Friday night in Colorado, Rockies pitcher Juan Nicasio was struck in the face by a line drive off the bat of Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. It's unclear to me from reading reports where exactly on his face the ball struck – either on his cheek, near his ear, or at his temple – but the real injury came from his fall. Watching the video it is clear that, once the ball hit his face, Nicasio fell to the ground and landed on the top of his head (imagine someone doing a headstand). After lying on the mound for more than five minutes, Nicasio was placed on a stretcher with a brace around his neck and carted off the field. It was announced Sunday morning that Nicasio had broken the C1 vertebrae in his neck and had had surgery performed overnight.
This is a scary, scary thing. Neck injuries are about as serious as it gets, with paralysis or worse always a possibility. What's more, the line drive that caused everything hit within a baseball's breadth of Nicasio's temple. If either circumstance was even slightly more severe, we could be talking about Major League Baseball's first on-field death in ninety years. And though that may sound like a bit of a stretch – a gloomy, pessimistic, overly cautious stretch – because we know how it turned out, it's very real.
Baseball is not, in any way, shape, or form, anywhere near as dangerous as football or hockey. Let us be absolutely clear on that. But that doesn't mean that there aren't any real dangers involved. Nicasio's comebacker is one such example. Buster Posey's injury is another. And, if you don't think home plate collisions are a part of the game, then there's always Tsuyoshi Nishioka's injury at second base. Marlon Byrd suffered facial fractures after being hit by a pitch in May while Denard Span has only just this week come back from a concussion he suffered two months ago. Let's not forget Josh Hamilton, who broke his arm earlier this year while doing nothing more than sliding into home, or Tyler Colvin, who was impaled in the chest with the sharp end of a broken bat last September while running down the third base line. These are just a few examples off the top of my head of what makes baseball a potentially dangerous sport. What's more, aside from the Colvin injury, they all happened this year; I'm not exactly reaching back to Tony Conigliaro or Steve Yeager here. Baseball may not be football in terms of dangerous sports, but it's not exactly chess or curling either.
Every time one of these major injuries occurs on the field (especially if it is a highly-visible player or on a major television broadcast), there's always talk about that particular risk – homeplate collisions, beanballs, comebackers – being baseball's biggest concern. Options are discussed on how to eliminate or reduce the risk, retired players are paraded around to give their opinion ("In my day, you painted a bull's-eye on your face to tempt pitchers into beaning you!"), and talk-radio has a topic to fight over for the next 24-to-72 hours. Soon enough, though, other things happen in the sporting world and we forget all about "the biggest problem in baseball" until the next time.
As I've watched injury after injury pile up this year (and then listened to and read all the discussion in each injury's wake), I've begun to wonder just what are the biggest risks baseball faces. Was the Buster Posey brouhaha a fair response to the injury? Does the relative silence about Nicasio's surgery make sense? Do we care too much about a few bat shards?
Below is a list, in roughly ascending order, of what I feel are the most dangerous aspects of a professional baseball game, and why. I obviously don't think that any of these are worth drastically changing the game for, and I know baseball has been played for 150 years with the same (or [much] worse) risks. The sport is in a good, safe place. That doesn't mean, though, that baseball is as safe as it can be or that it can't be improved with some slight modifications, but that can't happen without acknowledging the problems. This is my attempt at that.
Plate Collisions – The Buster Posey injury was gruesome to watch. The Tsuyoshi Nishioka injury wasn't any more fun. Nor was Stephen Drew's twisted ankle, suffered while trying to avoid a tag at home. The collision at the plate (or base) is one of the most common and most painful-looking injuries in baseball. Players are always moving at high speed during these collisions and someone's limbs always tend to twist or rotate in an unnatural way. Slow-motion cameras love these injuries and, as such, fans tend to think of them as the worst thing imaginable, especially since they seem so easy to avoid. If the runner slides cleanly and with some regard for the (exposed) defender's safety, the injuries can be avoided. I absolutely agree. Many of these injuries could be prevented if Major League Baseball made it more clear that dangerous slides would not be tolerated, and I think MLB should do just that. However, I place these injuries as a lower risk than others because, as was the case in both the Nishioka and Posey injuries, they could also be prevented with proper care and form from the defender's part.
