Base coaches weigh in on helmet rule
Now implemented, safety regulation drawing varied reactions
One exhibition week into The Great Helmet Debate ... there is no debate.After some early words of dissent -- especially virulent by Dodgers third-base coach Larry Bowa -- Major League base coaches appear to have quickly come to grips with a new rule requiring them to wear protective helmets. It might take some veterans at the job a while to get used to working under the dome. But they all instantly got the message that this isn't a flimsy issue for their sport. To paraphrase the national seatbelt campaign, "Don it, or bag it." "It's mandatory. No ifs, ands or buts about it," Bob Watson, MLB's vice president of rules and on-field operations, said Saturday night. "If you aren't wearing a helmet, you will be warned by the umpire. "If you then still don't wear it, you will be ejected and fined -- and the fine is significant." The rule was implemented by club general managers at their November meetings, and came swiftly in response to a Minor League coach being killed by a foul ball in the summer. Mike Coolbaugh, the 35-year-old first-base coach for Double-A Tulsa, died of a bursted blood vessel soon after being struck below the ear on July 22 by a line drive off Tino Sanchez's bat. "This is an important rule, mainly because it is a safety issue," Watson said. "It's something we have neglected for a long time. The GMs voted to have their coaches protected. Unfortunately, it took the death of a young man to bring this to everyone's attention." As big league clubs' Spring Training transitioned into the exhibition phase last week, the attention from some coaches was acerbic, in Bowa's case even defiant. Bowa was helmet-less on Thursday for the Dodgers' Grapefruit League opener, and vowed to remain so. "That's not for me," he had said. "My question is, how can I be in the league 40 years and the league says who wears a helmet and who doesn't? These are very cumbersome. "There are a lot of coaches that I've talked to who aren't saying anything," Bowa had added, "so I feel like I'm talking for those guys. They don't want to wear them." But in expressing his willingness "to write out a check for whatever the fine is for every game," Bowa revealed an unawareness of the weight of the issue, including ejection for violation. By Friday, he and Los Angeles first-base coach Mariano Duncan were wearing helmets. In between came a debriefing phone call to the Dodgers from Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations. "We had a talk with Larry," Solomon explained Saturday night. "He is a thoughtful, intelligent guy. He wanted us to explain to him the process. "[Manager Joe] Torre was also fantastic. The whole Dodgers organization is in support. It really wasn't an issue once we had a chance to talk about it."
Commissioner Bud Selig also voiced his support for the new rule.
"I think it's a good rule," Selig said. "I understand the history and the tradition. You know it's interesting. There's always a lot of conversation about this. In fact, [Dodgers broadcaster] Vin Scully called me a lot about this issue. He was worried that somebody would get hurt or killed. And, of course, somebody has been killed.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, someone once said. And that's true. It's almost amazing as long as we waited, that someone hasn't been hurt [in the Major Leagues] during a ballgame. So I like the rule."
Around the camps, however, it remains an issue on which affected coaches are quite divided. By now, all are in compliance, willingly, grudgingly or just patiently.First-base coach Glenallen Hill of the Rockies -- the late Coolbaugh's parent organization -- began wearing a helmet within days of the tragedy and said, "It did take me about three days to get used to having it on. But after that, it was just fine." "It's no problem at all," said Dino Ebel, the Angels' third-base coach. "I wore it around the field and the clubhouse for a few days, and it felt perfectly normal. I'm good to go with it -- and you do get some line drives coming your way." But Andy Van Slyke, the Tigers' first-base coach, said, "It's very odd, because it's leading to many headaches. It's uncomfortable. It's hot. It's unnecessary." St. Louis third-base coach Jose Oquendo was even more outspoken, calling the helmet "a pain." "It's hard, uncomfortable," Oquendo said. "You can't chew gum. Not happy with it." Baltimore first-base coach Josh Shelby said, "Right now, it's just very uncomfortable and I've never felt like I was at a risk being out there. It was an unfortunate incident that happened, but if they had asked us if we wanted to wear one or not, I wouldn't." "I would prefer not to wear it," Cubs third-base coach Mike Quade said. "I don't care for it at all. I'm not the boss. I would love to see the things changed. I understand what they're trying to do. I don't agree with it at all. I have to do it, so be it. "There's inherent danger in this game," Quade added. "You want to put helmets on the pitchers? How many umpires