves hit a wicked line drive back to the mound, which struck Matlack flush on the forehead. The ball impacted against Matlack’s head so violently, that it eventually ended up rolling into the dugout and resulting in a ground rule double for Perez.
Although I was in grade school at the time and did not see the incident due to an oppressive curfew, I can vividly recall a friend the next morning at school providing a rather graphic description of the incident. To this day, when an incident such as this occurs, I immediately recall the one involving Matlack. Although Matlack sustained a hairline fracture, he quickly recovered and was able to return to the Mets star studded pitching rotation eleven days later, helping lead the Mets to a World Series appearance against the A’s.
Matlack, who along with Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman formed one of the best young pitching staffs in baseball, was named Rookie of the Year in 1972 and would go on to have a successful career with the Mets and Texas Rangers. For his outstanding rookie efforts, Matlack received a $1,500 raise from Mets despised Chairman M. Donald Grant. Matlack earned a grand total of $15,000 in 1973. Suffice to say, times have changed considerably since that evening almost 40 years ago.
The changing times have not only brought to the game much higher player salaries, they have brought new materials such as Kevlar, which can be used for many beneficial purposes. If the league can prevent just one injury from the development of a new protective device for pitchers, it will have more than succeeded with its efforts. Up until recently, the technology has not existed for such a device. Couple that with baseball being a very traditional sport which often resists change, it is easy to see why little has been done to protect pitchers from a flying projectile being hit back to the box.
The Mets-Braves game also had an interesting side note to it: the attendance figure of 6,840 was the lowest of the year at Shea. This is rather ominous, since the incident involving Matlack is something nobody ever likes to see. And hopefully in the near future, incidents such as these will never be seen again due to the invention and introduction of innovative equipment.