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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sports are dangerous. That is just how it is.

Last night during the playoff game between the Maple Leafs and Bruins, Toronto defenceman Mark Fraser took a shot in the face. He seems to be okay, but he was defenseless to do anything. A few months ago, Sydney Crosby also took a shot in the face, lost many teeth and could have been very seriously injured. He is now back playing. Crosby did have a helmet on, as all players now are required to do, and a visor, which all aren't but he did in this case. However, the shot hit him under the visor, in the chin and teeth.
Would a facecage have prevented serious injury in these cases? Yes, certainly. But you cant protect against every type of injury or possibility. That is the nature of sports. 
There are instances that certain injuries do lead to improvements.

On December 27, 1980 while playing for the Hartford Whalers Mark Howe was involved in one of the craziest and nastiest injuries in NHL history. 
Howe was bumped off his skates and crashed into the net. Back then the nets were fastened to the ice via metal spikes. The spike impaled Howe, who relayed the story of the incident to the Flyers website, "I thought I had punctured my intestines. The trainer came out and I'm yelling, 'Cut off my pants!' I lost three and a half pints of blood that night."
The spike barely missed Howe's spinal column. He would make a full recovery.

Old style net with the spike sticking out in the middle of the net.
Mark Howe was a superstar and an all star many times over. But in 1980, and only 25 years old, when he crashed into the net and impaled himself on the metal spike sticking out of the middle of the net, his career and almost his life could have been over. That didn't happen. He was lucky. Was that part of the game? At that point it was, but it shouldn't have been. Because of that incident, the net was redesigned and many players since have probably been saved from that same type of injury. As well, they also changed the moorings that hold the net in place so that if a player crashed into a goalpost the net will give way and many players have also been saved serious injuries and broken bones because of that. Driving to the net hard is part of hockey, but there was no need to get injured by something that could easily be fixed....and was.

I don't race cars for a living. But if I did, I would understand that it is a life and death sport. Just as fighting fires or being a policeman is. Anything can happen to anyone anytime in life, but when you have dangerous jobs like a Race Car Driver, Fireman or Policeman then you understand that anytime you go to work, you might never get to go home alive. You accept that when you decide to make it your living and in many cases your passion.
You likely don't think about the risks, or you wouldn't be able to do the job. You are happy doing something you love, and the greater regret would be not getting to do that because you were afraid of the risks. 

I fell training a horse called Eddie Lebec one morning at the farm. I got back up. I fell again that night when I was training him again. It hurt like a son of a bitch. But as soon as I was capable, I was right back in there. Sure, I suppose I was a bit more careful for a while. That is natural. But you understand the risks and you do it anyway. 
I never drove horses in races. That is because I know that you are going to get seriously injured if you do that. A few have died over the years. That is just the reality of driving enough. And I never wanted to take that risk, because I didn't have the desire to do it badly enough. But most race drivers do, so they accept that risk. 
When you play sports, especially contact sports, you understand the risks and you play anyway. You make that trade off of doing something you love vs. risking your life and hoping that your number doesn't come up. Someones will, you just hope it is not yours.

 Two nights ago, J.A. Happ's number came up. Hopefully it is only a setback, and not a career ender. But if it does end his career, then so be it. I am sure he would say that it came with the territory and there was little you could do about it. Accidents happen. Sure, protect and improve safety where you can, but understand that these things will always happen.
I doubt he was even thinking that it could happen when it did. You can't. You are aware of the risk, but once you decide to step on that field, or on the race track, or ice, or football field, then you accept that and don't think about it. The bigger regret would be not getting to do what you love. That is the bigger fear. It is something that those who have almost had that taken away fear most. Not the injury, but the loss of getting to do something you pretty much live for. So, you accept the risks to life and limb that go along with playing sports.
It is part of the risk you take for the reward of getting to do what you love to do. 

 We won the pennant when Detroit, playing a couple of hours later than us, lost its last game. Suddenly there was champagne and screaming in our packed clubhouse. We had been a 100-to-1 shot this year and we'd taken the pennant. The Impossible Dream. The guys were pounding each other on the back; the noise was so deafening I couldn't hear myself screaming. It was wild. But all of a sudden a terrible feeling of depression came over me. What was I feeling so good about? I might never play again. I was sitting in front of my locker and I broke into tears.

-Tony Conigliaro

If the moment comes where you start thinking about it, then basically your career is over and in some cases, like race car and horse driving you are more dangerous because of it.

Such was the case with Ellis Valentine, who was a budding superstar with the Montreal Expos in the late 1970's when he took a pitch in the face and broke his cheekbone. While he went on to have an okay career afterwards and the pitch in the face wasn't the only reason, he was never the same again.

On May 30, 1980 Valentine was hit in the face with a pitch by Roy Thomas of the St. Louis Cardinals. His cheekbone cracked in six places, and he was forced to miss over a month of action. At the time of the incident, Valentine was leading his team with 27 RBIs, and was batting just under .300.

