The precedent San Diego Padres reliever Alex Torres set Saturday night by wearing an isoBlox padded cap was rooted in a frightful experience he had just before entering a game for Tampa Bay, just over a year earlier.
The left-hander from Venezuela saw teammate Alex Cobb get struck in the head by a line drive off the bat of Kansas City's Eric Hosmer last June, and before he was called upon to relieve Cobb, Torres says he feared for Cobb's life.
"I was in the bullpen and was in shock, I was in shock," Torres told "Outside the Lines" in a phone interview before Sunday afternoon's game against the Dodgers. "I was scared for a couple of minutes and hoped God would give a good sign -- there was no stirring and I was hoping Alex was OK and would show signs of life."
Cobb was fortunate -- his injury proved to be a slight concussion. He missed two months of action after he was carried out on a stretcher and brought to the hospital. Torres pitched a scoreless inning after replacing Cobb.
The motivation for becoming the first major league pitcher to wear the padded cap in a game is simple, the 26-year-old said: "I'm just trying to protect myself, my life, and to see my kids grow up.
"I don't want to wait for something to happen."
The Padres received their first batch of the isoBlox caps (a protective product approved by MLB, as first reported in January by Outside the Lines) from the manufacturer this week. Torres, along with San Diego head athletic trainer Todd Hutcheson, wore them during batting practice and other times for a few days, despite incessant ribbing for the appearance of the heavier and bulkier caps, both men said.
"Guys were hoarse laughing and saying 'Look, hey, super Mario,' " said Hutcheson, who added that he's thinking of keeping a log of such comments as he strives to "desensitize" players to the cap's appearance and raise awareness of potential safety enhancement.
Said Hutcheson: "As hard as balls are being hit now, if guys can protect themselves, I don't care what it looks like."
For the veteran athletic trainer, this is a longtime issue of concern. He said when pitcher Doug Brocail was with the Padres in the mid-2000s and was prescribed blood thinners after surgery for an arterial blockage, Hutcheson thought perhaps something like a paintball or motorcycle helmet would help protect Brocail against a line drive to the head that might cause life-threatening internal bleeding -- but nothing suitable had been devised. And in 2007, Hutcheson was the first to attend to then-Padres pitcher Chris Young when he was struck in the face and severely injured by an Albert Pujols line drive.
The new caps don't cover the face, so they probably wouldn't have helped Young, who has said he thinks padding is a start and he'd like to eventually see something like a hockey visor put into use. The ball that struck Cobb on the right ear a year ago was estimated by Grantland to have traveled 102.4 mph. Even the hard-shell helmets worn by major league hitters aren't touted as providing surefire protection for speeds over 100 mph.
4Licensing Corporation, whose subsidiary Pinwrest is the manufacturer, says the caps are a little more than a half-inch thicker in the front and an inch thicker on the sides -- near the temples -- than standard caps, and afford protection for frontal impact locations against line drives of up to 90 mph and for side impact locations up to 85 mph.
The soft padding, the company says, is made of "plastic injection molded polymers combined with a foam substrate" and is designed to diffuse energy upon impact through a combination of dispersion and absorption techniques.
Cobb announced recently that he is endorsing the padded caps for youth league baseball and softball players and said he is working with the manufacturer to refine the product for big leaguers.
It's uncertain, of course, when or whether other pitchers will follow Torres' lead, and he says the caps do need to be made smaller and lighter for greater acceptance. In Saturday night's game, Torres pitched one inning, allowing a hit and a run while striking out two. Hutcheson said he was especially impressed by how well the cap stayed on when Torres was working to keep Dodgers speedster Dee Gordon close to first base by throwing over there and stepping off the rubber.
Torres said it was the third time he wore the cap in the bullpen and when he told his fellow relievers he was going to wear it in a game, "they didn't believe me and laughed at me."
"I give Alex a lot of credit for the guts to wear it," said Hutcheson.
Comments on Twitter and elsewhere raised Hutcheson's ire. He said his response to a remark by Padres broadcaster Dick Enberg about the caps not looking "sexy" is, "Timeout, who the hell cares if it doesn't look sexy?"
Even Torres' wife, Maria, made fun of the third-year pitcher, he said. "She laughed at me and said 'you look weird.'"
But Torres said that his workout tests of throwing and playing catch convinced him that the cap didn't feel too unusual and wouldn't interfere with his performance. And the memory of what happened to Cobb is still prominent in his thoughts.
"If that happens [to me], I want it to be with this cap on," he said.