What I know about cricket would fit in Jiminy’s vest pocket. But the recent tragic news of the death of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes has brought the game to the attention of the non-cricket world.
I have to admit, when I first heard of Hughes’ death, again based on my severely limited knowledge, I figured he had bowled the ball and been struck by what in baseball is called a line drive up the middle. But I soon learned he had been whacked by a ball that he was trying to hit. It seems the bowled ball, a “bouncer”, bounced up and made contact with Hughes’ neck at a point not protected by his helmet. According to the Sydney Morning Herald “Hughes was hit on the side of the head when he attempted to hook the bouncer.”
While my sports-playing experience in no way rivals Hughes’ world class level of play, as someone who was a pitcher in fast-pitch softball, I, like Charlie Brown, am all too familiar with the line drive up the middle. Over the past two seasons two Major League Baseball pitchers have been struck by “come-backers”. As players get bigger, faster and stronger – whether due to steroid use or not – and the balls come off the bat with increasing velocity, the distance between home plate and the pitchers mound remains the same. Will pitchers’ reflexes be able to keep up with faster moving batted balls? Will MLB wait until a tragedy occurs before taking action? I understand some consideration has been given to the use of screens, much like those used during batting practice.
Even at the recreational level of baseball I enjoyed, I can recall seeing a player foul-off a pitch that hit him in the eye, requiring surgery. Will MLB institute cricket-style cages on batting helmets any time soon?
Changes of this nature are usually ushered in by a new generation of players. When the National Hockey League made the wearing of helmets mandatory, they did so by requiring new players coming into the league to wear them while allowing existing NHL players to remain helmet-less – a grandfather law if you will. These new players had been wearing helmets in junior hockey, so there really was no transition for them. It’s amazing to think that for years, new players would jettison the helmets they had been using for years once they reached the NHL, claiming any number of excuses: they slowed them down, they interfered with sight lines. Yet somehow they managed to wear them throughout their junior career!
Will MLB follow this pattern and require new players to wear face protection as well as a helmet when batting? Or will they wait until someone is seriously injured by a sinker that drops too much and bounces upward as the batter flails at it? As the old saying goes, it’s all fun until someone loses an eye.