Monday, November 18, 2019

Without A Net

Marco Island Senior Softball Divided on Pitcher Safety Screen

Marco Island Senior Softball pitchers are in a league of their own as the only Collier County seniors playing without protective screens.

Whether champions playing on the national level or self-described wet-behind-the-hearing-aids 65-year-old rookies, senior softball pitchers, ages often ranging 55 to 90, are getting used to using protective gear, including masks, shin guards and pitcher’s screens. But not on Marco Island.

Marco Island players described recent discussions on the use of such protective pitching masks and screens as “lively.”

League leaders Bill Kaschube and Commissioner Bill Shurina, the contacts named on the League’s website, didn’t respond to this reporter’s request for comment.

On October 15, the board was split with a tied vote, 5-5, on whether to require pitcher’s protective screens in all three divisions of the League. A tied vote failed to pass, leaving the pitchers in the Marco and Island Divisions unprotected by such nets.

The third division in the League, the Gulf Coast Division, comprises mostly the older players, and will employ the protection of a pitcher’s net by a recent unanimous, 10-0, vote of the board. It also passed unanimously (10-0) for the pitchers in the Gulf Coast Division to be required to wear a pitcher’s mask. Much like the vote on the protective nets, the proposal to use masks failed for the other two divisions, comprised of somewhat younger players.

League players declined to voice their take on the issue after a player, Charles Lamb, was reprimanded by the board for writing a Letter to the Editor. The player had called for increased safety using protective pitching screens in his published letter.

As has been reported in other communities with younger players, wearing a mask or taking a stance on safety becomes a concern for players looking to be recruited on the best team—whether a senior in high school or a senior on Marco Island.

There are more than 1.5 million senior softball players in the U.S., according to estimates reported by Senior Softball USA, the organization that governs tournaments and championships. SSUSA is the largest of the entities governing the sport and requires using protective pitching masks.

Just off the island, from Naples and further north, senior softball leagues are also requiring protective pitching screens and have been doing so for several years.

Talking Safety: Local to National Levels

Chairman of the Collier County Senior Softball League Dan Balagna said the use of the screens isn’t controversial among most Naples area players.

Even organizations of younger players are considering their use. Following an injury, more protections are often considered.

The use of protective pitching masks, which some criticize for limiting pitchers’ vision, gained in popularity and use after a tragedy in Southwest Florida just before Christmas 2017.

Pitcher Greg Fusco, 37, who lived outside Tampa in Palm Harbor, died after being struck in the head by a line drive while playing in a slow pitch softball tournament in Jacksonville.

Fusco’s death led to International Slow Pitch Softball, an organization with about 15,000 players, requiring pitchers to wear facemasks. If pitchers opt out, they must sign a waiver of liability.

Now, on Marco Island, the Gulf Coast Division players, many of whom are 70 years old or older, are required to wear a mask while pitching. Though not so far away, players half their age either elect to do so or the local governing boards are choosing to do so. Many are wearing such masks in the outfield as well.

While Marco’s Senior Softball players, of which there are 15 teams and more than 200 members, have pitchers’ safety on their minds, the Major Leagues are also in the midst of another round of safety concerns and debates – in their case regarding nets for the protection of MLB fans.

The conversations tend to change after a tragedy, as was the case following an injury in May, when a four-year-old fan was hit in the face by a foul ball struck by Chicago Cubs’
Albert Almora Jr, who was brought to tears to see the injury of the child. This injury occurred not long after more protective nets were put in place following the death of Linda Goldbloom,
who was 79, at Dodger Stadium as well as critical injuries sustained by a two-year-old girl at Yankee Stadium.

These led to considerations of expanding safety nets for fans on the national Major League Baseball level. In this regard, Marco Island is not alone in considering how far to take protec-tive measures.

Downside of Safety Equipment

Some competitive players are hesitant to transition to blind spots created by masks; the loss of a defensive player by putting a pitcher behind a net; and the missed advantage players might have when hitting line drives up the middle. Others feel if everyone is doing it, it will level the playing field and keep people safer. And most are hesitant to share how they really feel as they jockey for positioning on the best teams this coming season.

Addressing Liability

Off the island, there’s no hesitation to share a response to the idea of pitcher’s screens.

“My preference is to be safe at all costs,” said John Moll, a longtime current player and former board member of the Collier County Senior Softball League, which reports on their website that their average player is age 68.

Pitchers in the Collier County Senior Softball League, including those who play on state and na-tional competitive levels, said they support using pitching nets locally and think it won’t be long before they’re used on more competitive leagues too. The idea is that once the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, the pitcher stands behind the net for safety.

“Of all the rules we’ve made, this one is my favorite,” said pitcher Ned Bentz of the Collier County Senior Softball League.

“I have no compunction, no problem with someone who is 80 or 90 years old playing in the Majors. And it’d be suicide to have someone that old out there without the net,” said Bentz.

He said he was surprised to learn Marco Island’s League would choose otherwise.

“Anyone that doesn’t use the net is just ridiculous. You open yourself up for liability,” said Bentz.

Martha Montgomery, City of Marco Island’s supervisor of Parks Facilities, said the city does have such a net available at Winterberry Park, where the League plays, and that the pitcher’s screen can be used for increased safety and to address any liability concerns, if they exist.

A visit to the park on Monday morning, Oct. 28, didn’t indicate use of the net by the League at that time, which was during a line up for team player selection.

“It is available for the batting cage, open play and field rental. Groups are welcome to use them if they choose. The Senior Softball League rents the field from us,” said Montgomery. “They are self-governing and submit insurance for the field rental,” she added.

One of the area’s most successful senior competitive players, Tols Mihailoff, 77, plays around the country, having won numerous Florida Half Century State titles and dozens of national titles. He has been selected on All World teams and is known for providing great defense up the middle at 6-foot-2-inches tall.

Mihailoff recalls approximately seven years ago when a couple injuries locally led to the decision to use a pitcher’s screen in all Collier County Senior Softball League games.

“One guy got hit in the collarbone and broke his collarbone. Then another got injured with a line drive. We came to a consensus at about that time,” said Mihailoff, of the Florida Legends, whose 70 Major Plus team, Florida
Venom, has been No. 1 for the past four consecutive years.

“I think the board is making the wrong decision. They’re really opening themselves up to liability,” said Mihailoff.

“Personally, if I was on the board, I’d want the screen because I wouldn’t want the liability. It’s nice to be competitive
but it’s for safety,” he said, adding that he believed it would not be long before Major Plus Division would also be using the screens.

Islanders Take on the Issue

The board published the results of a poll of their members regarding safety on their website, MarcoSeniorSoftballLeague.com, which indicated that most players want the screen, with their being a split in that decision among Island Division players—the most competitive or skilled of the three divisions, with somewhat younger players.

The survey asked, “Should the board implement the screen?” The Island Division answered with a tie of 29 yes, 29 no. The other two divisions were in favor, 26 yes and 24 no for the Marco Division; and 12 yes, 2 no for the Gulf Coast Division, leading to 78 yes to 57 no total.

Marco Island Senior Softball players are on the field at Winterberry Park with the Island Divi-sion playing at 8 AM and the other two divisions, Marco and Gulf Coast, at 10 AM, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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