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Banged-up high school baseball coaches take hint, take care

Dunedin first-base coach Gino Antonelli is choosing to wear a helmet during games.

ATOYIA DEANS | Times

Dunedin first-base coach Gino Antonelli is choosing to wear a helmet during games.

DUNEDIN — They have survived the dangers of the coaching boxes for years.

They coached some of the county's most fearsome and towering power hitters, such as Brian Dopirak and Ryan Harvey, and lived to tell about it.

They felt safe while nimbly avoiding a stray liner or two.

But a line shot by 5-foot-8 freshman Casey Turgeon changed all that.

Headed for the private regions of Dunedin first-base coach Gino Antonelli, it was all the veteran could do to get his hand on the baseball to deflect it.

The next game, two more shots whizzed by. The game after that, it was head coach Tom Hilbert's turn.

With his body angled away from the plate to split his focus between batter and runner on second, he never had a chance as Jamison Sweat nearly embedded a ball into his upper thigh.

"That,'' Hilbert said, "was enough.''

Today, Hilbert and Antonelli are one of the first high school coaching duos to sport the same protective helmets now required by Major League Baseball.

Hilbert, left with a purple bruise the size of a softball, was more shaken by Antonelli's three near-misses. A superstitious sort, he figured someone somewhere was sending a message.

"I was watching baseball with my dad and uncle, and I told them I just didn't feel comfortable out there anymore with a right-handed hitter up,'' Hilbert said. "They said if you feel that strongly about it, let's go on the Internet and order helmets now.''

It has been nine months since Mike Coolbaugh, first-base coach for Colorado's Double-A team in Tulsa, Okla., was killed by a foul ball.

He was 35, with a pregnant wife and two young children. It was a heart-wrenching story and influenced Hilbert's decision.

It took baseball 51 years after Ray Chapman was killed by a pitched ball in 1920 to require batters to wear helmets. It took three months after Coolbaugh's death for MLB to adopt a rule making it mandatory for the base coaches to wear helmets.

The rule has received lukewarm reaction from the pros. Hilbert admits it takes a little getting used to, it bucks tradition and isn't the best look.

But Hilbert wouldn't mind seeing the safety precaution reach the high school ranks.

"I wish a lot of other coaches would do it,'' he said.

He may get his wish.

Elliot Hopkins, baseball rules editor at the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations, said he is writing the helmet issue into the organization's annual questionnaire.

If enough states approve, it would become the rule.

Hilbert, 37, doesn't care if people think he might be overreacting.

He has no children, but his 3-year-old niece, Kassidy Theil, might as well be. His father, Tom Sr., and uncle Don are assistant coaches. The thought of any of them having to witness something similar to what happened to Coolbaugh is sickening, he said.

"We might not get another ball hit at us all year,'' Hilbert said. "But why take the chance?''

Veteran Land O'Lakes coach Calvin Baisley said he'd wear a helmet if he had to but would rather not.

Baisley says, by taking precautions, he has been plunked once on the shin in 29 years.

"When I had Caz Piurowski (who was 6-7, 240 pounds and set a Pasco County record for home runs), yeah, I backed up,'' he said. "I'm not stupid.''

But Baisley and others such as Ridgewood's Larry Beets, who says coaching third base is certainly dangerous, and Seminole's Greg Olsen understand why helmets would be considered.

"High school players hit the ball harder than ever and with those aluminum bats, the ball really gets on you quick,'' Olsen said. "Maybe they should take a look at it.''

Because sometimes, when a foul ball comes screaming your way, you don't get that chance.

John C. Cotey can be reached at johncotey@gmail.com or (813) 909-4612.

Banged-up high school baseball coaches take hint, take care 04/08/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 9, 2008 11:09am]
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