Safer Batting Helmet Draws Resistance From Some Players
Earl Wilson/The New York Times
Rawlings is about to introduce the S100, a bulkier but far more protective helmet that can withstand the impact of a 100-m.p.h. fastball.
by DAVID WALDSTEIN
Published: August 12, 2009
Three weeks after absorbing the potentially deadly impact of a 93-mile-per-hour fastball on his batting helmet, Edgar Gonzalez still feels dizzy whenever he lies down. Because of the lingering effects of a concussion, Gonzalez, a second baseman for the San Diego Padres, has not played since that experience. When he finally returns, it may be with the newest protective device, one that could one day come to define the look of a major league batter.
Rawlings is about to introduce its newest batting helmet, the S100, a bulkier but far more protective helmet that can withstand the impact of a 100-m.p.h. fastball, according to Rawlings and an independent testing organization. Most other models, when hit flush by a ball, are compromised at speeds in excess of 70 m.p.h.
As helpful as the new helmet may be, there is resistance to it from some major league players who are not prepared to sacrifice comfort and style for added protection. Gonzalez is not among them. “After this happened to me, I would wear anything,” he said. “I don’t care how goofy it is, as long as it could help protect me.”
Gonzalez and others who choose to wear the new model could become pioneers like Ron Santo, one of the first to wear a batting helmet with an earflap, or Jacques Plante, the first hockey goalie to wear a face mask on a regular basis.
Major league players are a fearless and traditional bunch, and for many any kind of change, even for the sake of safety, is anathema.
“No, I am absolutely not wearing that,” Mets right fielder Jeff Francoeur said with a laugh after seeing a prototype, as if he were being asked to put a pumpkin on his head. “I could care less what they say, I’m not wearing it. There’s got to be a way to have a more protective helmet without all that padding. It’s brutal. We’re going to look like a bunch of clowns out there.”
Among a small, informal sampling of players, several said they would likely stick with their current model, even though the S100 has been proved more effective in independent laboratory testing. In the eyes of some major league players, it is just too bulky, too heavy and too geeky-looking.
“I want a helmet that’s comfortable,” Athletics infielder Nomar Garciaparra said, “and that doesn’t look bad.”
Yankee first baseman Mark Teixeira said the new helmet would make him feel as if he were wearing a football helmet in the batter’s box.
“The one I’ve used for my entire career is fine,” he said.
Francoeur took a Brad Penny fastball in the helmet this season and, as he said, “lived to tell the tale.” Even Gonzalez escaped a catastrophic head injury with his old model.
David Halstead is the technical director for the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, an independent organization that sets safety standards. Halstead said a vast majority of helmets used by major league players are not certified by his organization because they do not have enough interior padding and do not have two earflaps.
“Major league players do not play with a helmet that meets any standards,” he said. “It’s remarkable to me. Once the earflap is removed, it can’t be certified.”
Halstead said that a ball traveling a mere 32 m.p.h. that hits an unprotected head flush will “result in a skull fracture every time.” So what happens when a ball leaves the hand at 90 m.p.h. and hits a helmet? Usually it hurts a lot, and it may result in a concussion. But it rarely causes a fracture.
The reason is that a player who gets hit with a 90-m.p.h. fastball is usually experienced enough to avoid a direct hit and ensure the impact is only a glancing blow. In 24 years of work with the committee on athletic equipment and as co-founder of the Southern Impact Research Center, Halstead said he had seen only three skull fractures from a pitched ball, and two were in girls softball.
The third occurred this season with a player in the Orioles’ minor league system. Halstead examined that helmet and found no structural damage. He said there was a good possibility it did not fit properly and, when the player moved to avoid the pitch, the helmet shifted and the ball may have hit directly against the head.
“If he had been wearing the S100 and it fit properly, he wouldn’t have had a skull fracture,” Halstead said.
The S100 — so named because it can withstand the impact of a ball fired at 100 m.p.h. from 24 inches away — has a layer of expanded polypropylene, the hard, foamlike material used in bicycle helmets.
The helmet also has a composite insert strip built into the frame that helps the helmet retain its protective oval shape upon impact. Even if current major leaguers balk at wearing the bulkier new helmet now, Rawlings is banking on the idea that minor leaguers, as well as high school and college players, will convert to it and the helmet will work its way into the major leagues as they are promoted.
“Our position is to offer the safest helmet on the market,” said Mike Thompson, Rawlings’s vice president for marketing and business development. “If they elect to wear it, that’s their choice.”
To meet the standards of the committee on athletic equipment, helmets must withstand the direct impact of a baseball fired out of an air cannon at 60 m.p.h. from 24 inches away. Most helmets will be dented at 70 m.p.h., but Halstead recently tested the S100 in his Knoxville, Tenn., laboratory. It withstood pitches at 100 m.p.h.
Now, he is making his 8-year-old son, Sean, wear it for Little League games.
But it is hard to predict the number of professionals who will convert to using it.
“If it provides more protection, then I’m all for it,” said Mets third baseman David Wright, who last week dodged a Brad Thompson fastball traveling on a frightening vector toward his head. “I’m not worried about style or looking good out there. I’m worried about keeping my melon protected.”
Billy Witz contributed reporting.