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Across the United States and around the world, millions of children and adults are playing baseball, and almost all of them are stepping up to the plate with unsafe batting helmets that don’t offer enough protection against brain injuries.  There has been recent talk about banning aluminum bats because they add approximately 4 mph to the speed of a hit ball and make it harder for a pitcher to avoid injury.  Pitchers are at risk, but that risk is extremely low compared to batters.

During the 2009 major league season, several frightening beanings occurred, and they drew attention to the inability of most helmets to protect hitters’ brains. As a result of taking fastballs to the helmet, David Wright of the Mets and Edgar Gonzalez of the Padres suffered severe concussions that kept them out of action for more than a month.

The players certainly received less serious head injuries than they would have suffered if they hadn’t been wearing any helmet, but these incidents clearly showed that batters are stepping into the box with a false sense of helmet security.

A story in the New York Times said that traditional helmets offer full protection for head injuries only on pitches up to 70 MPH, and in the major leagues only the rarely thrown knuckleball goes that slowly. Fastballs almost always top 90 MPH, and some reach 100 MPH.

A film of a current major league player who took a fastball to the helmet in a spring training game shows that knowing how to avoid an inside pitch has apparently become a lost skill.

Francisco Cervelli of the Yankees sustained a concussion when a fastball hit him in the helmet. On the pitch, Cervelli never moved back. Instead, he actually ducked into the pitch. An old baseball phrase was that a pitcher “dusted off” a hitter. That meant that the hitter fell on his back to avoid the pitch, but modern hitters don’t react that way.

Statistics show that the number of hit batters is up significantly from the 1960s. In 1967, Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale were in their prime, and they were both were notorious for pitching inside. Despite their intimidating presence, the National League averaged just 0.22 batters hit by a pitch for every game played that year. In 2009, that number was up 50%, to 0.33 batters hit in every game.

Of course, major league players are adults who have to have a certain fearlessness to play the game. Children, however, don’t have the reflexes that major leaguers have, and most high school pitchers can throw harder than 70 MPH. So, because of the inadequacy of their helmets, high school players risk personal injury, traumatic brain injury and even wrongful death.

Compared to many other sports, baseball is relatively safe. Among children and youth ages 5 to 18, the sports and recreational activities that account for the most head injuries are bicycling, football, basketball, playground activities, and soccer. High school baseball has outlawed dangerous acts such as roll blocks on infielders and running over catchers, but the pitched ball is still a threat, and while helmets are mandatory, most still leave batters in danger of brain injury.

In 2009, a high school player in Missouri died from traumatic brain injury after being hit in the head by a pitch. Reports said that the ball hit him below the helmet, but all high school helmets have earflaps, so it’s possible that the helmet moved when the batter jerked his body to avoid the pitch. Helmets also come off when players run the bases, leaving their heads unprotected against thrown balls and fielders’ knees as they slide into bases.

The good news regarding baseball players’ safety is that Rawlings has introduced a new helmet called the S100. As its name implies, it can withstand the force of a pitch moving as fast as 100 MPH, and Francisco Cervelli has received orders from his manager to wear the new helmet.

The minor leagues are making the S100 mandatory this year, and while it would be good if the major leagues would do the same, it’s more important that the people responsible for the safety of Little Leaguers and high school players make better helmets mandatory. Helmets for young players should also have chinstraps to hold them in place at all times.

One interesting assessment of the shortcomings of baseball helmets came from the Epilepsy Therapy Project. People with epilepsy often wear helmets to protect them in case they fall during a seizure, and the Epilepsy Therapy Project offered this opinion: Baseball batting helmets are loose-fitting and are made without a chinstrap, so they offer inadequate protection against head injury.

A baseball moving at 100 MPH or just 75 MPH can do catastrophic damage to a human head, but traditional baseball helmets offer inadequate protection, and the people who make those helmets have always known it.

The new helmet is a huge improvement that every batter at every level of baseball should wear.  If your child has suffered a personal injury because of a helmet failure, please contact one of the defective product attorneys in our office and definitely save the helmet.

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Richard Alexander