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Field of Dreams — and Helmets, Facemasks and Chest Protectors

Posted on: 5/24/2011
William A. Staar, Morrison Mahoney
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Field of Dreams — and Helmets, Facemasks and Chest Protectors

The Coming of the Fully—Armored Baseball Player

I. Summary

In 1904, Chicago White Sox baseball catcher Claude Berry allegedly became the first baseball player to wear an athletic supporter in an organized baseball game. For the next 100 years, players at bat eventually came to adopt such protective items as helmets and, more recently, shin and elbow protectors. Those same players, however, did not take that equipment with them into the field. Demonstrating in the minds of men the supreme importance of male genitalia above all other body parts, "the cup" was, and generally still is, the lone piece of protective equipment used by fielders. 

Those days are coming to a close. The number of reports of catastrophic head injuries and cardiac arrest suffered by fielders, especially young ones, appears to increase annually. As a result, this author predicts that within 10 years, all non-adult fielders, at least all infielders, will be required to wear helmets, facemasks, and chest protectors in all forms of organized youth baseball and softball in the United States. Eventually, we may also see such equipment find its way into the NCAA and Major Leagues, at least for pitchers. 

Almost everyone stands to benefit from this development, including parents, players, fans, and baseball-equipment manufacturers. The few extra dollars that parents will need to spend for the additional equipment will be worth the peace of mind. Players can concentrate on the game instead of potential injuries. Manufacturers will generate additional income while simultaneously eliminating the "hot bat" lawsuits that currently plague them. With the threat of serious injuries all but eliminated, fans may see a return to more home runs via the use of more powerful bats. The only groups that stand to lose are baseball traditionalists and plaintiffs' attorneys. 

II. The Problems

The exit speed of a well-hit baseball in the Major Leagues can exceed 120 mph. On a regulation-sized field, i.e., high school though the pros, the first and third bases are 90 ft. away from home plate, and the pitcher's mound is less than 60 ft. away from the front of home plate. In softball and children-12-and-under baseball, the distance from home to the mound is only 40 ft. That distance shrinks to 35 ft. for children 10 and under. A ball can reach a pitcher in less than 1/3 of a second and an infielder less than a tenth of a second after that. Even the best fielders can be vulnerable to a line drive to the head or other part of the body. What's more, evidence shows that balls traveling at even a fraction of MLB speeds, e.g., 40 mph, also can do tremendous damage to smaller bodies. The number of smaller bodies at risk is significant; approximately five million children ages 5 to 14 participate in organized baseball and softball annually. 

 

A. Head Injuries

 

In September 2010, 11-year-old pitcher and Nevada resident Ben Gephart was struck in the side of his head by a batted ball estimated to be traveling between 75 and 80 mph. According to the Las Vegas Sun, "[t]he impact made a sound so loud everyone in the stands immediately knew something was wrong. The 5-foot, 90-pound boy lay motionless near the pitcher's mound with his skull smashed — the indentation resembled a soup bowl." Emergency surgery saved his life, although he may never recover full feeling and motion in the fingers of his right hand. Ben's parents have declared that if Ben ever is capable of returning to the baseball field, he will do so wearing a helmet and facemask. 

 

In May 2010, 16-year-old pitcher from California, Gunnar Sandberg, was struck by a batted ball above his ear. Doctors removed part of his skull to relieve the swelling of his brain, and then put him in a medically induced coma.

 

Head injuries are not limited to children or those games involving non-wood bats, either. In 2008, Mike Coolbaugh, a coach for a Double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, died after being struck in the head by a line drive as he stood in the first-base coach's box during a game in Arkansas. In April 2009, San Francisco Giants pitcher, Joe Martinez, suffered a concussion and three small head fractures after being hit by a line drive.

 

Like Martinez, many other fielders hit in the head by balls get off relatively light, suffering "only" concussions. Unfortunately, however, a growing pool of medical experts today believe that a concussion is a far more dangerous event than previously believed. Eye injuries also are a problem. According to a 2001 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, "baseball is the leading cause of sports-related eye injuries in children,and the highest incidence occurs in children 5 to 14 years ofage."

 

 B. Commotio Cordis

 

A lesser-known but equally dangerous risk involving a ball strike is death by commotio cordis. In overly simplistic laymen's terms, commotio cordis is a heart attack brought on by a blunt force to a precise spot on the chest at a particular point during the heartbeat cycle. According to CBS News, commotio cardis has caused 188 athletes to die in the last 15 years - 96 percent were male -- their average age: just under 15.

 

The force that causes commotio cordis does not necessarily cause blunt trauma to the heart. Instead, it interrupts the electrical signal in the heart at a precise moment during the heartbeat cycle. The heart stops beating and, instead, shakes and quivers. Once considered a rare oddity, little information was known about the condition. That has changed; fifteen years ago, the National Commotio Cordis Registry, managed by the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, began collecting data on known commotio cordis victims. Most recently, the New England Journal of Medicine published a thorough article summarizing currently known information about the condition. See Maron and Estes; Medical Progress – Commotio Cordis; N. Eng. J. Med. 362:10, p. 917 (March 31, 2010). 