do you see get hit?" Mark Berry, the Reds' third-base coach, said, "I don't agree with it. I think it should be optional. It's just uncomfortable. You feel like it's going to fall off. Umpires don't have to wear them. Why not them but us?" The point raised by Quade and Berry, heard often, may soon be addressed, according to Watson. "That could be the next big issue," Watson said. "Umpires are especially exposed, and it's something we're looking at." One of coaches' most consistent complaints -- that the helmets are loose-fitting and feel as if they will fall off -- seems odd since that hasn't been a problem for batters, even under lusty swings. "I feel like I have to hold it, that it's going to slide off my head when I'm moving around over there," said Rockies third-base coach Mike Gallego. But there is a difference in the coaches' helmets, and it is an ironic distinction. They wear helmets without the optional ear flaps that are mandatory for batters and make them snugger. Ears are simply integral in coaches' sign sequences, and need be exposed. "As far as giving signs, at least we don't have to have ear flaps," said Tony Beasley, the Pirates' third-base coach. "As a third-base coach, most of the time your ears are a part of your signs." Thus, the very area that took Coolbaugh's fatal hit remains vulnerable. Responsive sporting goods manufacturers are believed to already be focused on the weight and thermal issues. With hundreds of base coaches in the Major and Minor Leagues alone, it makes sense for them to develop an acceptable alternative to the standard batting helmet. "Several of the helmet companies are trying to come up with some lining inside [caps] that wouldn't be as heavy or as hot," Watson said. "But unless technology comes up with a way to adapt the cap, the use of helmets is here to stay. There's no way around it." "My whole thing is if they are that concerned about it, make something that is comfortable and I think they will get to that," noted Sam Perlozzo, the former Baltimore manager who is now coaching third base for the Mariners. "I understand they are working on it and until then, we'll live with it. It's part of the game and we all have to do it. If you worry about it, you just give yourself an unnecessary worry." Veteran baseball men such as Watson actually are surprised, and obviously grateful because no serious injuries had occurred, that base coaches had bucked the odds for so long. "A lot of them," Watson said, "have their backs to home plate and don't even watch [batters swing]." "A lot of the guys have come close to getting killed," said Jose Cruz Sr., Houston's first-base coach. "We'll do what we have to do." "We're in a position where we're not able to see the ball," said Pirates first-base coach Lou Frazier. "We have to watch the baserunner. You hear some guys complain, but when the day is over, it's just done to protect us. It needed to be mandatory. It's better to be safe than sorry." Although it took MLB 51 years following Ray Chapman's fatal 1920 beaning to legislate the use of batting helmets, this is not the first time a professional sports league has reacted swiftly and decisively to what many perceived as a freak, isolated incident. For instance, nets above the goals are now required in all National Hockey League arenas in the aftermath of a 2002 incident in which a young female fan in Columbus, Ohio, was fatally struck by a ricocheting puck. "When you talk about a chance of someone losing his life, you have to make tough decisions," said Solomon. "We all felt like we had to take some swift action, and we did that." "I don't feel comfortable with it, but I understand why they do this," said Phillies third-base coach Steve Smith. "If it saves one life in the next 10 years, it's worth it." Boston first-base coach Luis Alicea, pointing out he hasn't been struck in four seasons on the job, said the Coolbaugh tragedy "was an unfortunate accident, and there's always room for improvement in prevention." Even critic Gallego relented. "I know my wife and kids are happier that I have it on," he said. "There's no doubt, it's very dangerous out there." Resistance based on aesthetics are most easily dismissed by the game's wardens. Atlanta first-base coach Glenn Hubbard moaned that wearing the helmet makes him feel like a batboy. Gallego conceded being caught up in the "macho thing" of not wearing protection. "Safety now is more important than some people talking about [wearing helmets] not being as stylish or not looking as cool," Solomon said. The expectation is that, soon, the novelty will wear off. The sense of security will remain. "The more [exhibition games] we play, it's going to end up feeling like a hat," said Houston third-base coach Ed Romero. "It gets a little warm at times, you've got to take it off after the inning to get some air, but I don't see any problem. It's not a big deal for me." And summed up Arizona third-base coach Chip Hale, "I'm sure once we get used to it, it will just be commonplace."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.