In time, protective caps will find their fit in game
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- In a sport built on tradition, change comes slowly.
No real reason.
It's just the way it is.
Baseball has approved a cap that pitchers can wear to provide improved protection in case they are hit in the head with a batted ball. The plan has not been met with enthusiasm.
But then that's no surprise, not in baseball or any other sport.
Justin McBride, 34, a two-time Professional Bull Riders world champion and the first bull rider to win $5 million, can attest to that.
Protective helmets surfaced on the bull riding circuit more than 20 years ago. Today, roughly 60 percent of the bull riders wear them.
McBride never did.
"I grew up that way," McBride said of wearing a traditional cowboy hat. "It's part of the sport. It's part of the tradition. I'm old-school. I was never going to wear one. I guess if [PBR medical director] Tandy [Freeman] said, 'Wear it or you can't ride,' maybe, but other than that, no way."
Ross Coleman, whom McBride has known since they rode together on the rodeo team at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, was an early convert to the helmets.
"I was all over him," McBride said.
Mike Lee, a close friend of McBride's, was one of the first bull riders to make a total commitment to the protective helmets and is convinced the safety helmet saved his life at a 2003 rodeo in Fort Smith, Ark. As it was, he underwent surgery for a severe head injury and skull fracture.
"They have a value," McBride said. "I can tell you, if my kid wanted to be a bull rider, he'd have one on. You can be sure of that. I know -- I'm a walking contradiction."
It's about style. It's about comfort.
The initial complaints from pitchers about baseball's approved protective cap is that it is too big, and the extra seven ounces of weight is a hindrance.
"I'm trying to think of a polite way to say this -- literally they're terrible," Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson said. "It's a terrible design. They're huge. They're cumbersome. It's impossible to pitch with one of those on."
Officials with 4Licensing, the manufacturer of the isoBLOX protective cap, have been visiting Spring Training camps to seek feedback from players on ways the cap's design can be refined.
McBride can understand Wilson's feelings.
"They don't feel right," he said. "It's like the support on the face mask. I tucked my chin against my chest. You can't do that with those guards. And if your head gets thrown back, it's an added weight that you have to deal with in bringing your chin back down."
That, as much as anything, is why it takes time for the protective equipment to be accepted.
The history of batting helmets in baseball indicates they were first created in 1905, but it wasn't until 1953 that the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first team to mandate players wear the helmets, and Major League Baseball did not adopt a rule requiring all players to wear a helmet until December 1970. At the time, all professional players were grandfathered in wearing the skull caps that had been popular.
Eight years later, Bob Montgomery, a backup catcher with Boston, was the last holdout for the skully. The late Jim Fregosi, manager of the California Angels, made note of that when the Angels were in Boston in May 1968, and Montgomery, hitting .455 when the series opened, was getting excessive playing time because Carlton Fisk was hurt.
"You keep hitting .400," Fregosi told Montgomery during batting practice, "you better get a helmet. Pitchers aren't going to be so kind to you."
Fear is a factor that carries the edge in the debate on changes in equipment.
There have been more than a handful of recent incidents of a pitcher being hit in the head by a line drive -- including Aroldis Chapman of Cincinnati in an exhibition game against Kansas City. None of them, however, has been hit by the line drive in an area that would be protected by the new helmet.
Texas pitcher Tanner Scheppers was hit by a line drive and carted off the field his sophomore year at Fresno State, but he doesn't buy the new caps.
"Has anybody ever died?" Scheppers said. "I know they have been seriously hurt, but you risk that every time you go on the field. I'm willing to risk that."
McBride can understand that.
Bull riders are required to wear protective vests.
The vest stemmed from the death of Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association bull rider Lane Frost, who after scoring a 91 on the bull Taking Care of Business, dismounted and was hit in the side by the bull's horns, breaking his ribs, which in turn punctured his lungs and heart.
Cody Lambert, a travel partner of Frost and one of the founding fathers of the PBR, came from a family that raised and trained race horses. His mother demanded he wear a jockey's vest to protect him. The vests have been refined over the years to meet rodeo needs.
Nobody really balked at the idea.
"My opinion," said McBride, "it was the best change."
It came down to a matter of life and death over tradition and style.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.