Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Another Shot to the Head

It's happened again in baseball: a pitcher hit in the head by a line drive, crumpling on the mound as the stadium goes silent.

This time, it was Toronto's J.A. Happ, struck by a ball off the bat of Tampa's Desmond Jennings. The sound of the ball hitting Happ's skull was as audible as its impact with the bat.  Jennings wound up at third with one of the stranger triples you'll ever see.

Happ didn't see it. He was on his knees, head cradled in his hands.  Eight minutes later, he left the field on a paramedics' backboard.  It looks like he escaped the fate of former A's pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who sustained a potentially-deadly subdural hematoma when he was hit last season.

But how many more of these do we need to see before baseball does something? A pitcher takes the mound wearing a New Era 59Fifty cap on his head: a few ounces of fabric that may protect his eyes from the sun but certainly don't protect his skull from batted balls.

Those balls get there in a hurry. The ESPN Home Run Tracker provides data on the ball-off-bat speed of home runs. 100 MPH is routine; some leave the bat as fast as 111 MPH. Remember: the pitcher, after striding toward home plate, is maybe 54 feet away from that bat. I've seen studies that show a pitcher can react and deflect a ball in .368 second. Yes, that's just over a third of a second.  But a ball that leaves the bat at 111 MPH gets there sooner--something like .345 second.

Numerous researchers have suggested the best thing a pitcher can do to protect himself is to finish his delivery the way the old-timers did: in a balanced "fielding position", facing home plate. Watch a few games today and see how many guys do that. Wait--I'll save you the few hours.  The answer is: not many.

There are no rules prohibiting a pitcher from wearing some kind of protective liner inside his cap. Yet nobody at the big-league level is wearing one. Don't expect them to; athletes are notoriously slow to adopt the very protective gear designed to keep them whole.

If change is to come, it will probably have to be mandated.  I think of hockey and cycling, both of which essentially had to drag their professional participants kicking and screaming into wearing helmets (and the NHL still doesn't mandate eye protection, despite some awful incidents over the past few years).

Major League Baseball says it is working with a number of companies large and small on a protective cap liner. But baseball also says if anything is developed, it wouldn't be mandatory, partly because the sport is afraid to, in the words of one official, "give a false sense of security".  Translated: we're afraid of getting sued.

It's time to get past this. Do we really need to wait for someone to be killed or maimed for life?

Friday, May 3, 2013

Yellow For Courage

I'm not really a fan of the made-for-TV bit of theater in which the home team gets all its fans to wear the same color. White, red, orange, black...we've seen it all and it always seems a bit hokey to me.

But I'm making an exception for the yellow T-shirts the Warriors have been handing out to their playoff crowds. Yellow is the color historically used to denote cowardice. This basketball team is far from cowardly.

The shirts say "We Are Warriors" on the front and sport a variety of hortatory words on the back. The fans, of course, aren't warriors. They're just loud and energetic.  The Warriors aren't always perfect practitioners of the basketball arts. They're just exciting.

The close-out Game 6 against Denver showed the W's at their best and worst. On the plus side: Andrew Bogut's ferocious 21-rebound effort, punctuated by 4 blocked shots before halftime. Bogut is one of several wounded Warriors, playing on a less-than-full tank but gunning the engine hard.

Also on the plus side: Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes, a couple of rookies who played with courage and savvy amid a fourth-quarter unraveling that saw the Warriors barf up all but two points of an 18-point lead. 

Another plus: David Lee, whose stat line (0-1 field, 1 rebound) was meaningless (Nuggets coach George Karl called Lee's brief appearance "weird") but whose very presence was enormous. Most everyone had assumed Lee's next appearance for the W's would be next season after he tore a hip flexor in Game 1 of this series.

On the other side of the coin: guards Steph Curry, Jarrett Jack, and Klay Thompson. Curry's flurry at the start of the second half helped the Warriors build the big lead they nearly squandered, but his ragged play near the end took some of the shine off his heroics earlier in the series. Neither Jack nor Thompson could shoot (a combined 5 for 23 from the floor--though credit Jack for nailing 9 of 10 free throws) and Jack, in particular, made questionable decisions at the offensive end.

The Warriors face an enormous challenge in the next round. San Antonio is a veteran team that can pounce on disarray and weakness. It would be an enormous upset were the Warriors to win the series. But let's not kid ourselves here: the last time the Warriors won two playoff series in a season was the year they won the NBA Championship, back in 1975.

This team has already exceeded expectations. Of course Jackson and his players want more. But in their Warrior hearts, these guys know they've made enormous strides. The future looks better than it has in a long time, and nobody who follows pro hoops associates the color yellow with cowardice anymore.