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The Hard Heads vs. the Hard Hats : Players Face Tough Choice on Use of Batting Helmets in Absence of Rules

Times Staff Writer

Major league hitters would never dream of standing at the plate against Nolan Ryan or Rich Gossage without wearing a batting helmet. They’d just as soon give up a week’s pay or chew on the pine tar rag.

Helmets are mandatory at all levels of organized baseball. In the major leagues, power pitchers throw the ball nearly 100 m.p.h. from the frighteningly short distance of 60 feet, 6 inches. Beanings have resulted in serious injury and death.

In college softball, however, most coaches and administrators allow batters to step to the plate to face 75 m.p.h. pitches from a distance of only 40 feet with nothing on their heads except hair.

Why?

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“I guess they figure that pitchers are supposed to be good at this level, and that we’re not going to hit anyone,” said Cal State Northridge pitcher Kathy Slaten.

“If I was hitting against me, I’d wear one.”

The NCAA makes batters wear helmets only in regional and national tournaments. Teams are allowed to set up their own rules for the regular season.

In nearly every case, that means helmets are optional. Yet the term soft ball is a misnomer; the ball is as soft as a rock.

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“I can’t perceive what people are thinking,” said CSUN Coach Gary Torgeson, one of the few college coaches who requires all of his players to wear helmets when batting and running the bases. “We’re dealing with a human life. If a Slaten riser catches you in the temple, you’re dead.”

The NCAA said that it keeps no statistics on softball-related injuries. And several phone calls by The Times to coaches and athletic injury clinics around the country did not reveal any records of fatalities or serious head injuries suffered in women’s softball games.

Still, some interesting points were raised.

“Any time you mess with the possibility of being hit in the head, you’re asking for trouble,” said Fred Mueller, director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research in North Carolina. “I mean, what does having to wear a helmet take away from the game?”

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Coaches and trainers say players most frequently give three reasons for not wearing helmets:

They are uncomfortable.

They don’t look good.

They muss their hair.

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CSUN pitching coach Dennis Ford says he has heard them all.

“They always used to tell me that they didn’t want to wear the helmet because it messed up their hair,” said Ford, who coached Hart High’s softball team for seven years. “I told them, ‘Sure it does, but if you don’t wear one, the ball that hits you in the head is going to make it look a whole lot worse.’ ”

CSUN first baseman Kelly Winn played at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana, where helmets were optional, before transferring to Northridge.

“It’s true--some girls don’t wear helmets because they mess up your hair,” Winn said. “Others don’t like them because they don’t feel right on your head.”

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For the people who study and treat sports injuries, those reasons are not legitimate.

“Most people don’t realize the ramifications of even a slight head injury,” said Jim Herkimer, director of exercise physiology at the National Athletic Health Institute in Inglewood. “I was a trainer at Cal State Sacramento. The reasons given for not wearing helmets are the most true and the least valid. How comfortable is it for guys to wear a protective cup or football helmet?”

College softball is not played by out-of-condition women who throw off the wrong foot. Scholarship opportunities, weight training and coaching have made women’s fast-pitch softball a game of skill, speed and power.

“The girls today are stronger than they’ve been in the past,” Torgeson said. “That ball is moving around the infield. There’s even more danger on the basepaths than at the plate.

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“The irony of the situation is that as the players get older, they get better and need more protection. It’s all relative to the level you’re playing at.”

In high school softball, players must wear helmets when batting. Players at National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics schools and junior colleges are not required to wear them.

Cal Lutheran Coach Carey Snyder requires only left-handed hitting Wendy Olson to wear a batting helmet.

“The fact that she bats left-handed rattles some pitchers,” Snyder said. “But historically, the pitching at our level hasn’t been that fast. As it gets better, I think we’ll see some changes.

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“We’ve never had a real bad experience in the past, but I’m considering making it mandatory.”

Players at local junior colleges seem to be following the party line except at Pierce, where helmets are mandatory.

“I don’t see any reason why we should let them take a chance,” Pierce Coach Pat Skinner said.

Only one of 12 players at Moorpark College wears a helmet. At Canyons, none opt for the protection.

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“I’ve tried before to get the helmets issue through the California Community College Athletic Assn.,” Moorpark Coach Will Thurston said. “I know it’s been put under the board’s eyes several times, and they still haven’t taken any action. But I think it’s coming soon.”

Canyons Coach Lee Smelser thinks wearing helmets should be optional.

“We don’t even take our helmets on the road,” Smelser said. “The girls don’t like them.”

In an era when almost any kind of injury is reason enough to file a negligence suit, many people connected with the sport wonder why athletic administrators are not taking a harder line.

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“You can’t even give out good advice today without the threat of a lawsuit,” said Bill Chambers, past president of the North Carolina-based National Athletic Trainer’s Assn. “I don’t know why they don’t do something about it.”

Said Torgeson: “At a lot of schools, the administration doesn’t really support the softball program. They tolerate it. They don’t know what’s going on out there.”

Robert Doering and John Zeller, athletic directors at Cal Lutheran and the Master’s College, said they monitor their schools’ softball programs.

“As far as I know, there is no past history of someone getting seriously injured in softball because they weren’t wearing a helmet,” Doering said. “Until evidence shows me otherwise, I think it should be voluntary.”

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Said Zeller: “Our coach tells me that our women are wearing helmets. But, there is a need for administrators to check out what’s happening on the field.”

The NCAA is beginning to move in that direction. Ursula Walsh, the NCAA’s director of research and sports sciences, has conducted an injury survey since 1982, compiling data for football, baseball, wrestling, lacrosse, women’s volleyball and women’s gymnastics. Walsh turns her findings over to the committee for competitive safeguards and medical aspects of sports, which works with the Rules Committee to establish guidelines.

“One of the reasons we collect data is to make those recommendations,” Walsh said. “We’re hoping to add women’s softball. I received a letter from a doctor who was concerned about the situation and it will be on the agenda when the Safeguards Committee meets in May.”

Dr. Jim Puffer is chairman of that committee. He anticipates the recommendation, but doesn’t expect it to have much of an impact.

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“I wouldn’t be able to make any recommendations to the rules committee unless there is evidence of injury to support them,” said Puffer, who is chief of the family medicine division at UCLA Medical Center. “My personal opinion, as a physician, is that it’s always better to have some protection rather than no protection at all.

“It’s prudent and reasonable for them to wear the helmets. There is always the opportunity for a freak accident to occur.”

Torgeson said he hopes the NCAA doesn’t wait too long to make helmets mandatory.

“Our society is great at waiting until something tragic happens to become concerned. By then it’s too late,” he said.

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