Taking fewer chances for diamond injury

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Anderson softball coach agrees with KHSAA recommendation

By John Herndon

Scary could not do justice to describing that video of Aroldis Chapman falling to the pitcher's mound.

The Cincinnati Reds' relief pitcher had just taken a line drive off the bat of the Kansas City Royals' Salvador Perez during a spring training game in March. Chapman had thrown one of his 100-mph fastballs. Perez connected and the ball hit Chapman in the face. The following day, he had surgery to put a titanium plate in, to repair his shattered eye-socket.

Chapman missed almost six weeks of the current baseball season before the Reds activated him on May 10. He was selected to pitch in last week's All-Star game, retiring the only two batters he faced.

Chapman's injury could happen to anyone playing baseball or softball at the high school level and last week the Kentucky High School Athletic Association's Board of Control recommended that softball pitchers, first basemen and third basemen wear a protective mask while playing in the field.

“No one wants to see a pitcher take shot to the head at any level. Chapman was very fortunate,” says Anderson County softball coach Brent Aldridge, a major supporter of the KHSAA's decision.

The move stopped short of requiring the masks, but did recommend them. Softball players are already required to wear batting helmets equipped with cages to protect the face.

High school baseball players are not required to wear any kind of facial protection in the field or at bat.

The issue garnered statewide awareness this year after East Jessamine pitcher Haylee Hamm was hit in the face with a batted ball. She returned to action later this spring but her father, East Jessamine coach Tom Hamm, has been trying to raise awareness of the need for the masks.

“I cannot imagine what this poor girl went through but she was extremely lucky,” Aldridge said. “I talked to an umpire who was at the game and he said it sounded like a shotgun went off. It makes me cringe just thinking about it.”

According to a news release from the KHSAA, the state's governing body for high school sports, “addressed the issue of face/head protection. NFHS Rule 1-8-4 states that defensive players are permitted to wear face/head protection in the field. The Board of Control, based on a proposal from state, a review of available injury data from the NFHS RIO system and the recommendation of the KMA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, recommended that players at first base, third base and pitcher utilize the permissive requirement in the playing rules and wear face/head protection.”

The release also notes that the KHSAA proposed requiring the use of headgear, but the NFHS rules committee voted not to accept the proposal.

Aldridge believes the recommendation is a good one. He's long been an advocate of the devices and his daughter, Mia, wears one while she is working in the pitcher's circle.

“Mia started wearing a mask in (8-and-under) softball. Keith Currens (one of her coaches) and I thought it was in all players best interest to do so,” Aldridge says.

The Anderson coach, who led the Lady Bearcats to the state tournament last month, says the masks have evolved and are now just as much a part of many players gear as a glove.

“They used to be plastic but now they make some really nice metal ones,” Aldridge says. (Anderson players) Autumn Beasley, Kaci Currens and Mia have become so used to wearing them, it is a habit.”

Aldridge says there are objections, but he believes those objections are nonsense. “You will hear from some, 'It affects their vision' but that is garbage. Kelsey Nunley (a pitcher who led the University of Kentucky to the Women's College World Series) wears one and she is a Division I athlete.”

The move by the KHSAA is just another one in the direction of player safety. The ball flies off a metal bat, which are used in softball, much faster than a wood bat. When a pitcher winds up, she is 43 feet from home plate, but the release point puts the pitcher no more than 37 or 38 feet from the plate.

Corner infielders are also at increased risk in softball because of the prevalence of bunts and slap-hitting that can put those infielders as close to the batter as the pitcher.

“I think anything that helps protect kids is a good thing,” Aldridge said. “The game is changing so drastically every day--kids are becoming stronger, equipment is improving and the speed of the game is different.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time it is a non-issue but if you have ever seen a pitcher or a fielder take a shot to the face, it will turn your stomach.”

Still, Aldridge agrees with the KHSAA in ultimately leaving the decision with the girl and her parents.

“Several kids are uncomfortable wearing mask and I know a few coaches that will not allow their kids to wear them,” Aldridge said. “I would not be opposed seeing all infielders wear them but I cannot force them to do so, but I will never discourage a kid from wearing one and will support them doing so.

“I firmly believe KHSAA should have stepped up but I also understand they cannot force kids to wear them. Honestly, it is a parent decision and my daughter is wearing one anytime she is in the infield.”