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Imagine a catcher in a major league baseball game playing without protective gear.

In the majors, players use chest and shin guards and wear a mask with a helmet. It makes sense. The pitches are coming in sometimes in excess of 100 mph. There's a player with a bat standing between the pitcher and catcher, and his swing can change the path of the ball and send it in a direction that surprises both the catcher and the umpire. The umpire is wearing the same protections as the catcher.

In high school softball, it's a different story. While the ball can travel similar speeds coming off the bat, many players eschew masks. As a story in Monday's Pantagraph pointed out, some college coaches say they won't recruit high school players who wear protective masks in the field, thinking the decision shows an individual's lack of faith in her skills.

As we get more safety conscious about sports and potential brain injuries, it's unfortunate if what causes an evaluator to dismiss an athlete out of hand is because they're not macho enough to play without a mask that protects a developing body and brain.

Last month, Mount Zion softball pitcher Ally Bruner had multiple titanium plates and screws placed in her head after she was hit in the face by a ball hit directly back at her. Bruner was not wearing a mask at the time, but plans to now, and hopes she's joined by other players.

Sports unquestionably require physical sacrifice, and players end up seeing athletic trainers and doctors almost as a matter of course. But if there's an opportunity to curtail a debilitating injury, why wouldn't we take advantage of it? Why are adults willing to sacrifice an athlete's well-being over some unspoken competition about being tough, or questioning skill level because of a desire to protect oneself?

Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter all are in baseball's Hall of Fame after catching in excess of 2,000 games. They never caught a game without wearing a mask. Does anyone want to question their skill, proficiency or machismo? Catchers and umpires at every level wear the same protections. But just a short distance away, none of the others players have anything similar to protect them. 

Comparing a major league catcher to a fastpitch softball pitcher — or a third baseman — is not as much of a stretch as it might seem. Decisions made by the Illinois State High School League to move the softball pitcher's mound back three feet (to 43 feet) in 2009 has resulted in an explosion of offense in the sport. Part of that is fueled by a ball that can come off a lively aluminum bat at 90 to 100 mph.

The inability of manufacturers to build a mask that meets standards set by sports equipment governing body NOCSAE means that organization hasn't approved any masks on the market, and that's holding up any thought of making softball fielding masks mandatory.

That doesn't mean the effort should stop, or that masks aren't worthwhile. We're not necessarily in favor of mandatory masks. Good intentions don't always lead to good legislation.

But the derisive attitudes toward those who want safety with their sports have to go.


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