When the San Diego Padres’ Alex Torres became the first big league pitcher to wear one of those new isoBLOX protective pitchers caps in a ballgame recently, bloggers wrote that he looked like one of the Super Mario Brothers.
I’m sure Torres also took a ration from his teammates. You know how ballplayers are.
Chuckle if you must, Alex Torres said. If you were at Tropicana Field last June when his then-Tampa Bay teammate Alex Cobb was struck in the head by a line drive off the bat of the Royals’ Eric Hosmer, you would not be chuckling.
Torres remembers the thud. It was one of the sickening variety.
That line drive of Hosmer’s was traveling 102 mph when it struck Alex Cobb. Torres was the guy who replaced him. Cobb suffered a concussion and vertigo but he’s healthy now. He said he still thinks about comebackers a lot.
So that’s what brought me out to Cashman Field on the Fourth of July before the fireworks began.
Usually when Major League Baseball wants to give the impression it cares about the health and well-being of its participants, it puts in rules by which only minor leaguers must abide. These would include more stringent testing and sanctions for using PEDs, and a rule that supposedly prohibits smokeless tobacco use on the field. Oh, yeah — and those huge batting helmets that came out in 2010 that made guys look like the Great Gazoo from “The Flintstones.”
A couple of the 51s pitchers did not want to talk about wearing optional protective caps before the fireworks, but Dave LaRoche, the team’s former pitching coach and now a pitching consultant, said he would.
LaRoche hadn’t yet seen Alex Torres’ protective cap. Unlike the Las Vegas hard-throwing right-handers and crafty southpaws, he seemed interested in checking them out.
When I described what they looked like, he said a lot of guys wouldn’t wear them if they made you look less than cool on the bump. Chicks may dig the long ball. They do not dig ball caps that make you look like Super Mario’s brother.
Having said that, Alex Torres’ hat with the extra padding in front and on the sides looks much less ridiculous than wearing one’s cap with the bill facing first base, in the style that Fernando Rodney (and others) wears his. OK, a little less ridiculous.
LaRoche, who once pitched for UNLV, spent 14 seasons hurling baseballs toward home plate in the big leagues while unprotected about the head and face. He threw a pitch called “La Lob,” the slowest of change-ups, a high-arcing descendant of the eephus pitch.
Surely he had been struck with a line drive, or two or three or four.
Nope, he said. Not even once.
How about a close call then?
Yes, he said. One immediately came to mind.
Angels vs. Mariners, back in the day. Back in the late 1970s.
Julio Cruz hit a screamer that appeared to hit Dave LaRoche right between the eyes.
Instinct took over. LaRoche scrambled to pick up the ball, whirled, threw to second base. He got the force. Manager Jim Fregosi and home plate umpire Richie Garcia were out there in a flash. They thought that ball hit LaRoche in the face; they hadn’t seen the quick flick of his glove, the deflection.
It all happened in an instant.
An instant is all it takes.
LaRoche mentioned Herb Score, who struck out 245 batters in 1955 for the Indians, a rookie record. The next year, Score went 20-9 with 263 strikeouts. The next year, Gil McDougald of the Yankees hit a line drive that struck Herb Score in the face.
He was never the same, although Score said taking that bullet to the eye socket didn’t have anything to do with it.
I tried to make the point that pitchers not named Don Drysdale rarely throw at a batter’s head, yet batting helmets are mandatory. Whereas hitting the ball through the middle of the diamond, where the exposed and unprotected pitcher stands, is the essence of the game. At least according to my old American Legion coach.
The difference, LaRoche said, is they teach pitchers — or at least they used to — to finish their motion facing home plate in a fielding position. Fundamentally speaking, that should give pitchers an instant to react, to get a glove on the ball, as he did facing Julio Cruz.
Barring another Herb Score-like incident or chicks starting to dig protective caps, LaRoche does not foresee them becoming standard equipment. Maybe in T-ball, or something like that, he said.
LaRoche said if baseball really wanted to protect its pitchers, it would abolish those maple bats that get sawed in two with the sharp ends flying around the infield like daggers.
Having pitched 14 seasons in the big leagues, and three in the minors, without once being injured by a batted ball, the craftiest of left-handers tucked a pinch of smokeless tobacco under his lower lip.
“What are you gonna do, put up a screen?” he said.
He chuckled, and then Dave LaRoche said if they ever put up a screen in front of the pitcher’s mound, he would probably consider making a comeback.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.