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Foul Ball

By Russ Smith | Posted 3/29/2006

Marylanders hardly need any more “nanny state” regulations imposed upon them by Annapolis legislators each year. Nevertheless, while jawboning with other parents at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on North Charles Street last Saturday, waiting for our kids to collect their Roland Park Baseball League uniforms, a short article in the March 22 Sun came up for discussion.

Reporter Jill Rosen wrote about Montgomery County’s Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum’s proposal that the state’s Health and Mental Hygiene Department be given the authority to mandate protective gear for young ballplayers across the state, including face masks for hitters and goggles for fielders. As it happens, the Roland Park league already requires its players to don plastic helmets with mouth and eye guards attached, a wise precautionary measure, although I’m glad the organization’s leaders came to that conclusion rather than being forced to comply under state law. So far, “goggles” haven’t been introduced, which is probably a good thing, since it’s my bet that the darn things would make it harder for a youngster to see a ball coming his or her way.

The senators engaged in a bit of hyperbole during the brief debate over the bill, which Rosen says is likely to die by the session’s end, with Baltimore County’s James Brochin taking top honors of the day. He said, “We’re telling 8- and 9-year-olds that when a ball is coming at you 50, 60, 65 miles per hour, if you get out of the way, great. If not, and it takes your eye out, that’s the way it goes.” C’mon, Senator: Show me a 9-year-old who throws 65 miles an hour, and I’ll escort that pitcher down to Camden Yards next week and lobby Mike Flanagan to put the kid in the O’s bullpen.

Exaggeration aside, there is ample reason for parents and coaches—not the state—to make sure their children play organized sports in a manner that’s not only fun but safe as well. Three years ago, just before our family moved to Baltimore, my then-10-year-old son Nicky was at the plate during a Lower Manhattan Little League game, facing down a wild young hurler. Nick whiffed at the first offering, took two balls, and then, out of nowhere, was clobbered on the nose by an errant pitch. He was immediately decked and couldn’t walk for a minute or so. After determining the injury wasn’t dire, I took a walk to the mound to comfort the pitcher who was bawling as if he’d just shot someone by accident.

In that league, you see, there were no face guards on the batting helmets, which would’ve deflected the throw, and as a result we took blood-splattered Nicky to nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a mild concussion but no busted nose. Initially, I thought my wife and younger son Booker—who went white seeing Nick get decked—got the worst of the incident, but ultimately that wasn’t the case.

Although my son vowed to “get back on the horse” the following week, when it came time to face another pitcher he moved away from the plate instinctively and finished the season fearing for his safety. Nicky wasn’t by any means a star, but he had a strong throwing arm and got his share of doubles and singles; regardless, his little league career and fascination with baseball was over.

I look back at the day and wish he’d had a bellyache and was unable to play, for now, even at Camden Yards, he doesn’t want to sit too close to the field, fearing a screaming foul ball from a major leaguer. Previously, he’d always lobbied for tickets in “awesome foul ball territory,” and in fact had caught a pop-up behind home plate at Yankee Stadium when he was just 7 years old.

No one, I think, wants to wrap their kids in 20 pounds of armor to play a sport, where the occasional twisted ankle or accidental collision in the field are part of the game, but it’s not too burdensome for players to wear batting helmets that cover more than their ears. It’s up to parents and coaches, not the state, to insist on this common-sense precaution. In some leagues around the state, it’s a question of being able to pay for the equipment, but it’d be hard to find a more willing group of people to solicit donations from neighbors, line up commercial sponsors, and hold bake sales or raffles to pay for the gear.

Developing an interest in sports, and probably baseball in particular, can be a useful tool for kids as they mature and become part of a community. Yakking about a big game from the night before is a great icebreaker when meeting someone—certainly more than politics, which today in America is nearly the equivalent of talking about religion in Northern Ireland.

Of course, Major League Baseball could do its part during the postseason by temporarily reducing their television revenues and scheduling games to start before 8:30 p.m. on the East Coast. As Andrew Zimbalist, author of a fine new book about MLB commissioner Bud Selig (In the Best Interests of Baseball?), suggests, why not start all World Series games a few hours earlier, so that kids, the sport’s future fan base, could watch more than a few innings.

Not that young O’s fans will have to worry about missing their team in this season’s playoffs.

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