By Eric Olson
The Associated Press
OMAHA, Neb. — LSU’s Greg Deichmann broke his cheekbone in three places when he was hit by a pitch in a preseason scrimmage, and since surgery he has worn a protective cage that covers the right side of his face.
The Oakland Athletics’ second-round draft pick plans to continue wearing the shield in pro baseball.
“It gives me a sense of security,” he said. “I don’t have any post-traumatic stress or anything like that, but it’s become part of my game now, and it’s a little bit of a comfort knowing it’s there.”
Florida’s Ryan Larson sustained the same injury as Deichmann, and also required surgery, after getting beaned in the Southeastern Conference Tournament three weeks ago. He wears a similar cage over the left side of his face. He, too, said it gives him peace of mind.
A study to be published in July in the Journal of Athletic Training looked at ball-contact injuries in 11 NCAA sports from 2009-10 through 2014-15. The conclusion was that softball, women’s field hockey and baseball had the highest rates of that type of injury. Lead author Missy Fraser, assistant professor of athletic training at Texas State, said she hopes the study can be a starting point for college baseball and other sports to re-examine regulations for protective equipment.
Leg, elbow and wrist guards and padded base-running gloves are common, and catcher masks have evolved to reduce concussion risk. Full facemasks on batting helmets are optional at the Little League, high school and college levels, though some local youth organizations do require them.
Fraser said in an interview that previous studies have shown full facemasks reduce facial injuries. But Deichmann and Larson, both of whom played in the College World Series this past weekend, said they would not favor making them mandatory.
It should be the player’s choice, they said.
“I would rather have nothing in my line of sight, really,” Larson said. “I feel pretty comfortable as it is that I’m going to get out of the way.”
Larson pointed out that a facemask wouldn’t have prevented his injury because the ball struck his helmet, not his face, and still shattered his cheekbone. Deichmann said it took him a couple of games to adjust to his half cage being in his peripheral vision.
“A full facemask would be more of a distraction than anything,” he said.
According to the study, 16.8 percent of the baseball injuries reported in the six-year span were associated with the ball striking the player. Of those, injuries to the hand and wrist were most common, followed by head and face injuries. More than half the ball-contact injuries were to batters, and most resulted only in bruises. Fractures accounted for 10.4 percent and concussions for 6.1 percent.
Softball reported the most ball-contact injuries in the study, and 37.4 percent of them were to the head or face, compared with 19.6 percent for baseball. Reaction time is reduced in softball because it is played on a more compact field — the distance from pitcher to batter is 43 feet, as opposed to 60 feet, 6 inches in baseball — and it’s common for batters to wear full facemasks. Full cages have been mandatory nationally in high school softball since 2006.
Some softball pitchers, such as standout Paige Lowary of national champion Oklahoma, choose to wear facemasks in the circle, as do some softball infielders.
“When I played softball, that didn’t exist at all,” Fraser said. “Now, if you asked me to play with the cage, I probably wouldn’t do it because it would be new and different and uncomfortable. But that’s me. A lot of girls now who are in college started wearing these cages when they were coming up, so that’s normal for them.
“In baseball, if that becomes more of the norm, where youth baseball players are wearing them, as they stay engaged with those and continue to wear those, that will also become the norm in baseball.”
Major league players such as Giancarlo Stanton and Jason Heyward have worn protective guards on their helmets since getting hit by pitches in recent years.
Baseball has tinkered with special hats and hat inserts to help protect pitchers from line drives, but pitcher masks are hard to envision at the highest levels. That’s because of the design challenges stemming from the pitcher wearing a hat and the overhead throwing motion being more complicated than the linear softball motion. A mask also would interfere with the peripheral vision required when pitching from the stretch to hold base runners.
TCU pitcher Brian Howard acknowledged the danger of line drives, but “I don’t think it’s to the point where we need to wear masks as pitchers yet.”
“It’s just part of the game,” he said. “It’s scary when it happens. It’s definitely a big deal, but it’s not something that I’ve seen too often.”
Florida’s Larson said baseball culture would be an obstacle to players willingly wearing full facemasks, batting or in the field.
“Guys just don’t want to show weakness,” he said. “You don’t want to give the opponent an upper hand; ‘Hey, I’m worried about this happening.’ I definitely say that’s a part of it.”