Baseball has forever been a game of inches. A fifth of an inch difference in the point of contact on a hit is all it takes to turn a fly ball into a home run. An extra two-inch extension on a ground ball is all it takes to change a single to a web gem. And this Tuesday, a few inches could be the difference in life or death for Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ.
In a terrifying scene at Tropicana Field, a line drive from the Rays’ Desmond Jennings struck Happ squarely on the side of the head, creating such a solid sound that commentators in the press box could hear it.
The ball flew from the mound all the way to the bullpen down the right field line, forcing Happ to collapse at the front of the mound, his head clutched in his glove.
“It’s devastating. … I could barely watch it,” Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey said. “You just don’t know what to think, really. It paralyzes you a little bit. And when it sounds like two bats, when you hear the sound off the bat and it sounds like it hits another bat, it’s scary. It’s really, really scary. I just started praying in the spot. That’s all I knew to do.”
Before the days of helmets, Ray Chapman was struck in the head by an inside pitch from Carl Mays. He died less than 12 hours later in a New York City hospital and remains the only casualty from a pitched ball in the MLB.
Considering that pitchers max out in their velocity at around 100 MPH, and that it is not uncommon for line drives to be hit at well over 120 MPH, Happ’s and Arizona pitcher Brandon McCarthy’s injuries are particularly harrowing.
Happ had to be strapped to a backboard before exiting the stadium on a stretcher, though just before he disappeared under the stands, Happ raised his hand and waved to the crowd.
While a simple gesture, it has become a mark of bravery, strength and ultimate recovery for the injured party. As such, Happ received a standing ovation as he left the field.
McCarthy was struck by a line drive last September, causing a skull fracture, an epidural hemorrhage and a brain contusion that required surgery and a weeklong hospital stay.
While Happ’s condition has now stabilized after sustaining a head contusion and laceration, there has emerged a very distinct opinion from players, fans and MLB officials in the wake of two severe injuries in such close proximity: pitching needs to be made safer.
“We are actively meeting with a number of companies that are attempting to develop a product for pitchers to wear, and have reviewed test results for several products,” MLB spokesman Pat Courtney told the AP in an email after Happ was injured Tuesday night. “Some of the products are promising. No company has yet developed a product that has satisfied the testing criteria.”
The issue was brought up to MLB general managers at their annual November meetings, which was accompanied by a presentation on suggested products or ideas the following day.
MLB staff have nominated the idea of pitchers wearing a cap liner made in part of Kevlar, the material used by military, law enforcement and NFL body armor. The liners would weigh roughly five ounces, which would provide protection against line drives that travel over 100 MPH.
Any changes would have to get through the players’ union before MLB players were required to wear them, though they could be implemented in the minor leagues before approval from the union.
There is no rule that would prohibit any MLB pitcher from wearing a cap with Kevlar, though no current MLB pitchers wear anything of the sort.