The Aroldis Chapman Accident: A Modest Proposal

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The near-tragic and perhaps near-career-ending accident suffered last week in Arizona by Aroldis Chapman has renewed debate over the apparent dangers to defenseless pitchers from fastballs lined back through the center of the diamond. A 99 mph-plus spring training “heater” last Wednesday night was “missiled” back at Chapman off the bat of Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez, striking the vulnerable hurler in the left eye and leaving him writhing on the ground in severe pain, bleeding from the damaged socket, and suffering from a mild concussion. The Cuban fast-baller was carried from the field on a stretcher, the game was immediately cancelled, and grave concern suddenly flooded the Cincinnati clubhouse regarding Chapman’s condition, his status for the upcoming season, and possibly even the clouded prospects for his once-promising baseball future.

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Fortunately the incident culminated in as happy an ending as might have been possible. After undergoing emergence surgery to repair broken bones in both his eye socket and his nose, Chapman was able to visit teammates in the Cincinnati camp only three days later, and although he will miss the opening of the 2014 season, it is now expected that he will resume workouts in about six weeks and might even be back on a big league mound by June. What might have been big league baseball’s first on-field-injury-related death in nearly a century (the last was Ray Chapman, ironically, back in 1920, after being struck by a fatal pitch from Carl Mays) turned out to be only another stern warning about the inherent dangers surrounding one of America’s most favored national sports.

The Chapman incident unleashed a flood of renewed cries for revamping the game’s rules and altering its equipment in order to protect defenseless pitchers against liners off the high tech bats of today’s souped-up muscular batters swinging at highly charged rabbit-ball-era missiles. It is an old problem in search of a long-sought but likely elusive quick fix. Perhaps the silliest and most misguided proposal came in a high-profile front page USA Today story penned by veteran scribe Bob Nightengale. Nightengale seemed bent of casting blame for the Chapman incident on MLB club owners who are reportedly now dragging their feet concerning a recently approved plan to provide American and National League pitchers with plastic-lined protective helmets (http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2014/03/20/mlb-pitcher-protective-caps-aroldis-chapman-alex-cobb/6672541/). This proposal for pitchers wearing extra head gear in truth remains one of baseball’s supreme modern-era red herrings. Anyone who thinks such gear might have somehow saved Chapman or any other hurler from injury probably also believes that 12-story-high, ear-splitting Diamond Vision scoreboards actually enhance a fan’s experience in the modern day major league theme-park stadium. It simply ain’t so.

I am reminded at this point of an incident I witnessed at a spring training game in Sarasota’s Ed Smith Stadium two decades back. As their latest piece of fan-entertainment product-promotion the Chicago White Sox (then still residents of Sarasota) had cooked up a pre-game gambit with the local Hooters Restaurant chain that involved three randomly chosen fans stationed in right field about 100 feet from a batting-practice pitching machine tilted upward to launch lazy fly balls. Each contestant represented a section of the grandstand and the hapless novice who caught all three flies aimed in his/her direction would earn free Hooters chicken wings for his designated grandstand group. What will they think of next?

The very first looping fly struck a clumsy untrained outfielder squarely on the bridge of the nose, knocking him bloodied to the turf. “Well,” we laughed from our third base box seats, “that was likely the shortest-lived promotion in ball park history!” But believe it or not the same promotion was again staged the next afternoon and this time the contestants were donning batting helmets, which of course offered absolutely no projection as they reeled under the flies, heads tilted back and batting helmets either useless or already tumbling off their heads. What these guys and gals obviously needed for protection (since they quite obviously didn’t know how to manipulate their fielder’s mitts) was a catcher’s mask not a batting helmet.

The same is true for pitchers facing oncoming line drives – almost every pitcher ever struck (and there have been quite a few cases now – takes a blow to the legs, arm, hips, or (in the worst case) either the face or the side of the head below the cap line. Pitchers are almost never struck by line drives on the top or on the back of the head. For even minimal protection Chapman required a catcher’s mask or perhaps a hockey goalie’s head gear and face-covering, not a cap with a minimal protective lining.

There may of course be a solution to this problem (one fit to solve some associated problems as well) but it is a solution that no one wants to hear. Owners don’t want to hear it because it might shave a few pennies off the bottom line profit margin. And off course MLB and its owners are mainly in the business of squeezing every possible dollar out of what were once fans but are now consumers; MLB and its owners have long since turned their backs on any efforts to actually improve the sport either aesthetically or technically. And fans don’t want to hear about it either because baseball fans are by nature arch “traditionalists” – thus any monkeying with our national pastime’s quaint nineteenth-century foundations is seen as absolutely heresy.

