December 19, 2014

One Year Later, Kerwin Danley’s Head is Ringing Again

The dodgerfan faithful will remember an article published a little over a year ago citing the Kerwin Danley incident and the power of the World Umpires Association.

Danley was the unfortunate soul who was beaned by an errant pitch and briefly hospitalized as a result of his injuries. Almost one year later, Danley was again the unfortunate recipient of a high speed projectile…this time in the form of a shattered bat to the head on April 21st.

Danley certainly seems to be having his share of bad luck these days. Interestingly enough, the World Umpires Association seems to be quiet this time on the topic of umpire injuries (whereas they seemed downright litigious only a year ago). MLB officials are vigorously tracking the incidents of broken bats and note that they are down from approximately 1 broken bat per game to only 0.8 bats per game.

Some sports are actually seeing more injuries as competition increases. Just this week, cricket umpires in India have indicated that umpires may need to move to wearing baseball helmets to protect themselves.

Even former Dodger manager and current advisor Tommy Lasorda has been stung by a broken bat – remember the 2001 All-Star game?

My question is – have any steps been taken to improve the protection from bats and wild pitches for umpires and other “at risk” employees of MLB? A year ago, the focus was all on restitution. No one was speaking seriously about revamping protection for umpires and others to ensure a greater level of safety when bats and balls go wild. A year later, it seems as if it is still considered an acceptable loss if the occasional player or on- field personnel…unless your name happens to be Mr. or Mrs. Kerwin Danley.

Umpire Kerwin Danley and the Voice of the World Umpires Association

Photo credit: Los Angeles Times

Umpire Kerwin Danley is apparently still feeling the after effects of an errant pitch from Dodger Brad Penny almost a week after it happened.

Danley has said that he continues to get headaches and is in some level of discomfort.

The Los Angeles Times update on the situation does a good job of rehashing the details, so I won’t do it myself. What I found profoundly interesting, however, was a press release that came out from the World Umpires Association, stressing just how dangerous it is to be an umpire.

Huh? A press release? And who is the World Umpires Association?

(in their own words)

The World Umpires Association (WUA) was certified by the National Labor Relations Board on February 24, 2000, as the bargaining agent for Major League Baseball’s umpires.

Translation: They are the Union for major league umpires.

Now, I wouldn’t call my self anti-union, but I am sometimes anti union-activities such as this one. When I read the press release, there were a few interesting things that jumped out at me. The most striking one was the following paragraph:

We are relieved that Kerwin is OK. That was an awful hit. Really, really scary. But, to be honest, that’s something that happens to our folks every week. Last month alone, four of our umpires had back and neck surgery because of hits to the head,” said Lamell McMorris, spokesman for the World Umpires Association, the union of Major League Umpires. “We’re hoping that all the coverage of this incident gives the public a sense of just how dangerous being a professional umpire is, and most importantly how vital it is that our folks are taken care of – not just today, but in the long term.

Note the

    taken care of

line in there. This seems like a prerequisite to a big ask of MLB. After all, they have very deep pockets and control nearly every aspect of their sport (just imagine what the value of alone would be if it were ever offered up for sale or as a spinoff/IPO). The sport is more dangerous now than it used to be, ergo you had better be ready to protect us from the long-term consequences of being an umpire.

OK, so far I might see a bit of posturing there, but nothing truly outlandish. However, what I don’t get is why Danley (and many other umpires in the major leagues) continue to wear masks that open umpires up to just these types of injuries and why no one (either MLB or the WUA) seems to be doing anything about it.

There is an excellent article from the New York Times (published in 2006) citing the troubles of former San Francisco Giants catcher Mike Manthey, who retired after numerous concussions from foul tips ended his career. He still sports headaches, disorientation, and other by-products of all of that head trauma over his baseball career. Back in 2006, the hockey mask vs. traditional mask debate was raging on for both catchers and umpires but no conclusive evidence (or significant R&D) has been conducted that I could find that said how technology was advancing the developmend of masks for catchers and umpires.

My advice? Rather than asking for money, benefits, and restitution to treat people already afflicted by head trauma in baseball (which is truly a tragedy), Major League Baseball and teh WUA shod team up to co-fund R&D that will deliver the next generation of masks that might protect catchers and umpires from these types of injuries. It will surely be less expensive than paying for the associated damage over the coming decades.