When high school softball players step into the batter’s box, they wear a helmet to protect their head.
The catcher behind the plate is basically covered in a suit of armor, and the umpire wears pads and a mask guarding his or her face.
In most games, the pitcher and corner infielders also wear masks to protect their faces from being crushed by a softball, which is not soft at all.
When it comes to the players’ grandmas in the crowd, however, we figure, “Ah, it will probably miss ’em.”
This is the world of Stodden Park, where you watch softball games at your own risk.
Stodden hosted most of the games for Butte Central’s annual LaVerne Combo Invitational softball tournament Friday and Saturday, and those big, yellow, hard, softballs had the crowd ducking and dodging as they gathered around the three fields.
Players on neighboring fields also had to dodge incoming balls, as if playing third base wasn’t a hot enough corner to worry about with one ball coming your way.
The tournament, like all times when Stodden has all three fields going at once, was like watching a softball tournament in a war zone.
An athletic trainer at the event said that 90 percent of the injuries they treat during the tournament are from people being hit by ball.
She wasn’t talking about batters, either. She was talking about spectators and players who are not in the field of play getting hit.
Most of those injuries are minor, but they are all scary. So are the tons of near misses.
One injury looked absolutely horrific as Butte Central played Frenchtown on Friday evening.
A player from Libby was standing outside the third-base dugout on Field No. 3 following the Loggers’ game with Hamilton. She was smiling and laughing, and could not see the ball coming her way.
A Frenchtown batter hit a flair of a foul ball that just cleared the first-base dugout on Field No. 2. It came so fast, that nobody could even yell “heads” in time, and the ball struck the Libby player in the right temple.
The girl started to raise her hand to where the ball hit her, then she collapsed. She was knocked out cold.
When the Central-Frenchtown game resumed, the Frenchtown player who hit the foul ball reached base on an infield single. She stood on first base bawling her eyes out.
It was as if she was blaming herself for something that could not possibly be her fault.
Fortunately, athletic trainers and a firefighter were nearby to make sure the Libby girl received the attention she needed.
Eventually, she was brought to her feet and she left with her team. The next morning, though, she had to be sent back to Libby, missing her team’s final two games.
Clearly concussed, the player was suffering a severe headache and dizziness. Her softball season is over because an injury she sustained while laughing with friends.
The saddest thing about this incident is that it could have been easily prevented by a better netting system at Stodden Park.
About a decade ago, the county put a series of nets up between the three fields. They are not nearly enough because they don’t protect any spectators outside of the area behind home plate.
The nets also give the fans a false sense of security because on two of the three fields there is a gap where the net meets the backstop.
Earlier Friday, a mother was standing by her next to her baby, who was in a stroller, feeling safe because she was under a net.
Then, a ball slammed onto the ground, somehow finding the small area between the mom and her baby. That baby just might have missed being killed by a matter of inches. At a softball game.
A couple of years ago, a woman was hit and injured badly at a game at Fenway Park in Boston. Since then, the Red Sox and other Major League Baseball teams have extended netting to protect their fans from foul balls.
Even before they added the nets at MLB parks, watching a softball tournament at Stodden Park was 100 times more dangerous than any baseball stadium. That’s because at a baseball game, fans are watching the game.
At Stodden, fans are being picked off by the games they are not watching. Nobody can watch all three games at the same time.
Butte-Silver Bow and the Butte School District have done some great work at Stodden Park over the last few years. The players now have better dugouts and a great infield surface to play on.
A lot of money and work is also being put into the playground area at Stodden. With the carousel, waterpark and new playground, Stodden Park will be one of the best places in the state.
During softball games, though, it will also be one of the most dangerous.
In previous years, foul balls from Field 3 would sail right into the playground, where sheer luck protected the children.
In Anaconda, they have a net covering the playground at the Charlotte Yeoman-Martin Complex, where the Copperheads play softball.
Yes, we are taking a back seat to Anaconda when it comes to the safety of our children. And Anaconda is the place where they build that giant deathtrap of a slide not far from the softball fields.
A year or two before the nets were put up at Stodden, a woman was hit in the side of the head by a pop up foul on the field behind her. Before the trainers were able to get ice to the woman, a local lawyer had his business card in the women’s hand.
Whether or not the woman used that card is hard to say, but somebody will someday. It is only a matter of time. Maybe the parents of the Libby girl will. Really, would you blame them if they did?
It would not take much for the county to string a cable from the backstops to the light polls that are past the bases on each field and install nets that will keep most of the ball in the field.
It would not take much to connect those nets overhead to make sure the spectators are really safe as they watch the games.
Sure, it will cost some money to do this, but it will probably cost less than the lawyer fees that are eventually coming. It will cost way less than the settlement the county and possibly the school district and Butte Central will have to pay.
Not fixing this problem is nothing short of negligence.
So is letting the players’ grandmas watch the games without a suit of armor.
— Bill Foley, who has no idea what it is like to be in a real war zone, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74