'Little time to react' leaves long-lasting trauma for pitchers hit in head

ByWilliam Weinbaum via ESPN logo
Monday, April 20, 2015

The Tuesday night line drive that earned Indians pitcher Carlos Carrasco membership in a fraternity nobody wants to join evoked another episode in Cleveland 18 years earlier.

"It looked a lot like Willie Blair's," said Bryce Florie, the former Red Sox pitcher whose own gruesome mound moment 15 years ago put him in the company of Blair and others -- and now Carrasco.

"It's a scary situation; there's so little time to react."

Carrasco joined a list of active pitchers who've been hit in the head by line drives that includes Aroldis Chapman, Alex Cobb, John Danks, Doug Fister, J.A. Happ, David Huff, Dan Jennings, Clayton Kershaw, Brandon McCarthy, Juan Nicasio and Chris Young. More than half, including Carrasco, were struck below the cap line.

Unlike several of the others, Carrasco caught a lucky break -- a bruised jaw and swollen face, but no apparent broken bones from the liner off White Sox outfielderMelky Cabrera's bat. He's expected to start again next Monday.

Contacted Wednesday by "Outside the Lines," Blair described himself as very lucky, too, having suffered "just" a broken jaw and slight concussion after Julio Franco's line drive, clocked at 107 mph, struck him on May 4, 1997. Blair left by ambulance and missed a month of action for the Detroit Tigers.

"I went down in excruciating pain and was fighting to stay awake," Blair said. "I never fully went out; I rolled over and was groaning at first and couldn't speak, but a few seconds later, the trainer came out and I could talk."

On Sept. 8, 2000, Florie gushed blood after taking a liner off the bat of theYankees' Ryan Thompson that shattered bones in his face and did irreparable damage to the vision in his right eye. His career was never the same.

"To this day," Florie said Wednesday, "I can see that ball come within an inch of my glove, and the next thing I know, I'm on my back and my life's changed forever."

Blair's recollection is eerily similar to Florie's: "I saw it briefly, I tried to get my glove up, lost sight of the ball, turned my head and it hit me."

Blair and Florie, close friends since they were together on the 1995 San Diego Padres, expressed hope that in the years to come there'll be progress toward protecting pitchers against liners striking above and below the cap line.

"I wish there was a way to protect pitchers without it being cumbersome, affecting pitching or looking obnoxious," Blair said. "Somewhere down the road, and it might take time, there has to be something to look decent and feel decent."

Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association approved two versions of isoBLOX padding for pitchers' caps after independent testing of it at 83 mph, which was determined to be the average speed of liners reaching the mound area. But the bulky padding was worn only by then-Padres reliever Alex Torres last season and hasn't been worn by anybody yet this year.

According to Blair, who has been the Padres' bullpen coach for three years, "many people ragged on Alex for the way his cap looked, but many others thanked and praised him for the great example he was setting for kids."

Another company's Kevlar padding called the Dome, which has not been tested or approved by MLB, was introduced in spring training, and six pitchers have worn it, according to its manufacturer.

Players are free to use protective equipment of their choice, as long as it doesn't interfere with competition or with MLB licensing agreements. As reported by "Outside the Lines" last year, in addition to their consideration of products submitted for their approval, MLB and the MLBPA are collaborating with Boombang, a California company, in an effort to develop alternative protective headgear.

With no protective device in use -- or known to be in the works -- that covers the facial area of pitchers, Florie said he thinks for the time being a combination of a padded cap and a light, partial mask similar to what NBA veteran Richard Hamilton wore could be a palatable option to consider.

"I don't think it's a bad idea to think about a full face guard, but it's not realistic at this point to have something thin enough so it doesn't interfere with a pitcher's movements," Florie said.

Blair, who estimates he was struck 10 times by liners to other parts of his body in a 12-year career, takes some solace in how infrequently pitchers get hit in the head -- it happens about twice a year. But, he says, the issue that "might not concern everybody is of great concern to the guys it's happened to."

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