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The changing face of softball More players seeing game through cage-style helmets

Thirteen-year-old Bailee Gallivan has been playing softball pretty much her whole life, but she's been stepping up to the plate the last three or four years with a "cage" batting helmet protecting her head and face.

"It actually is pretty comfortable, and I can see fine," Bailee said.

The batting helmet with face guard is becoming a common sight on diamonds in Western New York and elsewhere, as youth leagues look to lessen the risk of serious injury.

"If you have to protect one part on their body -- it's their head and their face," said Graidi Keleher, trauma nurse coordinator at Women and Children's Hospital.

So far, the face guard is showing up only in girls' fast-pitch softball leagues, not in boys' baseball leagues. Although some say the risk is the same, others say that other factors -- notably the different distances between the pitcher's mound and home plate -- make softball batters more susceptible to the kind of injuries the face guard is meant to protect.

But Town of Tonawanda officials learned the hard way that injuries can happen to anyone.

The town paid $450,000 last year to settle a lawsuit brought by a man who was injured while using the batting cages at Brighton Park. According to documents, he suffered serious facial injuries when a ball ricocheted off another ball and hit him.

After settling the suit -- and at the batting cage manufacturer's urging -- the town posted a sign at the facility requiring all batters to use helmets with face guards.

Adding a face guard to a batting helmet is another in a long evolution of protective head gear for batters.

Through the mid-1950s, major league players typically came to the plate wearing just their team caps on their heads. In 1971, Major League Baseball mandated that all players wear helmets, although many didn't have ear flaps. Today, all big leaguers wear a helmet that covers at least the ear facing the pitcher.

Little League International mandates that both ears be protected when batters step up to the plate. Going a step further and requiring face guards is left to local leagues and individual players.

South Cheektowaga Baseball Association, an independent league, follows the Amateur Softball Association rule book for its girls' leagues, said David Nestico, a commissioner and girls' softball coach.

"Not only do they have to have the face guard, but they are also required to wear a chin strap," Nestico said.

Why?

"Safety, more than anything else," Nestico said.

His 12-year-old daughter, Allison, wears one and said she would recommend it to others.

"They're protective; they're safe, and they're comfortable," Allison said.

They also get the stamp of approval from other kids who wear them and from parents.

"As soon as I saw them I liked them," said Bailee's father, Sean Gallivan. "It makes sense for the kids to wear that type of protection."

Mel Ott Little League in Amherst offers helmets with face guards as an option for girls playing softball in the house leagues. Face guards are required for players on the travel team.

"We don't say, 'You can't play if you don't have it,' " said Alan Rozansky, softball vice president.

"As we buy new helmets, we are getting the face masks and the straps.

"I think it's a good thing. Definitely a good idea. I am encouraging them to use those helmets with the mask," he said.

Because of the absence of head injuries to the boys so far, Mel Ott league President Joseph Fenush said there's been no discussion about requiring them to use face guards. But he said: "When something happens, then that will change."

Nestico said he doesn't understand why they're not a requirement for boys.

"There's just as much risk of injury on the boys' side as the girls'," he said.

The differences between softball and baseball are why those helmets aren't required in boys' baseball programs, said Eliot Hopkins, the baseball rules editor for the National Federation of State High School Associations.

"The two games are totally different games," Hopkins said. "In softball, girls are closer to the mound than baseball. The techniques are vastly different."

In federation play, the distance between the pitching rubber to the back of home plate is 60 feet 6 inches.

Batters may wear face guards if they choose, Hopkins said, and a rule enacted in 2005 allows pitchers or defensive players to do the same.

But when it comes to girls' high school softball teams, the federation requires players to wear face guards.

The rule was implemented in the 2006-2007 season, according to Mary Struckhoff, editor of the federation's softball rules book and its assistant director.

"There were some injuries, certainly," Struckhoff said. "But NOSCEA [National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment] came up with a standard regarding face and head protection on batting helmets."

In testing those helmets, the standards committee uses an air cannon to fire a ball at 60 mph at a helmeted dummy.

"The upside was more beneficial than the downside -- which was cost," Struckhoff said. The proximity of pitcher to batter -- 40 feet in softball -- was a consideration, Struckhoff said, as well as the upward movement of pitched balls.

But some youth leagues, such as the Arcadia Little League in Phoenix, are requiring helmets with face guards for all players -- boy or girl -- who face live pitching.

"It worked very well. It really went off without a hitch," said Ron Ellett, Arcadia's safety officer. "I think we saved three or four injuries this year where kids would have been hit in the face."

Each year, between five and 10 children -- mostly boys -- are admitted to Women and Children's Hospital for treatment of ball-related injuries -- mostly head injuries caused when hit by a ball.

Injured youngsters who end up spending some time in the hospital typically have suffered breaks to their orbital and nasal bones, Keleher said.

Some injuries are the result of getting hit with a bat during batting practice or getting hit when trying to make a play in the outfield, she said.

Head injuries can range from a concussion to a skull fracture and even a depressed skull fracture, in which the bone enters the head space and can affect the brain.

The only baseball-related death that Keleher said she could recall involved a blow to the chest. A youngster died several years ago after a ball hit him and caused his heart to stop beating.

Ellett said that in 15 years, it could become a case of people reminiscing: "Remember when they used to play without face masks?"

e-mail: jhabuda@buffnews.com

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