Certainly this wasn't the first time a star player had been hit in the head or face. In 1967, Tony Conigliaro also took a pitch on his cheekbone and while he went on to a pretty good couple of seasons afterwards, he was never the same either. His eyesight was compromised and surely his confidence. Once you begin thinking about that sort of thing you cannot play the game the way you once did. 

 As I stepped into the batter's box I suddenly realized that this was the spot where I'd been hit. It gave me a cold feeling. I wondered if I really could make it back all the way, and I remember telling myself that if I ever did I wasn't going to be gun-shy. I'll dig in and crowd the plate like I always did, I said. I wasn't going to let a little beaning bother me.

-Tony Conigliaro 

Even if you tell yourself not to think about it, it will always be in the back of your mind.

Even last year when I was having a great season, I was scared. I could get hit again by a pitch and maybe get killed. I was risking my life in the outfield. Really. I'd lose the ball and it would reappear, bang, in my glove.

-Tony Conigliaro 

On August 18, 1967, the Red Sox were playing the California Angels at Fenway Park. Conigliaro, batting against Jack Hamilton, was hit by a pitch on his left cheekbone, and was carried off the field on a stretcher. He sustained a linear fracture of the left cheekbone and a dislocated jaw with severe damage to his left retina.The batting helmet he was wearing did not have the protective ear-flap that has since become standard. 

Funny, you never go up there thinking you're going to be hit, and then in a fraction of a second you know it's going to happen. When the ball was about four feet from my head I knew it would get me. And I knew it would hurt because Hamilton was such a hard thrower. I was frightened. I threw my hands up in front of my face and saw the ball follow me back and hit me square in the left side of the head. As soon as it crunched into me, it felt as if the ball would go in one side of my head and come out the other; my legs gave way and I went down like a sack of potatoes. Just before everything went dark I saw the ball bounce straight down on home plate. It was the last thing I saw for several days...His first pitch came in tight. I jumped back and my helmet flew off. There was this tremendous ringing noise. I couldn't stand it. Just a loud shriek all over me. I was trying to find some place in my mouth where I could get air through, but I couldn't breathe. I kept saying to myself, "Oh, God, let me breathe." I didn't think about my future in baseball. I just wanted to stay alive.

-Tony Conigliaro  

At least in the Conigliaro incident some good came out of it with the protective ear-flap that is now standard, and like the Mark Howe incident has probably saved many more a serious injury because of it. There was even a time when most players did not even wear a helmet when they batted. That changed mostly because a player took a pitch to the head and died because of it. 

On August 17, 1920,  Raymond Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch and died 12 hours later. His death led Major League Baseball to establish a rule requiring umpires to replace the ball whenever it became dirty. His death was also one of the examples used to emphasize the need for wearing batting helmets. It did take 30 years until they made the rule, but because of that we can be sure that many men are alive today because of that incident and others before it. There was even a time when hockey goalies didn't wear a mask or helmet! Take a look at Jacques Plante, the first goalie to wear a mask, before he did that.

Sure, if you can make it safer without taking away the spirit of the game, all the better. There were times when goalies in hockey didn't wear helmets or masks and batters helmets. That is insane. And since that has changed it is likely that many goalies and batters lives were saved and we didn't even realize it. And it doesn't seem to have affected the ability to play goalie and stop shots or hit baseballs. 
The same can't be said for cages for players. They tried that, but most players say it compromises their ability to handle the puck and make plays. So, that is the tradeoff. Of course it would likely make the game safer. Less eye injuries, broken noses, jaws, lost teeth and head injuries.  But then it wouldn't be hockey. 
There is some talk that baseball pitchers should wear some sort of head protection. Should they?
Should pitchers in baseball wear helmets? Should they at least wear caps that have a special lining to give them more protection? Maybe. But the reality is that very few pitchers have ever been hit in the head by a line drive. And very few have been seriously injured long term because of it. Most pitchers get hit in the leg. But you don't see them wearing shin pads. Because that would likely alter their ability to pitch.

I used to pitch when I was younger. I also took one in the face once. Every pitcher faces that possibility. Happ seems okay although you never know when you take one like that. Lets hope it isn't too bad. At least he was conscious and moving all his extremities and has since been released from the hospital in good condition.
It is the worst part of the game, but it is part of the game. When you play the game, you accept that and although you do what you can to protect yourself,  when you play sports, the reality is that you can't protect yourself most of the time. And you certainly don't think about it. You are thinking about competing and playing. That is what it is all about.

Sports are dangerous. That is just how it is. And those that play it likely don't want it any other way. They have already made their decision to take that risk long before they step onto the field or ice and into harms way. It is their decision to make, not ours. We make ours, they make theirs. 
That is how it should be. 

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