The naming of Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman to the National League All-Star squad for the July 15 game in Minneapolis deserves bonus attention given that only a few months ago the southpaw was perhaps only a few inches from death.

On March 19 during an exhibition game against the Kansas City Royals in Surprise, Arizona, Chapman was levelled by a line drive to the face off the bat of Salvador Perez. The ball, flying at possibly 100 mph, struck him in the head, dropped him flat to the ground on the mound and resulted in fractures of his nose and on his forehead above his left eye. If Chapman had been hit in the temple, the damage could have killed him.

Chapman was carried from the field on a stretcher and sent to a nearby hospital. It was another recent case demonstrating just how vulnerable pitchers are to vicious shots off the bat once they complete their delivery. With only a second to react, not every pitcher has time to thrust his glove or arm up to protect himself.

A common issue

This danger has been highlighted all too often in recent play with other pitchers, including Brandon McCarthy, Alex Cobb and J.A. Happ all being struck in the head by line drives that silenced witnessing crowds and frightened teammates and opponents. All have returned to the mound, having the good fortune to be able to resume their careers following various absences of some months. McCarthy underwent brain surgery in order to come back.

The jeopardy these injuries placed the players in has renewed the debate about the need for some head protection for pitchers. While research is ongoing, no piece of equipment has yet been invented affording sufficient help – and met with the approval of the players. They have rejected options either because devices were uncomfortable and unwieldy, or were unflattering.

Design Safety

Appearance should not be underestimated when introducing new equipment. Historically, just about every protective device used in professional sport and now seen as commonplace, faced ridicule for its look or sneering because to add the pieces was considered unmanly. This is true of everything from the shin guard, to the football helmet face bar, to the hockey goalie mask.

Research and development continues and someday a pitcher’s head piece will also likely become a regular part of the uniform. However, for now, every time a pitcher throws a ball to the batter, he is at risk of a fatal comebacker. It is pure chance that in the years since Major League Baseball began in 1876 that no pitcher has been killed on the mound because of a batted ball.

The first reaction of fans that see a pitcher knocked down by a liner is horror. It is a terrible sight to witness. The pitcher invariably hits the ground as if he has been shot by a rifle bullet. Often there is blood visible. This was all true when Chapman was felled. There is always the chance that even if a pitcher is not killed by a swatted ball his career can be ruined.

Returning in style

Chapman, 26, a Cuban defector in his fifth season, is the Reds closer and he has been superb in the role. This is his third straight All-Star selection. Outside of Cincinnati, Chapman is also known as the guy with the 100 mph fastball. That triple-digit speed leaves spectators oohing and ahhing.

Following his dramatic injury, Chapman returned to the Reds’ lineup in his typical save situation role on May 11. As if to prove his renewed health with an exclamation point, Chapman struck out the side in the ninth inning against the Colorado Rockies and hit 102 mph on the radar gun.

The performance – and his work since – shows Chapman is still at the top of his game. And it also serves as a reminder of just how lucky he is to be a survivor of baseball’s latest close call on the mound.

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