Inside the Phillies: Despite Utley injury, players not inclined to wear safer helmet

After Chase Utley was hit on the helmet, umpire Jerry Meals talks to the Phillie as Braves catcher Brian McCann looks on.
After Chase Utley was hit on the helmet, umpire Jerry Meals talks to the Phillie as Braves catcher Brian McCann looks on. (LEN REDKOLES / Getty Images)
Posted: September 09, 2011

MILWAUKEE - As the Phillies opened a four-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers without Chase Utley on Thursday night, it was more than fair to wonder whether their second baseman would have been in the lineup if he had worn a helmet that offered more protection.

Such a helmet is available to Utley and every other major-league player. In fact, it became required equipment for minor-league players last season.

The helmet, manufactured by Rawlings, is called the S100. It got its name because it is designed to protect players from the impact of a 100-m.p.h. fastball. The pitch that gave Utley a mild concussion and kept him in Philadelphia was a 91-m.p.h. fastball thrown by Atlanta lefthander Eric O'Flaherty.

Concussions, of course, always trigger discussions.

There is an undeniable risk in playing a sport in which a rock-hard object can hit you in the head, so you would think the idea of better protection for the brain would be a no-brainer.

Not so.

Several Phillies questioned before Thursday's game were undaunted by the notion that the standard helmets worn by the overwhelming majority of major-league players offer far less protection than the S100. According to a 2009 New York Times article, the helmets used by most big-league players are compromised at pitch speeds of 70 m.p.h. when hit flush by a baseball.

"I really don't put too much thought into my helmet," outfielder John Mayberry Jr. said. "I just pick whatever is around and I use it."

Mayberry was asked whether he'd be more willing to wear the S100 if he knew it offered more protection.

"I'd seriously consider it," he said. "But I can't tell you 100 percent either way."

The information about helmet safety is available in the Phillies clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park.

"We have a poster that is posted in the clubhouse," said Frank Coppenbarger, the Phillies' director of team travel and clubhouse services. "We talk to them about it in spring training. It's just a matter of personal preference."

Tucked in an out-of-the-way corner of the visitors clubhouse at Miller Park on Thursday was a Phillies equipment bag filled with nothing but S100 helmets, which have far more padding and two ear flaps. Every Phillies player except Shane Victorino uses a helmet with a single ear flap that protects the side of their head exposed to the pitcher's mound.

Coppenbarger said Victorino is the one player who experimented with the S100 model for a few games, but he didn't like it.

"I think it would be better for everybody, but I'm not wearing one," Coppenbarger said. "The problem is, in the players' mind, it's not such an attractive look. They like the style and the fit of the other one a little better, at least at this point."

That's an understatement. You'd think looking like the Great Gazoo would be a minor trade-off for the peace of mind offered by more safety.

Think again.

Catcher Brian Schneider and infielder Pete Orr practically campaigned against the more protective equipment, and outfielder Hunter Pence had little interest in even discussing the matter.

"I don't think it's any better, personally." Orr said. "I got hit in the head multiple times with the old helmet and I never had any problem, and last year I saw a couple of guys get hit in the head with the new helmet and they had concussions. I know they've probably done studies and [the helmets] probably are better, but I've been hit in the head and been all right."

Like Orr, Schneider is skeptical that the S100 offers more protection.

"I don't care what you're wearing, when you get hit by a 95-m.p.h. fastball, you can get a concussion," he said. "More times than not, it's where it hits you, rather than what helmet you're wearing."

Schneider and Orr were asked whether they would wear the S100 helmets if Major League Baseball required them by rule.

"That's not going to happen," Schneider said. "It has to be approved by the union, and it's not going to happen. Not until they do something different. They're big, they're thick, they're bulky, and they're heavy, too."

Orr also believes that a design change is needed before there will be any significant movement in favor of the more protective helmet.

"They have to make something that isn't compressed against your head," Orr said. "Those triple-A helmets are definitely uncomfortable. There is no breathability, and when you're sweating it goes into your eyes all the time."

Pence said if he's less safe, so be it.

"It's a dangerous game," he said. "You've got to deal with it."

Baseball players are not alone in their thinking. Try to find thigh pads and knee pads on NFL running backs and wide receivers. Extra protection slows them, so it's not worth wearing.

It's the mind-set of men who are paid to have no fear, but it wouldn't be a bad idea if somebody stood up and protected these guys against themselves.


Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com or @brookob on Twitter.

 

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