BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
09 May 2021
ORLANDO, FL – One pitch and four-tenths of a second could end a pitcher’s career. Four years ago today, it almost cost St. Louis Cardinals’ Daniel Ponce de Leon his life.
Four-tenths of a second is the amount of time in which a ball that rockets off a bat at 95 mph can reach a vulnerable pitcher standing on the front of a pitching mound. Not much time to react.
In fact, by the time the pitcher has finished ducking, that hard, cork-center, cowhide-covered orb already is past him, or has smacked him. If he is fortunate, the ball misses him or hits a fleshy part of his body and leaves just a bruise. On May 9, 2017, four years ago today, Ponce de Leon wasn’t so lucky.
At that time, he was pitching for the Cardinals’ Memphis Triple-A minor-league team. It was the start of the second inning in a game against the Iowa Cubs in Des Moines, and the 6-foot-4 right-hander threw a fastball that was supposed to be down and away. Instead, it caught too much of the plate, and the batter, Iowa’s Victor Caratini, smoked a line drive right back at Ponce de Leon. He had no time to react; the ball coming back faster than the mid-90s-mph pitch the hurler had sent to the plate. The ball struck him in the head, on his right temple, knocking him to the ground.
He suffered a fractured skull and was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where Ponce de Leon underwent emergency surgery to remove swelling in his brain. At one point, the question was not simply whether he would pitch again, but whether he would even live and what quality of life he’d have.
He would spend three weeks recuperating in a Des Moines hospital, followed by months of rehabilitation. Fourteen months later, on July 23, 2018, a determined and confident Ponce de Leon made his major-league debut, holding the Cincinnati Reds hitless for seven shutout innings. Last month, the right-hander opened the 2021 MLB season as part of the Cardinals’ starting rotation; he’s now in their bullpen.
‘An Angel Watched Over Me’
Ponce de Leon, who has written a book about the play -- One Line Drive: A Life-Threatening Injury and a Faith-Filled Comeback -- still has a small dent in his head from where the ball hit, and scars from the surgery, unwanted reminders of that day when a pitch missed and a line drive didn’t.
“I feel like I had somebody watching over me for how this happened. It could have been a lot worse. I could have come out of this with some sort of disability. I believe God had an angel watching over me and really protecting me. … The most scary part was because you are dealing with your brain, and your brain is your life,” he told Rob Rains of stlsportspages.com in a 2018 interview.
These days, Ponce de Leon would rather talk about his pitching rather than his comeback from the gruesome, life-threatening injury. “That’s long gone for me,” the pitcher said, in a story a couple of years ago on espn.com. “I was hoping everyone would forget about it and notice me as [a] pitcher and not a guy who got hit in the head. The dent will always be there. But it’s not going to define me.”
But, it should be a part of a story – one about why MLB does not require its pitchers to wear protective headwear, and why the league has not collaborated successfully with manufacturers to provide effective and comfortable protection.
Aside from catchers, pitchers are the most vulnerable of all the players on the field to being hit by a batted ball – and catchers wear shin guards, chest protectors, masks, and helmets. While all the other fielders customarily are at least 90 feet from the hitter, when a pitcher completes his follow-through he is about 55 feet from home plate – with only his reflexes and a soft cap for protection.
How long is four-tenths of a second? Less time than it takes to say “baseball.”
Even if a pitcher is perfectly squared to home plate after his follow-through, his weight equally distributed on both feet – and few hurlers are -- the human body simply doesn’t have enough time to sense the danger of that 95-mph projectile hurtling toward it, send a message to the brain, and then have that message relayed to the appropriate muscle groups needed to move the pitcher out of harm’s way. His fast-twitch muscles simply are not meant to react so quickly. And, most pitchers’ follow-throughs have them falling off to one side of the mound or the other with their head slightly turned, leaving them further exposed.
In short, pitchers are right in the line of fire, and vulnerable. In a recent series between the Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, two pitchers were hit in the chest by line drives. Fortunately, both were OK. Had the drives been a few inches higher, it might have been a different story.
Years ago, former Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitcher Orel Hershiser told Tim Kurkjian of ESPN, "It is kind of scary. I tell fans, 'You know how scary it is when you go to a batting cage, you're not even standing in the box, and the ball is coming in at 80 or 90 mph, and it's going right down the middle?' For a pitcher, the ball is coming back much faster than we can throw it. Imagine it coming at you, as a pitcher, at 115 mph. You have just launched the ball, you are not still, and your eyes are not steady. If it's coming right at you, there is no time to move.”
