Scary on-field plays

By Jason Wojciechowski on September 5, 2012 at 11:55 PM

As you know if you read any sites on the internet, watch A's games on television, or basically interact with the world, Brandon McCarthy got smacked in the head with a line drive during tonight's game. It was a scary sight, as the ball ricocheted away to Josh Donaldson (who threw out Erick Aybar at first, for what it's worth) while McCarthy crumpled to the ground. He sat up almost immediately, but he was clearly dazed, and his head had snapped back when he fell, implying that he'd possibly lost consciousness (though the A's apparently say he didn't) or at least didn't have full control over his head and neck for those brief seconds.

I watched the game on the DVR after I got home from work, so I already knew what had happened. This made watching the play a little bit easier to deal with, since I'd already heard that he walked off under his own power and appeared to be mostly OK. Still, it was weirdly frightening despite that. It was, not to make it sound trite, like watching a well-constructed TV show after being spoiled about its ending — it grips you and makes you root for a particular outcome even though you already know what the actual outcome will be. There was something deeply disturbing about watching McCarthy, who is as intelligent and articulate and self-aware as any player in the game, sitting on the ground, legs outstretched, running his hands through his hair repeatedly, almost obsessively, while clearly not feeling fully in control of the situation.

It doesn't put me in mind so much of my own mortality as that of the baseball players I love to watch perform great athletic feats. Pitchers in particular are vulnerable. The rubber is only 60 feet, six inches from home plate, and where a pitcher lands after throwing a pitch is much closer than that. A well-struck ball will come back faster than it left the pitcher's hand, and, unfortunately, many hurlers do not follow through into good fielding position. Their arms are who knows where, their feet are not under them, their balance is askew.

I won't go hyperbolic and claim that it's a miracle or anything that pitchers aren't hit like this more often. They're hit by balls plenty, but the head is a small target. (Cold comfort to Andy Pettitte, of course, who suffered a broken leg on a comebacker earlier this year.) Still, one wonders, given the enormous risk associated with such balls, even considering the relatively low probability of a catastrophic event, whether certain safety measures ought to be taken. Could pitchers learn to pitch in helmets, with ear flaps and all? Maybe even with some sort of translucent face guard? If not, what about armored caps — can some sort of protective reinforcement be put into the hats of pitchers to give them some protection from line drives that happen to hit that part of their head?

I don't know what the solution is, but given that the potential cost is essentially infinite (i.e. a ball at the right velocity in the right location could kill), one hopes that sports leagues are doing their utmost to figure out ways to reduce the chance that such an event could happen.