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Body armor brings new meaning to 'taking one for the team'

Posted: Thursday May 20, 2004 12:33PM; Updated: Thursday May 20, 2004 6:14PM
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Craig Biggio, bless his scrappy little heart, has led the National League in hit by pitches six times. He leads active players in being plunked and is fifth on the all-time list with 248. There's nobody in baseball better at being bruised than the Astros' leadoff man.

Which is why, just maybe, Biggio wears a contraption on his left arm when he's batting -- a huge piece of protective gear that looks medieval, in a futuristic sort of way -- that could stop a screaming slider in its tracks. It's for protection, of course.

But there are those who will tell you it's the other way around, Biggio wears the thing just so he can put his well-defended elbow in front of that slider and take a free pass to first.

So rages the argument about so-called body armor in baseball.

Help for the hurt? Or major-league hustle?

"This is what I know," said Braves closer John Smoltz. "Guys who don't wear that stuff aren't leading the league in getting hit. The guys who wear that stuff are leading the league in getting hit.

"When you can get on base, and it doesn't hurt that bad, why not?"

The answer is not quite as easy as Smoltz makes it out to be. David Eckstein, the Angels' shortstop and leadoff man, has topped the American League twice in being popped by pitches. He wears nothing at the plate. As far as protection, that is. Above the waist.

"I don't want pitchers thinking that's what I'm going up there [trying to get hit]," Eckstein said. "If I did, I think I'd get hit a lot more, in a lot worse places."

There are many hitters, though -- and we're not naming names -- who aren't like Eckstein. They slap on the protective elbow guards, climb on top of the plate and, if the pitch is tight, lean in and take one on the gear and then walk to first.

Yes, it's done. The people in baseball know who does it. Not to name names.

OK, here's one name: Mo Vaughn. The injured first baseman who used to play for Boston, Anaheim and the Mets was known to lean into the strike zone with his "protective" arm wear once in a while. He placed in the top 10 in hit by pitches seven times.

"Not to name names," said Arizona manager Bob Brenly, "but we've all seen hitters who are very adept at turning their bodies away from the plate while sticking a body part out over the plate whether it be a knee or an elbow. There are some guys who are very, very good at that.

"I think it provides an unfair advantage to the hitters."

Protective arm wear got so out of control a couple of years back -- when a record number of hitters were hit by pitches in 2001, a huge jump from the previous year -- that Major League Baseball amended its rules on "protection." The following year, the HBPs dropped drastically. Last year, the number started to climb again and reached near the 2001 level.

The rule standardized the regulations governing protective elbow pads, limiting them to 10 inches in length. It also required letters and physicians' reports citing the reasons for wearing a pad. They aren't particularly stringent rules, and they're not rigidly enforced. Gary Sheffield had his elbow pad checked last year when he played for the Braves, and it was found to be about four inches too long. The Braves were fined for the violation.

But, generally speaking, a hitter can wear a pretty hefty Velcro, plastic and nylon shield and get away with it. All year. For years.

As long as he has a note from his doctor, of course.

"Well, how hard is that to get?" asks Brenly. "There are a lot of guys wearing body armor who haven't been injured in years."

Said Smoltz: "I've never seen a bruise that lasts all year."

If you talk to Players Against Body Armor -- it's practically a union -- the hitters who lean into a pitch as a cheapie way to get on base aren't even the worst part of the problem. It's the other guys who suit up, stand on top of the plate and wait to crush a pitch who present the biggest challenge to fair play.

Pitchers who come inside on them risk hitting the batter (and not even getting the satisfaction of doling out a little pain in the process). Pitchers who try to stay away from hitters like that fall right into their hands. By standing so close to the plate, hitters can reach just about any pitch.

Not to name names, but we all know who we're talking about now.

"If I could stand up there with my whole side protected," Smoltz said, "why would I give up anything?"

Barry Bonds, of course, is the biggest practitioner of the suit-up-and-stand-close method of hitting. Pitchers have complained for years that his front elbow -- the right one, with the heavy padding -- is actually over the plate, so a strike on the inside corner is in danger of hitting him. Two years ago, in fact, Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens -- who has built his Hall of Fame career by pitching inside -- threatened to test out Bonds' elbow guard in an interleague game. (Clemens called it a "chest protector.") The pitcher made good on his promise, too, plunking Bonds on the forearm.

We all see how much that slowed down Bonds.

In a lot of ways, protection like the kind Bonds and Biggio wear has given them something more important than a cheap way on base or a way to cover more of the plate. It has given them nerve they'd never have with an elbow exposed to an incoming fastball.

"There's no fear factor involved any more, and that's always been a part of baseball," Brenly said. "I'm talking the Bob Gibsons and Bob Fellers of the world. Fear always has been a part of this game. When you take that out of the equation and allow hitters to hang out over the plate, and pull pitches that are off the outside corner, then I think we've lost something in this game."

Or, as former Cubs and Diamondbacks first baseman Mark Grace eloquently put it: "If you get hit in the elbow, it's supposed to fricking hurt. Now it doesn't hurt."

MLB Hit by Pitches
Year HBP % change
2000 1,573 --
2001 1,890 +20
2002 1,746 -7.5
2003 1,849 +5.8
Most readers aren't very sympathetic to ballplayers' use of body armor.
  • Body armor probably can't yet be classified as a scourge in baseball. It's not as if pitchers are faced with lineups full of fearless Robocop-looking elbows. But there are those who use the protection and use it to its fullest, and that probably gives them an advantage.

    Like many, Brenly calls for the banning of protective body gear, at least the kind designed to protect the elbow and arm. Others figure the relationship between batters and pitchers would be evened out if umpires enforced the rule that states a hitter doesn't necessarily get awarded first base if he doesn't try to get out of the way of the pitch. Some suggest moving the inside line of the batter's box back to make sure hitters stay in the box.

    The problem with those suggestions is they could drastically alter run scoring. And that's something many in baseball are simply not willing to do.

    So the problem of heavily armored hitters remains and might be getting worse.

    "I see little kids wearing flak jackets," Brenly said. "If we're teaching little leaguers it's OK to wear body armor, those kids are going to go into high school, and into college, and eventually they're going to be big league players, and I can just see them walking up there now in a damn suit of armor. Straddling the plate. With a bat over their heads. I don't know where it stops."

    Right now, of course, for guys like Bonds, Biggio, Sheffield and many others, it doesn't stop.

    Or, if it does, it stops right around the elbow somewhere.

    John Donovan is a senior writer for SI.com.