Parents of injured softball players want masks to be mandatory

mfields@herald-leader.comMay 3, 2014 

A few weeks ago East Jessamine softball coach Tom Hamm was sitting on a bucket outside the home team's dugout calling pitches for his daughter Haylee, who was on the mound against Rockcastle County, when he got the scare of his life.

"I heard the crack of the bat but never saw the ball," Hamm said. "The next thing I heard was what sounded like another crack of the bat.

"But it was the ball hitting my daughter in the face."

Haylee somehow stayed on her feet after the line drive slammed into her face, shattered the orbital floor of her left eye, sliced a deep cut into her eyebrow, and fractured her nose.

"When I first got hit, everything kind of went black," she said. "All I could think about was getting on the ground without hitting my head.

"I felt numb all over my face. A couple minutes later, I felt a lot of pain in my eye. I thought I was blind. My nose and teeth hurt, too."

Haylee was taken to the hospital and kept overnight. Doctors stitched up the laceration above her eye and monitored her condition. She did not suffer a concussion or impaired vision.

Five days later she underwent plastic surgery and a titanium plate was inserted to replace the shattered bone below her eye.

Haylee is now well on the road to recovery. She's free of pain and feels great. The scar above her eye is mostly concealed by her eyebrow. She's pitching again in practice, and is scheduled to return to game action on May 13.

That is not to say the Hamms have forgotten last month's frightening incident.

On the contrary, Tom Hamm is asking the Kentucky High School Athletic Association to adopt a rule that would require softball pitchers, as well as first basemen and third basemen, to wear protective masks.

"I know it's not a priority for a lot of coaches, parents or the KHSAA, but I can assure you it would be if they had witnessed what happened to my daughter," he said. "They'd understand how important it is."

Haylee, who has signed with Bluffton University in Ohio, will be wearing protective headgear from now on, and she thinks it should be required equipment for pitchers and corner infielders.

"It should be a rule," she said. "I was lucky in a lot of ways, not getting hurt worse than I did. Somebody else might not be so lucky."

Holly Ham wasn't so lucky.

(It's an eerie coincidence that Holly Ham and Haylee Hamm have such similar names and experiences.)

Three years ago Holly was a junior at Rockcastle County. Usually an outfielder for the Lady Rockets, she was pitching in late March when she was hit in the face, near her left temple, by a line drive.

She wound up in the hospital fighting for her life. She had emergency surgery to relieve bleeding on her brain and spent more than a day in a coma.

"The neurosurgeon thought she might stay in a vegetative state," said Julie Ham, Holly's mother, and a nurse. "It could've been a catastrophic injury."

Holly recovered, and even played softball her senior year at Rockcastle County.

"It was all pretty scary, but God saved me," she said.

After watching her daughter have to fight for her life, Julie Ham did then what Tom Hamm is doing now. She asked the KHSAA to adopt a rule that would require protective masks for pitchers.

"But they didn't seem to want to lend an ear," Julie said. "They didn't appreciate the gravity of what happened to my daughter."

KHSAA commissioner Julian Tackett said that wasn't true: "We saw it as a major issue. We certainly didn't like seeing that young lady get hurt."

But, Tackett said, three years ago there was no data, even on the national level, on injury trends in fast-pitch softball. Rule changes are dependent on such data.

Coaches have never been surveyed on the issue, and the Kentucky Medical Association, which helped push for the heat index rule that protect athletes, hasn't offered its opinion on masks.

"Maybe now is the time to ratchet up the discussion," Tackett said. "Let's make sure everybody is weighing in about whether this is the best way to go."

There's never been a rule prohibiting players from wearing masks, a fact Tackett thinks should be highlighted so coaches, players and parents know it's OK to wear the headgear.

Tackett said the KHSAA is putting together a proposal that will address the protective mask issue on the national level, although he wonders if a national or state rule is needed "to fix a problem that ought to be fixed locally?"

