It was a routine ground ball that seemed destined to become a double play. But what happened in Bishop England's baseball game against Chesnee in the state championship series earlier this month was anything but routine, and it has sparked questions about safety in high school baseball.
Bishop England's Tradd Lowman was on first base and broke for second when the ball was hit. The Chesnee shortstop took the throw from his second baseman, stepped on second base for the first out and then rifled the ball toward first. But the ball struck Lowman in the face, knocking him unconscious.
The Bishop England coaches and trainers raced onto the field where Lowman lay motionless. Once Lowman became coherent, his father, Rick, rushed him to the East Cooper Hospital emergency room.
“His cheek bone was crushed,” Rick Lowman said. “He had fractures in the orbital socket. But the one thing that made the doctors decide to perform the surgery as soon as possible was that
he had a fracture that came down from his cheek to his teeth. His upper teeth weren't aligned with his bottom teeth.”
Lowman was admitted to MUSC Hospital the next day and underwent surgery on May 17.
Though a thrown baseball can travel up to 100 mph — and a batted ball tops out at 130 mph — injuries like Lowman's are relatively rare, one expert said. But they do happen.
In 1967, the baseball world was rocked when Boston Red Sox slugger Tony Conigliaro was hit by a pitch. Conigliaro, the youngest American League hitter ever to reach 100 career home runs, made a brief comeback, but was never the same.
For the Bishops, Lowman was scheduled to pitch in the decisive Game 3 of the championship series, but was in the hospital recovering from surgery as Bishop England lost.
Lowman, a senior, had played in his final game. He will attend South Carolina in the fall, but will not play baseball.
His injury has brought the safety issue to the table. Should baseball players be mandated to wear facemasks on their batting helmets?
“I don't think players should have to wear a facemask,” Lowman said. “That's not the baseball I know. I don't think it happens enough to make that kind of change. Injuries are going to happen. You can't stop them all.”
The National Federation of High Schools requires softball players to wear facemasks. But when it comes to baseball, facemasks are optional.
In South Carolina, there are two governing bodies of high school athletics: The High School League and the South Carolina Independent Schools Association. The High School League, which oversees more than 200 schools, follows the NFHS mandates. SCISA, which oversees about 40 schools, requires baseball players to use facemasks on their batting helmets.
“The facemask rule has been in place for about six years,” SCISA athletic secretary Mike Fanning said. “We started studying the issue the year before we instituted it and we had three children injured when they attempted to bunt. They bunted the pitch, but the ball hit them in the cheek. One had to undergo surgery. Was it a coincidence or divine providence? I don't know. But we tried to make a positive statement. The coaches supported it, but it wasn't whole-hearted at first.”
Fanning said the SCISA committee studied the issue and concluded that batting averages weren't affected because of helmets with masks. He said another key factor is the age discrepancy among SCISA athletes.
“You might have a 12th-grade pitcher facing a batter in the eighth grade,” he said. “That eighth-grader might not be used to seeing a pitch that is traveling 85 to 86 mph and might have a hard time getting out of the way. The bottom line is that you have that fastball that is high and tight and it might hit the batter and cause a concussion. But the facemask is going to prevent the ball hitting a player's face and do even more damage.”
Risk vs. cost
Bruce Hulion, who oversees baseball for the HSL, says his organization doesn't make facemasks mandatory, but players do have the option.
“They are not prohibited,” Hulion said. “Player safety is a concern. We are seeing more and more third basemen and pitchers wearing face guards in softball. But we can't make a rule for one team. If we make a rule, it involves every team. We're just not talking about the Summervilles and Bishop Englands. We're also talking about the Allendales and Lincolns. If you mandate it, can a school afford 10 helmets with facemasks?”
A facemask for a batting helmet costs about $17, while an approved batting helmet can be purchased for less than $40.
Frederick O. Mueller, the director of The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research in Chapel Hill, N.C., said baseball players won't wear batting helmets that include facemasks unless it is mandated.
“We've studied the youth leagues where facemasks are used, and it cuts down the injuries,” he said. “The NFHS allows a facemask for batters who are protecting an injury or for defensive players for the same reason. The type of injury (Lowman) sustained are far and few between. Also there has always been the question that if a player has a faceguard on his helmet and he performs a headfirst slide, will the facemask cause an injury during the slide?
There is no doubt a batter facemask will prevent ball injuries, especially from a thrown pitch during batting.”
Follow Philip M. Bowman on Twitter: @PandCPhil.