Warning: Baseball Mere Inches From a Tragedy

So what are the serial dawdlers doing at Major League Baseball, waiting for someone to die in the infield? Over the past 19 months, we’ve seen five pitchers struck in the head by scorching line drives, not surprising when a vulnerable human being is only 55 feet from home plate once he delivers the ball and completes his follow-through. Brandon McCarthy suffered a cracked skull and epidural hemorrhaging and underwent emergency brain surgery. J.A. Happ’s skull was fractured. Alex Cobb was nailed by a 102-mph laser and missed two months. Doug Fister took a liner off his noggin in a World Series game.

And now, in a scene that left grown men distraught and shaking at a ballpark in Arizona, Aroldis Chapman was drilled in the face by a shot that seemed to come at him even faster than his recorded 99-mph heater. Like the others, he is fortunate to be alive. A bone was broken above his left eye, requiring a metal plate to be surgically inserted, but Chapman suffered no other serious injuries. “A very lucky guy,’’ said Tim Kremchek, the Cincinnati Reds’ team doctor. “If you get hit in the side of the head, that could be disastrous. Where Aroldis got hit, you don’t want to say he got hit in a good spot because he’s undergoing surgery, but it could have been a lot worse, a lot more injuries, a lot more permanent.’’

Next time, the victim won’t be so lucky. As if baseball hasn’t had enough issues that have damaged its once-lofty place in American sports, the masses are being subjected to repeated beanings that leave us collectively sick to our stomachs. “Honestly, when I saw it, I wanted to cry. It was very scary,’’ said Reds catcher Brayan Pena, Chapman’s fellow native Cuban and friend. “It was very scary because I saw the line drive going straight for his face, and then I saw him bleeding and kicking and moving around the way he was.’’ If it happened once, we could call it a freak occurence. Or twice.

But five times? The next beaning could be a tragedy.

Commissioner Bud Selig thought his office had addressed this issue when MLB, after testing nine models, approved a padded cap in January. But the isoBLOX Protective Cap immediately was panned by none other than McCarthy, who dismissed it as too big and bulky while noting that the cap stopped at the top of the ears when line drives had struck him, Happ and Cobb below the cap border. The caps include an inch of padding on the sides and a half-inch in the front and weigh in at 11 ounces, eight ounces more than the basic model. The company claims the cap can absorb cranial impact up to 90 mph.

McCarthy, who actually worked with isoBLOX on the project, says the padded cap is too cumbersome and would hamper his focus on the mound. This might explain why the caps were sent back to the shop and haven’t been available to major-league teams this spring. It’s typical of the Selig administration to claim progress on a serious issue — see: performance-enhancing drugs — only to realize it screwed up while sheepishly walking away with its head up its ass. How long has it taken to implement expanded replay? Naturally, it won’t be available in Australia for the Dodgers-Diamondbacks season openers this weekend, which creates an instant asterisk controversy if those teams are in a close race in the regular season’s final week.

“It just needs to keep making progress, and I’m confident that it will,” McCarthy told MLB.com. “The company is committed to keep moving forward and making the changes, but it’s hard to say when I would wear it or when it would be ready on a personal level for me. It’s not game-ready.

“They came to me with their original prototype, so I’ve kind of consulted with them and gone back and forth hammering out some issues and kind of making it a game hat. The only issue is it’s still not there. It doesn’t have enough wear and tear in it yet to see how it basically reacts to game (situations). Does it feel good over the course of a few innings or games? The times I’ve thrown with it were indoors where it’s 55 or 60 degrees, but what happens if it’s 90 or 100 and you sweat? Those are kind of the issues that we have to get past. Once that becomes a conscious thought, now you kind of start tearing away (at) the foundation of what you are as a pitcher.’’

No major-league pitcher is wearing the model, which hangs over the forehead and ears like a limo driver’s cap. An MLB spokesman said pitchers are welcome to be fitted by their team’s equipment manager and send in the measurements for their customized caps.

Um, this is not the urgent treatment a crisis warrants. Selig and his men should be working post-haste with McCarthy and other pitchers, medical experts and tech people to design a compromise cap that is comfortable and safe. This process cannot take years or months, but weeks.

If not?

Call the pallbearers. A baseball, if Bud Selig hasn’t noticed, is a lethal missile.

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