So, the question remains: Why doesn’t Major League Baseball do something to help lessen the pitchers’ risk?
What are the Options?
Helmets have been mandatory for MLB hitters since 1971, and first- and third-base coaches are required to wear head protection. Mesh fencing in dugouts protects those players and coaches not on the field. And, in stadiums all around MLB, there is league-mandated netting along the first- to third-base sides of the stands, from foul pole to foul pole, to help prevent bats and balls from flying into the seats and injuring fans.
Yet, curiously, there is no required protection for the most vulnerable person of all: the pitcher. While MLB has approved pitchers wearing any protective headwear that they wish – so long as it does not interfere with licensing agreements – none are mandatory.
So, what can be done? Obviously, we won’t see pitchers wearing protective suits, or masks like hockey goalies; and we can’t put a screen in front of the pitchers, like those that shield batting-practice pitchers.
The answer may lie with two protective headwear options: carbon-fiber cap inserts, and “dome” cap-helmet hybrids. The carbon fiber-Kevlar cap insert fits inside the sweat liner of the cap and protects a pitcher from the middle of his forehead to the ear (to the right ear for right-handers and to left ear for left-handers since those are the sides exposed during the pitcher’s follow-through). Ponce de Leon is among a handful of major-league pitchers that wear the cap insert.
Meanwhile, the cap-helmet hybrid features a customized hard carbon fiber shell. It looks like a heavily padded cap, and roughly resembles a sun visor with extended forehead and temple coverage and single earflaps similar to batting helmets.
Early in spring training five years ago, Major League Baseball and the Players Association collaborated on a project in which 20 big-league pitchers wore the cap-helmet hybrid. But, no consensus was reached and the project was disbanded.
Fortunately, pitchers being struck in the head by line drives are not regular occurrences. But, they happen more frequently than anyone would want; and the consequences can be devastating – career threatening, and even life threatening, as with Ponce de Leon.
It was for Herb Score. In what probably is the most famous incident involving a pitcher being hit by a batted ball, on May 7, 1957, Cleveland Indians’ left-hander Score was struck in the face by a line drive off the bat of New York Yankees’ infielder Gil McDougald.
At the time, Score was a rising star in just his third MLB season. He led the American League in strikeouts the first two seasons, while posting a 36-19 record. Sadly, he was not the same after being felled by McDougald’s line drive: in five seasons afterward, Score’s record was only 55-46. Although he attributed his ineffectiveness to an arm injury, many in baseball wondered if that line drive played a larger role.
Safety Must be Prime Concern
Many pitchers have argued that the cap insert is too lightweight to provide sufficient protection. Meanwhile, the cap-helmet hybrid is seen by many hurlers as visually unappealing, too uncomfortable – particularly in hot weather -- and too cumbersome to wear. Plus, neither option offers protection from being hit on the side of the face or the neck.
Still, safety should always trump fashion and licensing agreements. And, while current options may not provide complete protection, they may help lessen the severity of head injuries. Major League Baseball and the players union need to work together with manufacturers to find a solution.
A number of baseball experts suggest it might require a “bottom up” approach – players getting comfortable wearing cap inserts or cap-helmet hybrids as they progress through Little League, high school, college, and the minor leagues – before protective headwear for pitchers becomes widely accepted in the majors.
Meanwhile, pitchers adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward the danger, accepting it “as part of the gig.” Ask pitchers and they likely will tell you they are more worried about developing arm and shoulder issues, and needing Tommy John surgery than getting hit in the face or head by a line drive.
In Ponce de Leon’s case, the horrific play had a positive ending. “I don’t know if words can describe that,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt told the Associated Press’ Joe Kay after Ponce de Leon’s debut in 2018. “It’s what’s magical about this game and what we love about this game—stories like that.”
As a ninth-round draft choice, Ponce de Leon beat long odds against reaching the majors. His comeback from a devastating head injury is an even better story. One of those special moments in a season that loom larger than the numbers on scoreboards or stat sheets, and resonate long after the games, and the season, have ended.
Yes, it’s been four years since Ponce de Leon’s accident. But, Major League Baseball is rolling the dice. It’s just a matter of time before a pitcher gets injured, and he may not be as fortunate as the Cardinals’ right-hander.
While the league’s focus is on matters like a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, defensive shifts, doctored baseballs, home runs and strikeouts, and pace of play, it also should be concerned with helping to protect pitchers, before tragedy strikes.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.