San Diego Padres pitcher Alex Torres wasn't trying to make a fashion statement, he was just trying to protect his head.
Torres, a 26-year old lefthander from Venezuela, became the first MLB pitcher to wear a protective cap in a game when he was summoned from the bullpen in the eighth inning of the June 21 game against the Dodgers. The cap is arguably the ugliest item of clothing ever worn on a baseball diamond. A close second might be the softball uniforms worn by the Oakland A's during the 1970's at the insistence of maverick owner, Charlie Finley.
The new headwear is fitted with energy-diffusing protective plates that create bulges around the sides and front of the cap. It looks awkward, but its looks are no more awkward than its name: isoBox. Not surprisingly, it's also heavier than the normal baseball cap.
No sooner had Torres taken the mound then social media erupted with comments, most of them negative and derogatory. Players, commentators, fans and even Torres' wife mocked him for donning the cap. Padres' announcer Dick Enberg said the cap "didn't look sexy," to which Torres responded, "Timeout, who the hell cares if it doesn't look sexy?" For Torres, the cap was all about safety, and with good reason. Every time a pitcher takes the mound, he puts his career - indeed his life - in jeopardy.
During the past several years, a number of pitchers have taken a line drive to the noggin, most notably the Arizona Diamondbacks' Brandon McCarthy in 2012, Torres' teammate last year with the Tampa Bay Rays, Alex Cobb, and Cincinnati Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman during Spring Training this year.
McCarthy required emergency brain surgery to save his life. Cobb suffered a concussion that cost him two months of the season. After taking a line drive to the face, Chapman's injuries included broken bones in his left eye, a concussion, and a broken nose. He also had surgery to install a titanium plate in his head. Although he was expected to miss two months of the season, Chapman returned to action in mid-May. Because Chapman was hit in the face, it's doubtful that the protective headwear could have prevented his injuries.
Cobb and McCarthy were actively involved in the development of the new cap, which was first approved by MLB in January. However, unlike Torres, neither has yet to wear the cap in a game. Cobb claims the caps are currently unavailable, perhaps because when they were demonstrated to MLB players in December the negative reaction was so strong that the manufacturer went back to the drawing board.
McCarthy says that although the caps are "heading in the right direction," they are not yet "game ready." He cited the snugness of the cap and heat retention as ongoing issues that need to be resolved before they are adopted on a league-wide basis. While McCarthy didn't mention attractiveness, it's no secret that players want to look like ballplayers when they perform in front of thousands of fans in the ballpark and millions more on television. Our Minor League players insisted on having a mirror installed in the clubhouse next to the door that exited onto the field. The mirror gave them an opportunity to make last minute adjustments to the look and fit of their caps and uniforms.
Protection for pitchers is long overdue. A batted baseball can come back at a pitcher even faster than he threw it, sometimes in excess of 100 miles per hour. Although a pitcher begins his windup standing 60' 6" from home plate, he finishes his stride much closer to the hitter, oftentimes off balance, making it difficult to protect himself.
Total MLB payroll will exceed $3.5 billion this year and pitchers make up half of a team's roster. Therefore, it behooves the league to protect its investment. This year the league adopted a new rule on blocking the plate which was designed to protect catchers. Beginning in 2008, MLB required coaches to wear helmets on the field after a Minor League coach was killed by a batted ball. Why should pitchers be left out?
Playing pinball with a pitcher's head is no laughing matter. Rather than being ridiculed, Torres should be commended for his intelligent decision to don the new protective headwear.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.