That happened in Rockcastle County where, Julie Ham said, all of the youth leagues require infielders to wear protective masks.

Rockcastle County Coach Matthew Brown said all of his pitchers and corner infielders now wear headgear. And he would "definitely support" making it a state-wide rule.

Penny Reece of defending state champion Greenwood said she "would not mind seeing it become mandatory, for the safety of these kids."

Alan Brown of fourth-rated Ballard agreed: "I personally think it would be a great idea to make masks mandatory for the pitchers, first and third basemen."

That is not a unanimous opinion among coaches.

Madisonville assistant Shannon Peyton, whose daughter Mallory is a pitcher, said in an email that he has "never liked the use of masks," and he thinks the danger factor is exaggerated.

"I've coached approximately 1,000 softball games and I've never seen a player be hit with a line drive in person. Not that I want to ever see it, but the odds are very low that it happens."

Josh Bloomer of 11th-ranked Male thinks wearing a mask is a decision that should be left up to the players or their parents.

"I don't see the percentage of players being hit in the face by line drives being significant at all when you consider the overall number of plays that occur," Bloomer said in an email. "Safety is always a hot topic, but I think there are players that would find the masks to be a hindrance ..."

Hamm thinks it's a worthwhile trade-off if a player's fielding ability is occasionally hampered if she's protected from serious injury.

"We're worried about a girl making an error, or taking a ball off the leg?" he said. "That's crap. Even if it reduces her vision, she's not going to take one in the face."

Bloomer also brought up what seems to be a common belief among high school coaches, that colleges are reluctant to recruit players who wear a protective mask.

Reece said in an email that none of Greenwood's infielders wear a mask, "despite my trying to play down the 'rumor' that college coaches see it as a weakness, being afraid of the ball, etc."

Hamm said he's heard that college recruiters might question a player's "toughness" if she wears protective headgear in the infield.

University of Kentucky softball coach Rachel Lawson said she's never heard a peer say they wouldn't recruit a player based on whether or not she wore a mask.

Lawson pointed out that UK sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley, who's won 48 games over the past two seasons, has worn a mask her entire career.

"Kelsey was an elite level, top prospect for Kentucky," Lawson said. "The fact that she wore a face mask had absolutely no bearing in my decision-making process at all."

Lawson understands why some pitchers wear headgear.

"When a pitcher releases the ball, they're about 38 to 40 feet away, and with the ball traveling back at them at 90-plus miles per hour, it's a really dangerous situation."

Tom Hamm still has trouble coming to terms with what happened to his daughter.

The week before Haylee was injured, she narrowly dodged a line drive that whizzed by her face during a spring-break game in Florida.

After that close call, Tom Hamm tried to talk Haylee into wearing a mask.

"I didn't want to do it," she said. "So I ignored him."

Now her dad is sorry he didn't insist.

"I gave in to her resistance, and that's my fault as a father and a coach," Tom said. "A lot of kids don't have the insight or knowledge to make decisions they need to make."

A week later, against Rockcastle County, Haylee Hamm couldn't get out of the way of a line drive off the bat of Shelby Ham.

It's another eerie coincidence that Shelby is the younger sister of Holly Ham, the Rockcastle County player who was hit in the face by a line drive in 2011.

When Shelby Ham's line drive hit Haylee Hamm, the Rockcastle County freshman was so distraught she broke into tears. She went to the dugout and called her sister, who's now a student at Eastern Kentucky University.

"My little sister called me and was freaking out she was so upset," Holly said. "She was so scared by what had happened, and she said it made her think of when I got hurt.

"It's so weird that it happened this way. That (Haylee's) last name is Hamm, and mine is Ham.

"I'm hoping all of this is an eye-opener for people, and they'll realize players really do need to wear masks."

Mike Fields: (859) 231-3337. Twitter: @MikeFieldsNotes. Blog: fieldsnotes.bloginky.com.

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