Excuse the brief editorial sidebar here, but I have often marveled at how old time baseball fans have so easily adjusted to and even welcomed player specialization (i.e. starters who hurl only six innings and closers who never work more than a single frame), plastic grass, night games, shortened fences, and umpire-aiding televised instant replay – and yet these same fans still rail at the idea of a designated hitter. In truth of course modern-era stadiums and night play have far more radically altered the original game than the fact that pitchers don’t any longer bat in the American League or in any international leagues or tournaments. We seem to have here a classic case of the missing the forest while sighting of the trees.

The near-universal resistance to updating a modern-era television-based sport – one often still stuck with its outworn nineteenth century traditions – comes into focus every time I tell my MLB friends about what they are now missing with the tie-breaker extra-inning rule originally introduced in 2008 for IBAF international tournaments (starting with the Beijing Olympics) and now employed for regular-season games within the Cuban League. This is the phenomenon known in Cuba as “The Schiller Rule” (after Harvey Schiller, the IBAF president at the time it was introduced) which shortens extra-inning games by starting each overtime frame with a pair of runners automatically placed on first and second base and the manager choosing where he wants to begin in his batting order. As a curmudgeonly traditionalist I originally thought I would hate such an innovation. Mention it to a big league fan and you might as well suggest robots or cameras replacing home plate umpires for calling ball and strikes, or free substitution of players as in other sports, which would ramp up managerial strategy, or – GOD FORBID! – admitting women umpires (which the Cuban League already has). Yet after watching it in action for several years I have now deemed that the innovative Schiller Rule format only adds to late-game excitement; it has produced some of the most thrilling games I have ever witnessed. And it is perfect for the Majors, where baseball is now essentially produced for television and not for the ballpark fan, and where television requires tightly-controlled broadcast schedules.

Enough talk perhaps about tradition breaking innovation. But that is precisely what is needed (not helmet liners) to protect pitchers properly in modern-day baseball. It has increasingly been recognized that today’s supersized and super-athletic NBA players have already rendered archaic the arenas in which they play. Basketball in the future will simply either have to expand court size and rim height in order to remain the game it once was – or else perhaps alter its appearance as a three-on-three game of the type popular on the nation’s playgrounds. Precisely the same size restrictions now afflict the game of big league baseball. My Modest Proposal (with a tip of the old ball cap to Jonathan Swift) to protect pitchers and reclaim the game we once knew is an altogether simple and yet also altogether heretical one. Move the pitcher’s mound 75 feet away from home plate. At the same time extend the diamond to feature 100-foot-long base paths. And normalize outfield fences to a new more realistic dimension of 500 feet to the foul poles and 650 feet to dead center field. Now we would have a baseball diamond designed to accommodate today’s bigger, faster, more athletic and harder swinging and throwing ballplayers. And while we are at it, why not reintroduce a much heavier and “deader” baseball like the one used in the pre-1920 era, and also eliminate light whip-like bats. Let’s get back to a plethora of 1-0 final scores.

“Oh No!” the owners cry. This would cost way too much money (and also diminish gate take by keeping away ticket buying fans raised on Home Run Derby ballgames). But let’s remember here that MLB is one of the nation’s most thriving corporations with an annual cash flow that tops the gross national product of many of the world’s other industrialized nations. And MLB ballplayers are among the best compensated entertainers on the planet. Isn’t some belt tightening by all but a small sacrifice to improve the quality of the sport? And was baseball ever meant to be merely a batting practice demonstration?

And “Oh No!” cries the SABR-metrics buff. How can we preserve historically level playing fields for record keeping and record comparison if we monkey with the game’s dimensions? And I retaliate here that such record comparisons are already a mere myth and a fantasy. How can one talk of record comparisons with today’s hyper-sized athletes compared to those of yore, or with the changes in bats and balls and gloves that have transpired over the decades, or with a sport that didn’t include Blacks or Latinos before the mid-point of the past century. The era of Babe Ruth and the era of Barry Bonds are incapable of reasonable comparison, no matter what we might now do to ballpark dimensions.

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Okay, perhaps the expansion of the size of the field is indeed too radical. Perhaps we indeed want a game where the main entertainment for most fans as a string of endless home run derby highlights on nightly ESPN; perhaps we need to be entertained by pitchers who throw more than 100 mph and with hitters weighting 170 pounds yet regularly lofting fly balls over 450 feet into the upper grandstands. Good enough. But it is the same issue faced today by the nation’s even more popular sport of NFL football. If what fans truly want is bone crushing hits and non-stop violence then the price will always be devastating injury and crippled athletes. Correspondingly, if we want the baseball field to look the same as it has always looked and yet if we also demand 100 mph flamethrowers like Aroldis Chapman and muscle bound-bashers like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, then we must live with the possibility of occasional injury and often shortened careers. Get over it – it is an inherently dangerous sport. We simply cannot have it both ways.

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