At about 8 p.m. Sunday night, a young girl no older than 12 was a fraction away from losing her eye after a softball she had no chance to catch barreled into her head.
At that moment, everything came to a screeching halt. Missoula Osprey pitcher Payton Hudson, who was only in the pitchers circle because her teammate had been removed two innings earlier after being hit violently in the knee, had no time to react.
The Osprey were playing in the championship game of the 12U Montana State Junior Olympics at Charlotte Yeoman Martin Sports Complex in Anaconda, a game that will forever change the lives of those involved.
And to think it all could have been prevented by a $35 piece of equipment most girls Hudsons age refuse to wear because it’s “ugly.”
More and more, girls are wearing protective masks because of the fear of getting a comebacker in the grill. However, it’s time the mask becomes a mandatory piece of equipment.
Years ago, Little League Baseball required boys and girls to wear a hard plastic protective cover that drapes over the shoulders and covers their heart in reaction to a little boy who lost his life after being struck with a comebacker. More recently in softball, girls have been required to wear batting helmets with a facemask and chin strap because of the fear of being hit with a pitched ball.
But anyone who’s every played the game competitively or watched it from afar knows that a pitcher is far more susceptible to serious injury than any defender or batter at any given moment.
In the 12u division, the mound is located 40 feet from home plate. But take into account the windup and delivery of the ball usually puts the pitcher, on average, five feet closer. It’s nearly impossible for any pitcher to react to a ball hit at that distance with normal velocity.
I did some research by taking into account an average pitch at that age, around 45 mph, and the speed of a batted ball, or exit speed as it’s defined, off the bat.
According to the Denver Hitting Club, a 14u and under girls’ softball player has an exit speed between 38 and 55 mph.
So in this case, by taking the median of both numbers, 46 mph, the ball arrived at Hudson 67.47 feet per second. And if Hudson, who was barely out of her follow through according to the numbers, was standing at 35 feet with a normal stride and pivot and clearly out of position defensively, she had .51 seconds to react to the ball.
For Hudson, it was a no win situation. But it doesn’t have to be in the future.
Call to all coaches
Because the ASA and Little League is behind the times in rules requiring these masks to be worn, it’s time you stand up and do it for yourself.
Tim Gray, the Missoula Osprey general manager and head coach for the Missoula Sentinel girls’ softball team, has changed his mind on the masks since Sunday’s incident has his program in an emotional tailspin.
“The odd things was Payton was an inning and a half from going out and shopping for a mask to wear,” he said. “Fortunately she was lucky because it doesn’t look like she will lose her eye.
“Out of tragedy comes some very good things, and in this instance that may just be the case. We’ve had calls from teams that you root against all year just to see how (Payton) is doing. We were lucky this time.”
Gray said his stance on the masks is changed forever.
“Without a doubt, I’m going to require my pitchers and first or third basemen wear the mask,” he said.
Tod Chapman, director of Cyclones softball in Anaconda, said he has been a proponent of the protective mask for years.
“In my program, 100 percent of all pitchers and infielders (first and third base) must wear the mask or they don’t see the field,” Chapman said. “I’d also like to see it mandatory for the players to wear some sort of body armor to protect their chests.”
Chapman was brought to the realization of the added protection when his daughter, Brooke, a junior All-State pitcher for the Copperheads, was hit in the stomach.
“As soon as she got stroked, I wouldn’t let her or another pitcher on the mound without some sort of protection,” he said.
“Chunky” Thatcher, a youth girls’ softball coach for years in Butte, had a front row seat coaching third base during Sunday’s horrifying sight.
“I’ll tell you right now, I’ve coached this game for over 10 years, and I’ve seen the light,” Thatcher said. “My daughter will never pitch again without wearing a mask.”
It’s a collaborative feeling for the young girls that the masks are “ugly” Gray said, but because of Sunday’s incident, not even a day passed before Hudsons ordeal hit home.
“(Monday), kids that had the masks floating around in their bags and never worn finally had them on,” he said. “I even had a couple laying around in the shed that I gave out. It’s unfortunate that it takes something like this to happen to get the word out, but that’s the way it is.”
Ultimately, Gray said, the requirement to wear protection is going to happen.
“My feeling is there’s two ways its going to happen: Someone’s going to have to get sued or a grassroots uprising forcing participants to wear the mask is the only way,” he said.
Monday’s Little League state tournament had a slightly different feel for everyone in Missoula. Girls that age, emotional enough as it is already, were not only worried about their friend and competitor, they were thinking safety first for the first time in their lives.
But it shouldn’t have come to this. Even in our slow pitch softball ranks, pitchers wear the masks. My best friend wears one, and I have to admit I’ve given him some ribbing about it.
Because of Hudson, rules need to be changed. Everyone on the field is protected by the game except the pitchers. I just hope her injury doesn’t get swept under the rug and suffered in vain.
Get well soon, Payton. Just know that I’ll do everything I can to make sure your injury is used as a springboard to getting rules in place to save the next youngster the same fate.