As Tim Rorick scrolled through his Facebook news feed several weeks ago, one story grabbed him.
The tale detailed a softball pitcher who’d been struck in the face by a batted ball in 2010 and might have died, doctors said, had she not been wearing a face mask.
It hit close to home because the girl, Kristi Denny, was a sophomore at a high school in Southern California at the time.
Rorick’s daughter Jenna is currently a sophomore pitcher at West Ranch High.
“Right there, we read that thing together and decided that it was time for her to start wearing (her mask) again,” Tim Rorick said.
Jenna Rorick — whose friend Leslie Reynaga was hit in the face by a line drive at Saugus last week — is one of a growing number of pitchers in the Santa Clarita Valley and beyond to don face masks, a trend slowly bucking the long-held perception that players who do so lack mental toughness.
Some still find face masks to be too uncomfortable and a hindrance to performance.
Others, like Rorick, no longer care.
“It’s hard to see when you wear a mask,” she said, “ and it kind of bothers me, but if it’s to protect my face, then I can deal with it.”
Faced with a choice
Face masks have become more commonly accepted in softball only in the last few years.
Before then, pitchers who wore them were widely thought of as “soft” or lacking mental toughness.
“It’s like an old, unwritten rule,” said Jim Ziese, coach of the SoCal Choppers 16U travel ball team, “something that’s been perceived for so long.”
It was a perception Ziese bought into — at least until Aug. 15, 2015.
Who wore it better?🤡🤷🏽♀️💆🏻🥇💙 pic.twitter.com/4UQWtTA5Ox
— Saugus Softball (@SaugusSoftball1) April 19, 2017
Watching a National Pro Fastpitch League game, Ziese saw Valencia High graduate Madison Shipman hit a rocket off the face of pitcher Jolene Henderson.
“I was amazed,” Ziese said, “that she wasn’t seriously, seriously hurt.”
That moment, in part, softened Ziese’s view. He says he now wouldn’t send his daughter to the circle without a mask.
“I wouldn’t have said that two years ago,” he added.
It’s a feeling Tim Rorick knows. Cathi McMahan, too.
McMahan, the mother of Saugus freshman pitcher Libbie McMahan, told her daughter to start wearing a mask several weeks ago.
“She was always showing me pictures of these girls with metal foreheads and huge eyes,” Libbie McMahan said.
Then, on April 13, in a game against Golden Valley, it was Libbie who took over in the circle after a line drive sidestepped Reynaga’s glove and fractured the sophomore pitcher’s nose.
“I didn’t really want to (wear the mask),” Libbie McMahan said, “but (my mom) was making me wear it anyway, so when that happened (to Leslie) I was totally in shock.”
McMahan’s story isn’t unique. High school pitchers generally turn to face masks for a handful of reasons: their parents tell them to, they’ve been hit by a comebacker or they’ve seen or read about someone getting hit.
Then there’s Reynaga, who will wear a mask on doctor’s orders when she returns to action Tuesday. She didn’t need surgery, just glue to close a cut that wouldn’t stop bleeding.
Some pitchers suffer worse.
Denny, the pitcher the Roricks read about, endured six hours of surgery and required a new forehead made of titanium, according to a story on OCRegister.com.
In 2011, Kentucky high schooler Holly Ham needed brain surgery after she was hit in the head with a softball while pitching, according to USA Today.
Update on Leslie: Fractured the left side of her nose. No concussion. She’s doing okay. 💪🏼
— Saugus Softball (@SaugusSoftball1) April 14, 2017
Of course, not every pitcher struck by a line drive is seriously injured, and there is inherent risk in playing any position on the diamond or, really, any sport.
For some, any benefits face masks might provide don’t outweigh the negatives in terms of comfort or performance.
“Honestly, I don’t like having something on my face other than my sunglasses,” said Valencia pitcher Shea O’Leary. “It’s just really uncomfortable.”
West Ranch lefty Makenna Harper echoed the sentiment.
Of the 14 pitchers who regularly see varsity action in the Foothill League, seven wear masks.
The risk factor isn’t the same for every pitcher, Ziese said.
A pitcher the quality of University of Texas-bound O’Leary, for instance, is less likely to leave the ball dangerously in the middle of the plate, he said.
Other pitchers might find themselves overmatched, and in more danger, he added, against some of the Foothill League’s future NCAA Division 1 batters.
“Some of these kids are pitching for their high school (just) to help them out,” Ziese said, “and then they’re facing kids like (Valencia’s) Ally Shipman or (Canyon’s) Kailee Powell or (Golden Valley’s) Sophia Medellin. It’s definitely a one-sided match.”
A match that overall has shifted in favor of hitters.
Softball bats have gotten hotter (the ball jumps off bats at a higher speed than in the past) and the pitching circle has been moved back 3 feet (giving hitters more time to see the pitch and put a good swing on it).
Coaches, in fact, teach batters to hit the ball toward the center of the diamond.
“When training girls to hit, you want them to hit the ball back up the middle,” said Santa Clarita Christian softball coach and Athletic Director Ali Aguilar, “not to injure another player, but the odds of getting a base hit are greater.”
Roughly four years ago, Aguilar mandated that his pitchers and infielders wear masks during games. In addition to keeping them safe, he felt it would free them up to play aggressively and unafraid.
“Even though they don’t like to wear them,” Aguilar said, “you never see our girls pull their head. They’re not afraid of it.”
Hart coach Steve Calendo — though he doesn’t mandate his players wear them — believes the masks should be required.
Golden Valley coach Daniel Soto agrees.
Others, while concerned for pitcher safety, think it should remain a matter of personal choice.
“It’s a safety issue and a tough choice,” said West Ranch coach Jay Creps. “I think the parent should step in, and I think the kid should talk to the parent about it and see what they think.”
CIF-Southern Section softball is governed by the National Federation of State High School Associations safety regulations. The governing body made batting helmet face masks mandatory a decade ago, but no such rule for pitchers seems imminent.