Mask on the diamond


HEAD GAME (Part 3 of 3): High-profile head injuries have spurred a slow but growing movement to make the game safer.

In the Dons first softball game of the season, pitchers Devon Rodriguez and L.A. Harbor’s Veronica Webb walked to the mound wearing something normally foreign to the diamond:
a facemask.

It was such a peculiar sight that Santa Ana College Sports Information Coordinator Jason Kehler asked, “Is this a new rule we are not aware of?”

Dean of Exercise Science and Athletics Avie Bridges replied that it isn’t. The pitchers wore them of their own choice, for protection.

Football and soccer are commonly associated with concussions, but baseball and softball also deal with the problem.

High-profile pitcher beanings in Major League Baseball, as well as everyday mishaps, have been quietly pushing the sports towards changing the pitcher’s headgear for the first time since the two sports were created.

The sight of a pitcher wearing a helmet is sacrilegious to purists. But a player is vulnerable and results can be fatal if they choose to not wear protection.

“Sometimes the ball comes off the bat so quickly that the pitcher can’t react. It is something they may start considering,” Athletic Trainer Nora Schug said.

The pitcher’s proximity to the batter is also part of the issue. The mound is 43 feet away from the plate.

Depending on the length of her stride, a pitcher can be anywhere from 35 to 38 feet away from the box after releasing the ball.

“It doesn’t give them much reaction time to get their glove in protection mode,” Co-Head Coach Jessica Rapoza said. “Sometimes you don’t have time to flinch and the ball is past you.”

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Aside from the mound’s proximity, technological advances in bats and balls have Rapoza thinking facemasks may be required for pitchers and fielders.

“Scientifically the game has progressed, but pitchers have stayed the same,” Rapoza said. “Eventually it is going to reach the point where every pitcher is wearing a mask. And I would say third basemen too.”

Not all the Dons’ athletes share the sentiment.

“I don’t prefer to wear a mask. I can move quickly and protect myself,” freshman pitcher Chantal Oelrich said.

Pennsylvania-based Unequal Technologies began to develop a Kevlar-based protective devices pitchers can wear on the mound after a high profile head injury almost took the life of then-Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy.

But manufacturers face resistance from athletes.

“Players are not going to wear something if it looks outrageous, is distracting, or offsets their normal equilibrium,” said Greg Miller a media representative for Unequal Technologies.

The frequency of high-profile beanings concerns some professional ball players.

“While we can’t disclose any names, we can tell you the players are genuinely interested in adding extra protection and are receptive to the prototypes we’re making available,” Miller said.

For Rodriguez, who probably won’t earn a lucrative multi-million dollar contract playing professional softball, the choice is clear.

“At first I thought it was stupid and hideous,” Rodriguez said. “Then I decided I would rather keep my face looking nice.”

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