 

On December 2, 2010, 16-year-old New Jersey catcher Tommy Adams died shortly after being hit in the chest by a pitched ball. Once hit, he said that he could not breathe, and he suddenly collapsed. Although the cause of death was not been released, several news reports cite commotio cordis. 

 

In 2006, Steven Domalewski, 12, of Wayne, N.J., was hit in the chest by a line drive, suffered commotio cordis, and fell to the ground. He allegedly did not breathe for 15-20 minutes and slipped into a comaHe survived, but was left unable to walk or speak. 

 

Thankfully, commotio cordis is relatively rare, with approximately 15 reported cases annually over the past fifteen years. The rarity is due to the fact that the required force must be applied (1) to a very small and specific spot in the center of the "precordium," i.e., the area of the chest directly outside the heart (2) during an extremely short span of the heartbeat, i.e., 10-20 milliseconds, during the upstroke of the T wave (the far-right elevation on an EKG, which displays the ventricle-recovery period) just before its peak. Unfortunately, it is usually fatal when it occurs. Happily, the fatality rate, now approximately 65%, appears to be dropping due to public awareness, earlier CPR efforts, and the increasing presence at sporting events of mobile defibrillators. 

 

The condition can be caused by any number of items making contact with a chest, e.g., a martial-arts punch, hard contact with a steering wheel during a car accident, etc.   Overwhelmingly, however, it is most associated with contact from a sports-related object traveling at high speed, e.g., a baseball, softball, hockey puck, hockey stick, lacrosse ball. Among those, baseball and softball account for the majority, with most players struck in the chest while fielding, bunting, or running bases.

Commotio cordis generally affects minors. It is not clear exactly why, but medical experts believe that the smaller chests of minors are less capable of mitigating the forces that cause commotio cordis. Also, younger people, on average, are more likely to engage in the activities during which the condition occurs.

III. The Solutions

A. Head Injuries: Helmets with Facemasks

The obvious answers to preventing head and facial injuries in the field are helmets and facemasks. This suggestion will be anathema to baseball purists, some of whom will claim that such items will negatively affect play. Sooner or latter, however, safety always wins out over tradition. 

 

Several precedents already exist for such products. A number of other sports played in the U.S. that require quick reflexes, speed, good eyesight, and agility, including football, hockey, and lacrosse, also utilize helmets and facemasks. Some countries require that those under the age of 19 who play cricket, a cousin of baseball, must wear facemasks and helmets, including any fielder within 15 yards of the bat. Former MLB first baseman, John Olerud, was known for wearing a batting helmet in the field as a precaution due to a brain aneurysm that he had suffered while playing in college. During the course of his career, Olerud collected two World Series rings, two All-Star awards, and three Golden Glove awards.  

 

Only one company, the ABC Helmet Company (apparently a division of Rawlings Sporting Goods Co.) appears to market helmets for use in the field. Its PBH Pro Model Fielding Helmet, which looks like little more than an old-style batting helmet currently worn by base coaches in the Major Leagues, appears for sale on the websites of several retailers.   In contrast, many companies have begun selling standalone strap-on facemasks made of steel or clear polycarbonate plastic for fielders, including the following: Markwort Sporting Goods, Rip-It Sporting Goods, Worth Sports, Schutt Sports, and Bangerz Sports Eye Protection. Most of these are being marketed for use in softball only.

 

B. Commotio Cordis: Chest Protectors

Although chest protectors already are used by catchers, those items are designed to prevent blunt trauma to the chest, generally, but not commotio cordis specifically. According to the NEJM article noted above, "20% of the victims of commotio cordis in competitive football, baseball, lacrosse, and hockey were wearing equipment marketed against traumatic chest injury." To be truly effective and marketable, such protectors must, in addition to the obvious requirement of being cost effective, accomplish three things: 

  • First, they must keep blunt force away from the precordium, either through absorption or redirection. Laboratory data suggests that the standard foam currently found in most chest protectors is ineffective for this purpose. The more sophisticated liner technologies currently used in football, hockey, and military helmets may offer a solution. Additionally, a semi-spherical "shield" made of very hard plastic, carbon fiber, or similar material placed over the heart might keep impact energy away from the heart by directing it to the perimeter of the shield. 
  • Second, such devices must remain in place and cannot shift as a result of the actions of the wearer, e.g., running, jumping, raising ones arms. Standard shoulder pads used in football, hockey, and lacrosse, which extend downward to cover portions of the upper chest, are vulnerable to shifting. Something that adheres more tightly to the entire upper torso is necessary.
  • Third, such protectors cannot fundamentally harm play via some aspect of their design, including weight, shape, or other configuration. Fielders must be able quickly to jump, throw, and dive without a chest protector getting in the way or causing the wearer discomfort through excessive heat or otherwise. 

