Scrutiny on Player Safety Increasing in Softball

Over the years, the NCAA has done many things to try to protect players and prevent injuries. But I have had a couple of incidents this season that make me think they could do more.

In the last two years, the NCAA instituted new rules concerning field safety. The first required that the wood, concrete or brick backstop be padded from dugout to dugout. That was designed to help protect mainly the catcher. The second required the addition of netting or fencing on the field side of the dugouts not less than six feet from the floor of the dugout except for the designated entrances and exits to the field. That one I know was needed as I saw on occasion girls in the dugouts get hit (some in the head) with line drives.

Another safety rule implemented this year deals with maintenance of the field. Home teams may drag or rake the field after a complete inning. That is intended to improve the playing surface for the safety and well-being of the student-athletes.

Field safety starts with the recommendation on the layout of all new fields. When a new field is constructed, the NCAA suggests home plate should be located in the southwest corner of the field, and a line drawn through home plate, the center of the pitcher’s plate and out to centerfield will extend to the northeast. That helps keep the sun from getting in the batters’ eyes.

Anyone who has umpired softball realizes how much effort is made with bat safety. Sometimes I feel like an accountant as I use the NCAA-approved bat list before each and every game. Bats are checked to make sure they are not damaged, illegal, altered or non-approved. The NCAA does periodic barrel compression testing on all bats to make sure exiting and new models are not hitting the softball at too great of an exit speed.

In 2018, the NFHS relieved the umpires of having to make bat checks. At the pregame meeting, coaches are required to verify that their players are legally and properly equipped and are using legal game equipment.

There is required protective equipment for offensive players, student-athlete base coaches and catchers. There is also optional protective equipment for both offensive and defensive players.

Neither the catcher nor any defensive player may wear any highly reflective, mirror-like chrome-finish helmets of any color. This follows the rule already in place prohibiting these type of helmets worn by offensive players. Common sense would not allow anything that would reflect light and possibly harm vision of players.

As the game evolves, there will be more emphasis on player safety

The NCAA tweaked its hit batter rule because it felt there was an alarming increase in the number of hit batters. Too many batters were padding up, crowding the plate and being rewarded with a free base. The rule now states that a batter hit in the “river” (the area between home plate and the batter’s box) without making an attempt to avoid the ball will just result in a “dead-ball ball.” By not giving offensive players such a big reward, it is hoped they will try to get on base the traditional way and not via being hit by a pitch.

The college obstruction rule has been changed dramatically in hopes that it will decrease the number of contacts between defenders and baserunners. The new wording, which is virtually identical to NFHS wording, states it is obstruction to impede the progress of a batter-runner or a runner unless the defender has possession of the ball or is in the act of fielding a batted ball. That allows a runner a clear path to the base if the defensive player is receiving a throw and does not have possession of the ball. Players are now being taught to catch the ball first before blocking the base and making the tag.

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Rulemakers continue to have concerns about collisions, and philosophy on deliberate crashes is now more in line with NCAA baseball and Major League Baseball. I still am seeing quite a few collisions around first base; also a number of first basemen are getting their foot or heel stepped on by batter-runners. The double first base, which is used in high school and other associations, might eliminate the vast majority of problems with runners coming down the line.

A play happened a year or so ago that sent shivers through me. A right-handed hitter turned on a pitch and sent a screaming line drive that struck the third baseman in the face. She could not move or react and she was sent backward. As I called time and ran over I realized she had been wearing a mask (it was on the ground next to her) which I’m sure saved her from serious injury.

In softball, with the bases at 60 feet apart, the third and first basemen routinely play in front of the bag, which puts them in harm’s way on pulled balls. Pitchers are even closer as they start at 43 feet before releasing the pitch. With girls getting bigger and stronger and balls coming off the bat faster, there is less time to react. I would like to see all pitchers, third basemen and first basemen wear a facemask and it wouldn’t be a bad option for the middle infielders.

In the same vein, there is the risk of commotio cordis when a player is struck in the chest with a ball. Commotio cordis, a type of ventricular fibrillation, is the second-leading cause of cardiovascular death for kids who play sports. There are many chest protector models on the market albeit some disagreement as to how effective any of them are. Catchers wear chest protectors; why not pitchers and infielders?

Think of all the advancements in equipment and rules to try to make every sport safer. There was a time when ice hockey goalies didn’t wear masks and players had no helmets or visors, which are now mandatory. As the game of softball evolves there will be more scrutiny on player safety. I’m all for it.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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