Helmet Rule: Amateur baseball hasn't followed MLB's lead

DeKALB - There is a glaring difference between base coaches in Major League Baseball and their amateur counterparts. But it's not just the number of commas in their paychecks, or their first-class travel accommodations. This year is the first time all Major and Minor League base coaches are wearing helmets when they are on the field. The rule is in response to the death of Minor League baseball coach Mike Coolbaugh. The first base coach for the Tulsa Drillers, the Colorado Rockies Double-A affiliate, was struck by a line drive just below the ear, knocked him unconscious and later killing him. MLB acted swiftly after Coolbaugh's death and a new rule was passed in November 2007 at the General Managers Meeting in Orlando, Fla., that stated all Major and Minor League base coaches wear a helmet. It is up to the coach to decide if they want to wear ear flaps or the ‘skull' helmet which has no ear flaps Mike Teevan, an MLB spokesman, said the decision for base coaches to wear helmets was driven by safety concerns. “The Commissioner's Office and the club general managers felt that mandating helmets was the right thing to do,” Teevan said in an e-mail. “If it helps even in one instance going forward, then the new rule will have been worth it.” But when the prep season resumes in the spring, the head gear of high school baseball and softball coaches won't resemble their professional colleagues. Elliott Hopkins, the Baseball Rules Editor for the National Federation of State High School Associations said through research and a national survey that prep coaches aren't in danger wearing just their baseball cap. The survey actually came back that coaches were decidedly against wearing a helmet when coaching the bases. Student-athletes that fill in as a base coach, however, will still have to wear a helmet. “We talked about it and gathered feedback,” Hopkins said. “We looked at the injury that prompted Major League Baseball to enact their rule and it was to an area of the body that a helmet doesn't protect. We think coaches are far enough back. If a coach thinks it is necessary, then they are welcome to wear a helmet.” This year, Hopkins said there were just four minor alterations to the rules. The changes are so subtle that fans, player and coaches will struggle to notice them if they aren't made aware that a rule has been changed. Rather than falling behind or being stale in their approach to the game, the lack of change speaks volumes about the state of high school baseball, according to Hopkins. “It really speaks to where the game is,” Hopkins said. “And I think it is pretty strong and in good shape.” There have not been internal discussions in the Illinois High School Association as to whether coaches should wear helmets when working the bases according to Dave Gannaway, the Assistant Executive Director for the IHSA. The IHSA doesn't set policy; rather it strictly follows rules implemented by the National Federation of State High School Associations. “We follow the rules of the NFHS to a ‘T,'” Gannaway said. “What ends up driving rules changes is safety.” Even though injuries to base coaches have not been an issue across the state for the IHSA, Gannaway noticed a small bias in the rules. “If a student has to wear a helmet why not the coach?” Gannaway asked. “It's one thing where safety hasn't pushed it to the forefront yet, but is something that should be looked at.” When MLB decided to make their base coaches wear helmets, there was a brief bit of outrage. Los Angeles Dodgers third base coach Larry Bowa, who has been a Major League player or manager for 40 years told MLB.com in February that the rule “wasn't for him.” Despite not being passed by the NFHS or NCAA this year, Northern Illinois head coach Ed Mathey said he can see the day when amateur base coaches will be required to wear a helmet. It comes down to a simple assessment of risk management. Mathey said he believes any changes to the helmet rule will begin at the high school level and gradually become a universal rule. Eventually, leagues and organizations will face an ‘everyone else is doing it situation,' and if someone in a league without helmeted coaches gets hurt they would look bad and have potential legal issues to deal with. “I could see the day coming where the NCAA has base coaches wear helmets,” Mathey said. “The MLB sets the standard. There will be a juncture when athletic departments decide to reduce liability and limit potentially dangerous situations.” Although Mathey has yet to hear of any NCAA surveys, he joked with Associate Head Coach and third base coach Steve Joslyn this spring that he'd better get used to wearing a helmet when he delivers signals and waves in runners at third base. Mathey hopes that if the NCAA enacts a helmet rule that coaches will be allowed to wear just the ‘skull' cap without ear flaps. “Coaches use more than their eyes out there,” Mathey said. “They have to listen to hear players trying to get their attention and the other team's calls on plays. I don't think it is a big issue, I'm for anything that makes the game safer.”