Currently, only lesser-known companies are making products apparently designed to protect against commotio cordis, including (1) All-Star Sports, which makes the PHS-2 Batter's/Fielder's "Heart Shield" Protector, (2) Markwort Sporting Goods, maker of the Heart-Gard Protective Body Shirt, and (3) EvoShield LLC, maker of the A100 Chest & Back Rib Guard System with Shields. Mike Oliver, executive director of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOSCAE), the body which establishes safety standards for athletic equipment, was reported to have said "We've seen [commotio cordis] occur with people wearing pretty good chest protectors. . . . There really isn't anything out there that we've seen — and we haven't tested all of them — [but] we're not aware of anything out there that we can say with any confidence would eliminate the risk totally." Expect more prominent sporting-goods manufacturers to enter the chest-protector market as public awareness of this condition increases.

 

IV. A Win for Everyone

 

Fielders protected by chest protectors, helmets, and facemasks are not only inevitable, they are a universal win for almost everyone.  

 

First, parents of baseball and softball players aware of the risk of head injuries and commotio cordis will be able to sleep much easier. In exchange for peace of mind, most parents happily would pay a few more dollars for these products. Additionally, as more name-brand manufacturers enter the market and more people purchase these products, prices will fall. 

 

Second, manufacturers win in triplicate. Obviously, the selling of additional chest pads, helmets, and face masks would mean more income for them.  Another benefit is the virtual elimination of the "hot bat" lawsuits currently plaguing the bat-manufacturing industry. For several years, the makers of aluminum and composite bats have been made defendants in an increasing number of high-profile multi-million-dollar lawsuits in which plaintiffs attorneys, whose clients have suffered devastating head injuries or commotio cordis, claimed that the bat in question exhibited performance levels so far above those of a traditional wood bat that they made the bat unsafe. Additionally, some localities have completely banned the use of non-wood bats. The mandatory use of helmets, face masks, and chest protectors by infielders immediately would put an end to the injuries driving those lawsuits. Finally, with the most serious risks associated with hot bats eliminated, manufacturers again would be free to make bats that the consumers really want, i.e., those having performance characteristics far superior to those of standard wooden bats. 

           

Third, young fielders would benefit from these products in multiple ways. Eliminating anxiety about catastrophic injuries simply makes the game more enjoyable to play in the field. Also, not having to worry about taking a ground ball to the face will lead to more confident play and a greater willingness to use one's body to prevent a ball from making its way into the outfield. (As a former middle-school and high-school short stop who more than once suffered from a case of the yips and saw more than a few ground balls pass underneath his glove, I can personally attest to this.) Finally, all players except pitchers like hotter bats. For the past 11 years, the industry standard was the "ball exit speed ratio" - or BESR. Starting this year for colleges and next year for high schools, the industry standard is the "batted ball coefficient of restitution" or BBCOR. Under the former standard, some allege that the performance of composite bats actually improved over time because the graphite shells within the bats eventually broke down and created a trampoline-like effect. The BBCOR standard reportedly does not allow that. Early reports indicate that NCCA players, who have been using the bats since last fall, do not like the BBCOR bats.   According to Virginia Tech head coach Pete Hughes, the new bats are "a game changer. . . . [T]he entire way the game is played is going to change. I say if we hit 85 home runs last year and we had the same lineup, we would probably hit 50 this year with the performance of the new bats."

 

Fourth, baseball fans, most of whom love the "long ball" above all else, will benefit. Those who claim that low-performance bats are good for the baseball are wrong. A return to high-performance composite bats will mean greater offensive numbers and more interest in baseball, generally. It is no secret that the MLB steroid era, i.e., roughly from 1995 – 2005, which saw unprecedented offensive numbers from players like Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, and Sammy Sosa, marked a period of huge financial gain for MLB. While franchise values fell during the early part of the decade, they then ballooned. The average MLB franchise value rose from $140 million in 1994 to $332 million in 2004, and franchise revenues accelerated from a pre-steroid era growth rate of 3.4% to a steroid-era growth rate of 5.0%. No one seriously questions that greater offensive power was responsible for the vast majority of that growth. 

V. Conclusion

 

The days of younger baseball fielders wearing little more than an athletic supporter to protect themselves are just about over. Catastrophic injuries from ball strikes, although rare, have gained wider public awareness and generated substantial concern among parents, players, medical professionals, and politicians. This awareness presents an opportunity for all of those who love playing and watching baseball and softball. Within the next five to ten years, expect to see all under-18 players in the field wearing, as mandatory equipment, helmets, face masks, and chest protectors.

 

Bill Staar is a partner in the Boston office of Morrison Mahoney LLP. He concentrates in the areas of product liability, construction disputes, toxic torts, and general business litigation. He is a member of DRI's Product Liability, Construction Law, and Commercial Litigation Committees, vice chair of DRI's Sports Law Specialized Litigation Group, and member of the Legal Task Force of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

 

 

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