Those of you familiar with Major League Baseball are probably also familiar with the tragedy that befell Mike Coolbaugh and his family this past summer when he was struck in the head and killed by a foul ball down in Tulsa. There was some feel-good press about it during the playoffs when it was announced that a full player share of the Rockies' playoff bonus (some two to three hundred thousand dollars) would go to his widow, but it settled into the background after a while.
Now the event is coming back into play, with teams hitting the spring exhibition schedule and coaches experiencing first-hand the new MLB mandate that all base coaches must wear batting helmets when on the field. The reason it has surfaced this week is a report of extremely mixed reviews thus far, not unlike the goofy composite ball in the NBA.
Actually, the reviews aren't entirely mixed. There are those among the league's coaches who understand the need for it, but none of them seem particularly enthused about it. Among the most vocal have been Dodgers third base coach Larry Bowa and Detroit Tigers first base coach Andy Van Slyke, who have referred to the idea as "cumbersome" and "unnecessary." Bowa even went so far as to say "I'll write a check for 162 games if I have to to avoid wearing it."
It's hard to tell how much of an attitude like Bowa's is just him popping off at the mouth or whether he is actually brazen enough to do something like that, but I can understand where Bowa is coming from with his sentiment.
Let's start back towards the beginning. Yes, what happened to Mike Coolbaugh was tragic, is something you never want to see, and would like to prevent if you can. However, it's called a 'freak accident' for a reason. Being able to prevent an incident similar to Coolbaugh's is roughly equivalent to leaving the batting cages up for games so that Randy Johnson doesn't kill any more pigeons.
Okay, that's a bit of a reach, so I'll try a different example. Remember back in 2002, when a young girl at a Columbus Blue Jackets game was struck in the temple by a stray puck and eventually died later on at the hospital? That was an isolated, unlikely-to-ever-happen-again incident that was as much the fault of the crowd as it was anybody else (though that's another story). The NHL took action, even though they didn't really have to, and I applaud what they did. The nets the league has mandated since then have been perfect – they have nearly completely eliminated the threat that they were supposed to, and have done so without creating any new problems.
Unfortunately, this batting helmet issue is not the same. I hate to say it, but this rule accomplishes absolutely nothing. Bear with me while I get into the details.
The base coaches have the option to wear whatever they like, a batting helmet with anywhere between zero and two earflaps. The trend thus far has been for them to choose the helmet without flaps, and the reasoning is twofold: the coaches aren't excited about having a helmet crammed on their head for half the game, and more importantly, a majority of base coaches use their ears as part of their signaling sequences. They're trying to abide by the rules without having to completely shift how they do their job. That's all well and good.
The problem is that as far as this situation is concerned, the flapless helmet is completely useless. It covers a majority of your skull, which is nice. Unfortunately, the area that it covers (and I can attest to this, being a student going into the medical field) is the thickest and most sturdy part of your skull, the part of the head that needs protection the least. I personally have taken a couple of foul balls of my bare noggin, and it sucked for a little bit, but I'm doing just fine today.
The part of the brain that needs protected is the vulnerable area that is pretty much right along the brim of a ball cap – the temples and the bottom of the skull behind the ears. Even the full two-flap batting helmet won't protect that area properly if you turn the wrong way. Which is another part of what happened to Coolbaugh.
If you remember, part of the reason this was a fatal accident is because this high-velocity foul ball nailed him in his mastoid process – a bony protrusion at the base of the skull, immediately behind the ear. His death was less about lack of protection and more about turning at exactly the wrong angle to the ball and exposing one of the most vulnerable spots on his entire head.
Sure, the creation of the rule, in spite of any whining and moaning that occurs, isn't hurting anybody. It also isn't helping anybody, either, and it very vaguely smacks of making a rule for the sake of saying "See? We have a rule for that." Of course, if you want to complain about it, you should probably have a better idea, and I think I do.
Since the most vulnerable part of the head is, almost exactly, the inch-and-a-half of your skull directly below the brim of your ball cap, here is what I propose. Find a way to create some sort of shield or collar, something that is rigid enough to absorb the blow of a baseball, but not so stiff as to be an impedance. Something that a base coach can just tuck into the brim of his cap for the time that he is out there.
I think that this is a much more reasonable solution. It would be a more comprehensive solution without being any hindrance to the coaches' ability to do their jobs, and it would be easily and cheaply manufactured.
Instead of a goofy rule that helps nobody, come talk to me, Bud Selig. I'll give you all the answers so that no base coach will suffer the fate of Mike Coolbaugh again.