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February 11, 2014

LINDLEY: Padded caps are next step for safety in baseball

They're unpopular now but pitchers will eventually accept them.

The year was 1957 when Cleveland left-hander Herb Score was pitching to the Yankees’ Gil McDougald. A line drive rocketed back at the Indians pitcher and struck him in the head.

Score, who was only 23, slumped to the ground. Blood poured from his face. For a moment, he thought his eye had popped out of its socket. It hadn’t, but it was still a scary scene.

If you saw it, you’d undoubtedly like to forget that moment but probably never will.

Score never was the same. He said it wasn’t the line drive that knocked him out of baseball but a recurring arm problem. Many of those who had marveled at his sinking fastball disagreed.

A pitcher getting hit by a baseball traveling 85 to 100 mph may happen infrequently, but when it does the injury is serious. In 2012, Brandon McCarthy sustained a skull fracture and brain contusion while pitching for the Oakland A’s and required surgery. A year later, Toronto’s J.A. Happ and Tampa Bay’s Alex Cobb were both hit and sidelined.

Safety is a constant worry for baseball executives. To their credit, it draws ongoing study and debate. When pitchers arrive at spring training this month, besides the normal uniform, they’ll be offered a padded cap with more, if not complete, protection for their heads.

Initial reactions from the pros are mixed. Athletes like the idea of safer equipment — no one must be convinced of the perils of the profession — but the protective cap has negative features. It’s heavier and thicker. Besides being uncomfortable, those who’ve worn it are certain they’ll be hotter. Pitchers say they’ll try the custom-fitted caps during the exhibition season, then in all likelihood send them back to the lab to be refined.

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