I just witnessed the most frightening event I’ve ever seen in the game of softball this past weekend. I firmly believe it is time for the powers that be in the game of Fastpitch Softball to step up and do something about it. My daughter’s college teammate Kelsey, a junior pitcher from Belton, MO, was struck in the face by a line drive in the first game of the 2015 season. It was horrific and those watching will never forget that moment or the sound it made when the ball hit her. In the past I’ve been reluctant to call for rules concerning masks. This experience has changed my point of view and the entire point of this article is to change yours too.
A hockey puck and softball off the bat can travel at speeds of over 100mph.
An ambulance was called immediately and after approximately one hour she was carefully wheeled off the field and taken to the hospital. It was the middle of the game and we weren’t sure how she was going to be or whether the game would be cancelled. Both teams were extremely distressed. Surprisingly the game was resumed and completed. It took a little over 4 hours ending with an emotional 11-8 victory in extra innings for my daughter’s team.
As terrible as the experience was for everybody, it surely was worse for her parents who were at the game. They did go out onto the field to the pitcher’s circle with the trainers and coaches, while they were waiting for the ambulance. It was eerily quiet in the stands with a lot of tears shed by many. Her mom rode in the ambulance with her to the hospital. Can you imagine going through this? Or going through this from home while watching it on Game Tracker or on TV or listening to the radio broadcast?
Here’s a recent update from her mom, “Good news: No teeth broken and no serious eye damage, although, there might be a slight vision loss, but not bad. Bad news: Multiple fractures to her face, cheek, orbital bone, upper palette and sinus cavity.” She rode home with her parents after being released from the hospital. She will be having surgery soon, which without getting into those details will involve a lengthy recovery at home. She’s out for the season and missing a lot of school, but thankfully it sounds like in time she’ll be okay.
After they release the ball, they’re unavoidably not in the best possible position to defend themselves.
The Mentality Needs to Change
I described the event earlier, but left out some of the graphic description. You ought to be able to envision it, so enough said. Hockey goalies wear masks. The hardest slap shots come in at just over 100mph. Nobody thinks twice about whether goalies should wear masks. The exit speed for a softball (speed off the bat) for girls between the ages of 17-23 can also exceed 100mph. A goalie usually knows the puck is coming at them, while pitcher’s do not.
A pitcher is vulnerable and mostly defenseless concerning line drives hit at them. After they release the ball, they’re unavoidably not in the best possible position to defend themselves. Infielders are taught to have their gloves waist high and out in front of them to be ready for anything hit at them. Whether they, corner infielders in particular, should wear masks is a debate for a different day. They’re focused on the batter and ball and are in a position to defend themselves. Their biggest potential for being struck may be off hard hit ground balls that take bad hops.
As I mentioned earlier, in the past I had the mindset that such decisions should be left up to the player. Opponents of making pitchers wear face masks might think, "Well then why not make corners or all infielders wear them too? Next thing you know they'll want to make all batters wear masks and outlaw metal cleats." Well, maybe someday it will come to that. But, this conversation is concerning the protection of defenseless pitchers. On this same weekend, my high school team had an indoor game. One of my players hit the opposing team's pitcher with a line drive to the face. But, that girl was wearing a mask. She suffered a mild concussion only, which is a huge difference in outcomes.
The time has come for the adults in our softball community to protect our daughters during the game.
Leadership at the College Level
Many young pitchers do not want to wear masks, because the big girls don’t. It’s like a form of peer pressure, where the young players don’t want to look stupid or as if they’re afraid of the ball. Today's college players grew up with these very beliefs and social pressures. The sanctioning bodies of college softball need to come together to change this mentality. They can do so by requiring all pitchers wear protective masks. When young girls grow up watching the big girls play and every pitcher has a mask on, it will become the normal and not be questioned or have negative associations any longer. Leading by example at the college level will change the mentality for the whole game.
Additional debates concerning masks include those on batting helmets, which in college seem to be often worn without. And should infielders be required to wear mouth pieces? I am still undecided about these or masks for corner infielders. Fastpitch Softball is still a relatively new sport when compared to hockey, football or baseball. It’s a non-contact sport in which like basketball can have a lot of contact. Base coaches in Major League Baseball must now wear hard helmets while out on the field. That took a tragic event to change that rule. How many more such events will Fastpitch Softball need?
I have shared this brief article with the NCAA, NAIA, NFCA and my state high school association (MHSAA), because as a parent and coach, I now feel this strongly about the matter. I encourage you to share it with your state associations and friends in your softball circles too. When I was growing up we did not wear seat belts in our cars and trucks. They were tucked into the seats and there were no laws in place. Not only are there laws for seat belts today, but also for texting and cell phone usage while driving. The time has come for the adults in our softball community to protect our daughters during the game. Like wearing seat belts, they’ll get used to wearing masks.