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Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman spent Thursday having surgery for broken bones above his left eye, requiring a titanium plate that will remain in his head.

He also has a concussion and a broken nose. He likely won't pitch for the Reds until June.

In the words of Reds doctor Timothy Kremchek: "He's a very lucky guy."

Left unspoken: Chapman and all his pitching brothers leave themselves exposed to great bodily injury -- even death -- every time they take the mound.

The question on many pitchers' minds Thursday morning: Who's next?

When's the next time we have to witness something similar to Wednesday night's events in nearby Surprise, where Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez squared a line drive that struck a defenseless Chapman above his left eye, resulting in the game's immediate cancellation as Chapman was taken off the field on a backboard?

"It was very scary," said Reds catcher Brayan Pena, who cried in the hospital visiting Chapman on Wednesday and again Thursday morning. "Very scary. I saw the line drive coming, going straight to his face, and then I saw him bleeding and kicking.

"He wasn't even talking. Just moaning and making sounds."

The Reds, grateful the damage wasn't worse, now have a question doctors can't answer.

Whatever happened to those protective pitching helmets, anyway?

Just two months ago, Major League Baseball trumpeted that a protective cap was approved for use, giving every pitcher the option of greater protection.

Well, one little problem.

Not everyone has seen it.

"I thought they'd have them here in spring training," Reds reliever Sam LeCure said. "I know I was curious. I thought we'd be able to see how they'd feel.

"But if they're approved, why are they not at our disposal?

"I'd at least like to have the opportunity to make a fair decision. If it felt uncomfortable, I wouldn't wear it. But if I got hit in the head, I'd feel like a dumbass for not. Give me the option."

Certainly, no protective cap would have saved Chapman's face Wednesday night -- unless he wore a football helmet with a goalie mask underneath -- but what if he chooses to wear one when he returns?

Sorry, not available.

MLB issued a response that said any pitcher interested in trying a model of the approved protective cap, manufactured by isoBLOX, should contact his team's equipment manager. It'll even schedule an appointment.

Yet the Reds and other clubs contacted by USA TODAY Sports say they've never been issued a single protective cap. They haven't even been notified they're available for experimental use.

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Alex Cobb, who suffered a concussion and missed two months last season when hit in the head by a line drive, is infuriated. Can you blame him?

"l thought it was implied when they passed an MLB-ready cap," Cobb said Thursday, "that it would be in the locker room, available, accessible. There hasn't been anything available to us. So I don't know where we're supposed to go online and get our own, but we haven't seen anything yet.

"It just seems like a gimmick just to cover their end."

The problem, it appears, is when players were given caps to try at their union meetings in December, the negative feedback was so severe manufacturers went back to the drawing board. Pitchers complained caps added 7 ounces to a 4-ounce cap and were a half-inch thicker on the front and a full inch thicker on sides.

"I'm trying to think of a polite way to say this," Los Angeles Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson said this spring after he was hit on the side of the head during batting practice. "Literally, they're terrible. They're a terrible design. They're cumbersome. It's impossible to pitch with one on."

Well, considering five pitchers were hit by a line drive in a five-month period from 2012 to 2013, maybe a little discomfort isn't so bad. It took a while to get used to seat belts, too. And no base coach wanted to wear a helmet, even after ClassAA Tulsa coach Mike Coolbaugh was killed standing in the first-base box in 2007.

Yet the coaching helmet rule was mandated the following year by Major League Baseball.

If MLB can implement new rules protecting catchers, surely it can enhance pitcher safety.

"It feels like a liability issue more than an actual care for pitchers' safety," Cobb said. "Home-plate collisions have been addressed since Day 1 of spring training. Helmets for pitchers haven't even been talked about."

Now is the time.

Sure, Chapman might return in June without any problems, and perhaps few will remember why he was out. But not those who witnessed Wednesday's incident.

Least of all Chapman.

"You don't get over it," says New York Mets starter Bartolo Colon, who suffered a dislocated jaw two winters ago after getting hit by a line drive in the Dominican League. "That trauma stays with you. At least it stayed with me."

Risk is everywhere in baseball; Reds pitcher Jeff Francis was knocked unconscious and suffered a season-ending concussion from a line drive in the dugout in a 2002 minor league game.

Yet even that peril has been minimized by protective netting in front of dugouts.

"We understand the risk," Francis says, "but you still want to do everything to protect yourself."

And in an industry that generates more than $8billion annually and aims to protect its assets from injury, it's inexcusable a venture to protect the most precious part of a player's body has stalled short of the finish line.

"This is way bigger than baseball," Reds outfielder Jay Bruce said. "We're worried about his life, his well-being. We know it's a dangerous game. Hopefully the rules committee and others will dive into this."

It's well past time to figure it out.

 

March 21, 2014

 

 
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