Beanballs – We tend to use the word to mean any kind of Hit By Pitch these days, but, technically, the word "beanball" refers specifically to a player getting hit in the head. This has been one of baseball's biggest safety concerns for practically its entire existence; that's what happens when one man has the power to throw a hardball inches from a person's head at speeds at or near 100 miles-per-hour. The danger is still very real (there are 250 potential beanballs thrown a game), but I have it lower on the list because baseball has done a good job of dealing with it: baseballs are clean and white these days, with even the littlest smudge being cause to remove a ball; the batter's eye keeps batters from being distracted during the pitch; umpires don't give the tight strike as much and are quick to toss players pitching too dangerously; and, most importantly, the earflap batting helmet is mandatory across all leagues. The fact that batters are completely focused on each pitch also helps. Batters must still be vigilant while at the plate, but the danger of death or blindness is lower than it has ever been.
Broken Bats – If I created this list last year, I would probably have this higher. Bats seemed to be exploding more than ever in 2009 and 2010 and the Tyler Colvin injury was one of the scariest things I had ever heard. A one-plus pound piece of jagged wood hurtling at your body from ninety-feet away and poking your chest – before we found out the true extent of Colvin's injury, I don't think I had ever imagined more horrible images on a baseball field. The exploding bats seem to be on a downswing in 2011. Whether that's just from the media talking about it less to actual policies put in place by the Commissioner's Office, I couldn't say. The danger is real, though. Every time a heavy, jagged piece of wood flies towards a pitcher or a second-baseman or a fan in the stands, something dangerous can happen. Flying shards of ash and people focused on something else (like, say, the ball) do not mix well. This is also a bit higher on the list than others might put it because, I believe, solutions are simple. From stricter rules about bat construction to allowing players to use devices like the Bat Glove, it wouldn't be hard to cut down on a high percentage of these incidents. Thankfully, it looks like MLB may have started down this path already.
Pitcher Protection – Every time the ball is thrown, the pitcher is in real danger. Whereas every other defender (and, generally, baserunner) on the field behind the pitcher is looking forward, focused on the ball, the pitcher, by necessity, leaves his body exposed to any potential comebackers. If the ball hits off the bat in a particular way, and if the pitcher is unable to respond in time, he risks serious injury to the face, head, or neck. These can be serious or life-threatening injuries in the right circumstances, and there's not much that can be done to prevent them. There is a "pitcher's helmet" being devised by some manufacturers. It seems like a decent solution, but, even then, it can't protect every sensitive, exposed part of a pitcher's body and it still doesn't address the momentary vulnerability present in every pitch. This has been the case with the game of baseball since its invention, I know, but that doesn't make it any less of a danger.
Exposed Fans – This is a bit of a cheat, including fan safety on the list here, but it's very true. No sports' fans are exposed to more danger than baseball's, and I don't mean the various dangers you'll find at any sporting event (drunk kids on tall stairwells, fights in the concourses, etc.). A fan at a baseball game has to deal with unique dangers, like batted balls and thrown bats, while also watching for his own safety when it comes to railings and foul balls and the like. The fan who died at the Rangers game last month, for example, fell while reaching out for a ball thrown to him by Josh Hamilton. Railings are a danger at any venue, but NBA and NFL fans aren't reaching out for souvenirs like that. Fans seated on the field level (and especially near the dugouts) must also be on the watch for batted balls that could come at them at 100+ miles-per-hour. With so much to see at a game, fans can easily be taken unaware when a foul ball heads their way. If that ball then hits their head or chest, medical attention may surely be needed. Increasing the heights of the railings and extending the net down the line a certain distance (the edge of the dugout or to the foul pole are the two most frequent suggestions) would definitely help. Fans would still need to look out for their own safety, but at least this way the stadiums wouldn't be needlessly increasing the risks to fans. The NHL, for example, extended their nets over the crowds a few years back after a little girl was killed by a stray puck. It was a wise, albeit late, move. Major League Baseball should consider doing the same before it gets too late for them as well.
I have no doubt that my list is both incomplete and inaccurate, at least in some eyes. What dangers am I missing about today's game of baseball, and where do I have my priorities wrong? Is there anything else that Major League Baseball can do to make the game safer for players and fans alike? Please let me know in the comments.