Barry Bonds’ right elbow, shrouded in a giant foam elbow protector, is one of baseball’s great mysteries. A nagging injury? Nope. As one columnist pointed out, Barry began wearing the gear on his right elbow immediately following surgery on his left. In fact, the protector serves a more devious purpose. When Bonds digs in, he snuggles up next to home plate, making it maddeningly difficult for a pitcher to throw inside. With any other hitter, such temerity would invite an inside fastball thrown to break his elbow. But inside pitches bounce harmlessly off Bonds’ elbow protector, giving him a free pass to first base.
Bonds isn’t the only armored slugger. Over the last decade, Mo Vaughn, Gary Sheffield, Craig Biggio, and others have appeared at the plate as if dressed for hockey: forearm plates, shinguards, toe guards, even padded batting gloves. It’s not just an aesthetic problem. The parade of overclothed batsmen has changed baseball from a sport where an inside pitch would spook a hitter off his feet to one in which batters are sessile, fearless, and almost unstoppable.
Back in the day—that is, the system that persisted for the first 120 years of baseball—pitchers terrorized hitters who crept toward the plate. Even killed them. In the fifth inning of a tied 1920 game, New York Yankee spitballer Carl Mays faced Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, who was crowding the plate. Mays fired a submarine style pitch that caught Chapman in the skull. He collapsed and died the next morning.
Although no pitcher threw murder again, big-league beanings persisted. Mickey Cochrane’s brilliant career ended when a fastball cracked his noggin in 1937. Dusters felled Brooklyn teammates Pee Wee Reese and Ducky Medwick within three weeks of one another in 1940. Players who wore prototype batting helmets in the 1910s faced the ridicule of teammates and fans, but by the mid-1950s ballplayers finally donned plastic helmets for protection. Designed by a pair of engineers from Cleveland, the helmet quickly became an essential and justifiable part of the game. It minimized the threat of deathly injury but didn’t prevent the pitcher from menacing the hitter. Quite the contrary: Hard throwers like Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, and Bob Gibson—guys you didn’t dare crowd the plate against, helmet or not—dominated the sport for the next decade.
The balance of intimidation held for almost three decades until the advent of modern armor—elbow protectors, et al.—which arrived in the late 1980s and early 1990s, much of it produced by Houston sporting goods entrepreneur Doug Douglas. Players who had injured an elbow, shin, hand, or other extremity were first to wear the early pads and plates, and all assumed that they would toss them after their injuries healed. But many hitters found that protectors afforded them increased access to the plate and wouldn’t surrender that advantage after they mended. Soon, even uninjured players started strapping on armor in the name of prevention rather than protection.
So, to compensate for the armor, pitchers hit batters more frequently, right? Actually, no. Around the same time, umpires started cracking down on hurlers who threw inside. Whereas Drysdale could plunk a handful of batters in a single 1960s game without fear of ejection, today’s pitchers get the hook for throwing inside once. (Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, because of their reputations, are notable exceptions.)
The confluence of these two trends has slowly drained the game of its most important element: terror. The fundamental battle in baseball is the one between the pitcher and the hitter, and the pitcher’s best weapon is a tightly wound white spheroid that he throws at autobahn-plus speeds. If the batter doesn’t fear the pitched ball—and the injuries that can result from it—then baseball will not only become too easy, it will become exceedingly dull to watch. Think about the most exhilarating snapshots of the last decade: Randy Johnson pitching to John Kruk at the 1993 All-Star Game. Terrified after nearly getting creamed by one of Johnson’s inside fastballs, Kruk spent the rest of the at-bat on the far edge of the batter’s box, meekly waving at the next two offerings.
Just as pitchers claim their right to throw inside, batters will assert their right to protect themselves. Speaking in defense of armor, Florida Marlins outfielder Kevin Millar said, “No one has the right to tell Mo Vaughan or Sheffield or Biggio he can’t protect himself at the plate. Those guys don’t want to be out six weeks with a broken forearm.” Of course they don’t. But the fear of a broken forearm isn’t what’s wrong with baseball. It’s what baseball’s all about.
Now, back to the practical: Can Major League Baseball force hitters to remove the armor? I don’t see why not. For more than a century, baseball’s overseers bent over backward to aid the hitter, increasing the distance between the pitcher’s rubber and home plate in 1893, banning the spitball after Chapman’s death in 1920, lowering the height of the mound in 1969, and instituting the designated hitter rule in the American League in 1973. (And that’s not counting the sport’s unofficial decision to begin manufacturing the tighter, juiced ball around the time of the 1994 players strike.) The standard was consistent: When the game became exceedingly difficult for hitters, baseball stepped in and changed the rules. It has now become so for pitchers.
Until that time, today’s hurlers should begin to think more like their forebears. In an article he wrote for the Aug. 26, 1939, issue of Liberty magazine, Hall of Fame pitcher Waite Hoyt reasoned that if you can’t aim at the batter’s head, why not shoot for the feet? Rich Billings, a catcher who played with Bob Gibson in St. Louis, says that if Gibson had encountered an elbow protector or shinguard on a hitter, “He would have started aiming at other parts of the body and said, ‘Go get a pad for that.’ “
For purists and casual fans alike, unilateral disarmorment will return the true elegance of the batter-pitcher duel to the game. As Don Drysdale once told Sport, pitching inside “is like driving a car. Sometimes you get around a guy and see you have only an inch or two to make it. Sometimes you scratch a fender.”