(Aug. 7, 2006) — With all the talk about steroids and human growth hormones, tainted records in baseball and cheating in Tour de France, there's a plastics angle that gets unfairly lumped in the mix.
It's protective plastic armor used by baseball players, specifically Barry Bonds.
The issue is clear: Wearing protective gear is not cheating. The rules allow it, and from a safety standpoint, it makes sense.
We're not going to argue Bonds' place in baseball history. If you're a sports fan, you get enough of that already, and Plastics News doesn't need to join the chorus.
But the protective padding issue does not belong in this debate, and baseball writers who unfairly make it part of the anti-Bonds argument are dead wrong.
Major League Baseball back in 2001 decided it wanted to put a stop to a proliferation of hitters using protective body armor — typically made of plastic, usually to protect the elbow and surrounding area.
The baseball chieftains decided that plastic body armor gives hitters an unfair advantage, because they can crowd the plate without fear of being hit. Crowding the plate means they can reach pitches on the outside part of the plate, and getting hit means a free base anyway.
First of all, MLB's decision was dumb.
Like any business, baseball should not make rules that discourage safety. Yes, getting hit is part of the game. But getting seriously hurt by a 90 mph fastball doesn't need to be part of the game. And most pitchers these days are reluctant to throw inside anyway, for a variety of reasons — all of them unrelated to the body armor issue.
Plus, baseball already has a rule that MLB could have used to discourage players from getting hit on purpose. Umpires have the ability to rule that players who do not make an effort to get out of the way of a pitch don't get a free base. So the answer was simple: Just enforce the rule. If you're wearing armor and want a free pass for getting hit, then you'd better try to get out of the way of a pitch just like an unprotected batter.
Anyway, baseball's ruling discouraged body armor, but did not ban it.
The rule was that elbow pads cannot be longer than 10 inches, and must be covered by nylon. Plus, MLB allowed players to apply for medical exemptions — basically, if you have prior injuries, or a note from a doctor, the league can allow you to continue using the old-style armor.
Bonds has such an exemption, because of a pre-existing injury to his right elbow. But, if you haven't noticed, Bonds is not the most popular baseball player these days. So when critics pile on the anti-Bonds bandwagon, one of their common gripes is that he wears plastic armor. That, plus his big body, make him look more like he belongs on a football field than on a baseball diamond.
OK, Bonds is not exactly the best celebrity endorser of plastic body armor. But over the long term, this is a good product that should see more widespread use, not less.
Our message to MLB: Anything that protects athletes from injuries, and extends the careers of star players, should be welcomed, not discouraged.