Whether literally (Barry Bonds) or figuratively (Alex
Rodriguez), the heads of Major League Baseball players have been growing during
the last decade. Now some will get even bigger.
Rawlings, a leading manufacturer of baseball equipment,
recently released a new line of larger batting helmets designed to protect
batters’ noggins—and their brains—from dangerous fastballs.
David Wright of the New York Mets debuted the S100 model on
Tuesday night in Colorado. The All-Star third baseman was making his return to
the field after a two-week stint on the disabled list; a 94-mph pitch had
knocked his helmet off, sent him to the ground in pain and caused a mild
concussion. Wright spoke favorably about a better helmet even before that, so
he was a natural candidate to wear the new model.
Of course, the bigger piece of equipment did not go
unnoticed by his fellow players. “It’s all in good fun,” Wright told
reporters following Tuesday’s game. “Those guys were laughing at me on the
other side. Our guys were laughing at me … they were on me all night.”
All joking aside, the designers of the helmet hope it will
catch on with other big-league players due to its increased size and padding. A
standard helmet is 11.25 inches from front to back, with a circumference of
26.25 inches and a weight of 15 ounces. The S100 is closer to 13 inches long
and 30.75 inches around, and weighs in at 1 pound, 6.5 ounces, with four
independent impact-dulling layers. “We’re confident that it will withstand a
pitch up to 100 miles per hour,” Mike Thompson, Rawlings senior vice president
for sports marketing and business development, told ESPN.
However, Rawlings sales representative Mike Nittolo admitted
to Newsday that even if Wright had
been wearing the new helmet when he was hit by the pitch two weeks ago, he
likely still would have incurred a concussion—a temporary, reversible loss of brain
function caused by direct injury to the brain, with symptoms ranging from headaches
to dizziness to irritability. The brain still suffers some trauma even if a
pitch strikes a helmet first. But the company expects its improved model will
reduce recovery time after such injuries. And “it is going to protect you from
any sort of skull fracture,” Nittolo said.
The new helmet will be required in the minor leagues next
season. It has been approved for colleges as well, and several schools have
already adopted the helmet.
Without a hard mandate, though, it’s unlikely to catch on
quickly in MLB. Athletes have proven to be creatures of habit, who often don’t
like wearing something unfamiliar on the grounds that it might affect their
balance or comfort. And, as Wright’s experience shows, they open themselves up
to being razzed by their teammates.
But there’s hope that the rest of the league will eventually
come around. Helmets were not even mandatory in MLB until 1971. No hockey
goalies—who routinely stop 100-mph rock-hard pucks—wore a mask until 1959. Even
in 1974, some goalies still went bare-faced. Now, though, it’s absurd to think
about any hockey player, yet alone a goalie, not wearing a helmet of some sort.
The first hockey player to wear a mask was also likely
teased. But eventually, his equipment became the standard. Wright seems ok with
that. “Obviously, I don’t care what I look like,” he said after Tuesday’s game.
“If it provides more safety, I’m all for that.” Hopefully others will follow