Who do you think has more body armor these days, major league batters or U.S. troops in Iraq?
I thought the league cracked down on excessive armor a couple of years ago, but Albert Pujols goes up to the plate now with his left leg protected by a shin guard so large it's unclear whether he's planning to bat, replace the catcher or check for land mines. Craig Biggio is so well known for his elbow gear that it's included in his video game image.
The point of body armor is to protect a player from aggravating an existing injury, not give him an advantage over the pitcher. But the latter is exactly what has happened. Batters wear so many elbow, forearm and shin pads these days that they look like Michelin Men. Like it or not, intimidation is part of the game. A crucial part of pitching is being able to back a batter off the plate, but excessive body armor takes part of that ability away. Batters can crowd the plate with little fear of injury, allowing them to reach out and swat down previously unreachable pitches on the outside corner. Worse, they can simply stand there and take a free pass when the pitches bounce off their armor like bullets ricocheting off Superman's chest.
This issue is a little tricky because I don't want to come off as one of those old codgers who probably complained about batting helmets, too.
"They're taking intimidation away from pitchers, I tell you. Making it too dang easy to hit. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Frank Howard are nothing but a bunch of yellow-bellied cowards. If this keeps up, batters are going to be hitting 50, 60, 70 home runs a year, just you wait and see. Pretty soon, no one will even care if someone passes Babe Ruth's 714 mark. And don't get me started on these newfangled batting gloves, either."
"Yeah. And what about those pansies who wear protective cups?"
I'm all for protecting players from injury, but what is commonsense safety gear and what is just plain excessive?
Pitchers are prevented from wearing excessive jewelry and light-colored long-sleeved shirts. But batters can wear pretty much anything up to Kevlar vests? It doesn't seem fair. If a pitcher has an injury, he can't get back on the mound until he has healed sufficiently. Pitchers aren't able to go out there with their arms in casts. So why do batters get the benefit of protecting themselves from reinjury before they're completely healed?
Of course, the problem isn't really injured players getting protection. It's players who still wear the armor even though their original injury occurred so long ago they've actually stopped receiving notices saying they still owe the doctor for medical procedures the insurance company didn't cover.
A friend suggested that a simple solution would be to require that batters must wear any armor they bring to the plate when they're on the base paths, as well. That sounds good at first -- batters would think twice about a shin guard if they knew it would end up restricting their speed -- but it's also problematic. If wearing this stuff at the plate is a problem, we definitely don't want guys sliding into fielders and breaking up double plays while wearing it. And could Barry Bonds move any slower than he already does?
No, the real solution is to strictly enforce the existing rules. No body armor unless there is a legitimate health concern. No hard armor, only soft padding. If a batter fails to try to avoid a pitch, don't give him first base -- as specified under rule 6.08 (b).
One more thing. Opponents need to shame batters into dumping the armor. Call them out as wimps and girlie-boys. Make it clear to them that real men don't need armor.
BOX SCORE LINE OF THE WEEK
It isn't easy being a third-string catcher. For one thing, you almost never get behind the plate (how many times does a team run out of catchers, anyway?). For another, baserunners tend to take advantage of the fact that you're not exactly Johnny Bench.
Case in point: Washington's Matthew LeCroy this past Thursday. The Astros took such advantage against LeCroy -- stealing seven bases -- that Nationals manager Frank Robinson yanked him in the middle of an inning and put in backup backup backup catcher Robert Fick.
SB- P Wilson 2 (5, 2nd base off T Armas Jr/M LeCroy, 3rd base off T Armas Jr/M LeCroy); E Bruntlett 2 (2, 2nd base off T Armas Jr/M LeCroy, 3rd base off T Armas Jr/M LeCroy); W Taveras (6, 2nd base off S Rivera/M LeCroy); C Burke (3, 2nd base off S Rivera/M LeCroy); M Ensberg (1, 2nd base off J Rauch/M LeCroy)
Robinson felt so bad about the move that he cried like Adam Morrison when explaining the decision after the game. LeCroy took it much better. "I'm man enough to take it. I don't think he should get that emotional about it," he told reporters. "Hey, he's doing his job, just like I would do if I was in his position. If my daddy was managing this team, I'm sure he would have done the same thing."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com and the author of "The Devil Wears Pinstripes." You can order the book, reach Jim or read the new chapters of "24 College Avenue" at his recently redesigned Web site, jimcaple.com.