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Why wasn’t Cueto wearing headgear?

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Johnny Cueto should’ve been wearing a helmet on the mound when he was drilled in spring training on Monday. (Chris Carlson/AP)
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And to think pitchers are worried about image, cosmetics, how they might strike a goofy appearance if wearing protective headgear on the mound. Such a concern was voiced just last week by none other than Johnny Cueto, who praised Major League Baseball for continuing to develop technology, acknowledged that “one of us could get hit and get killed,” then admitted why his brethren are reluctant to adopt the skull armor full-time.

“There’s going to be some pitchers that aren’t going to want to use them,” said Cueto, “because they look like they’re a bobblehead.”

Of course, he wasn’t wearing headgear Monday evening in Arizona when he went into his windup, delivered his first pitch in a preseason game against the A’s … and frantically threw his hands in front of his face. A line drive, crushed by Billy Burns, smacked Cueto square in the forehead, knocking him to the ground and sending his cap flying as the ball ricocheted high over the infield and landed in right-center field.

You could say Cueto, the Giants’ new $130 million hope, resembled a bobblehead of sorts as he tumbled in the dirt and remained on all fours while trying to regain his equilibrium. Oddly, after a lengthy discussion with manager Bruce Bochy and head athletic trainer Dave Groeschner, Cueto insisted he stay in the game. He pitched three innings, allowed three runs and five hits, then was examined back at the team facility for concussion symptoms.

All because he wasn’t wearing a protective helmet.

Still standing a mere 60 feet and six inches from batters who are stronger than ever, pitchers never have been more vulnerable to head and facial injuries from scorched baseballs. Twelve have been beaned by liners since September 2012, and last season alone, five hurlers were struck in the head — four directly in the face. A 90 mile-per-hour fastball is said to come back in line-drive form at 140 mph, hardly giving Cueto time to react. Yet MLB has yet to mandate that pitchers wear headgear, and at the end of last season, only Houston’s Collin McHugh was using a protective device — meaning those who have been beaned in games, such as Brandon McCarthy and Alex Cobb, continue to gamble with their lives when they should feel lucky just to be pitching.

In that no fan wants to see a pitcher carted out of a ballpark, much less die beside the mound, the time has come for MLB and the players’ association to legislate headgear as a requirement. Enough with the complaints that the equipment looks dumb or feels cumbersome and wimpy. If hockey goalies could get used to masks through time, then pitchers could get used to a new design known as a “half-cap,” which tries to combine safety with as much comfort and cool quotient as possible. MLB has informed pitchers that they can try out the product at their leisure in spring training, but only a few have shown interest.

Who wants to be ridiculed in the clubhouse, right?

Until the team has to gather at a funeral.

A baseball remains a lethal weapon, yet not until people in the sport concede as much will attitudes change. For instance, why did Bochy and Groeschner let Cueto convince them not to yank him from a trivial Cactus League game? Not only should the Giants be protecting their ultra-expensive investment, they’d seemingly want to have him checked out right away for a possible concussion. By leaving him in for three innings, were they risking further complications? Turns out he suffered only a contusion, the Giants announced. They’re very lucky he’s not in the hospital for an extended period.

“He responded well out there. It’s why he stayed in the game; he answered all the questions from our trainer out there,” Bochy said. “He wanted to stay out there. I guess it shows how tough he is, in a spring training game. His second and third innings were good innings.”

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Therein lies the problem. Cueto wants to show how tough he is. And his manager and teammates are impressed by how tough he is, when, in truth, it seems dumb. An endless succession of NFL tragedies has shown us the importance of taking care of the head. While baseball doesn’t involve concussion risks on every play, they do happen with disconcerting frequency. The batters are wearing protective gear. The pitchers should, too.

It’s convenient to blame MLB for all the world’s evils, but not in this case. While Rob Manfred has significant power as commissioner, he can’t force pitchers to wear gear until the union agrees. Their lives are their lives; their heads are their heads. After a frightening series of episodes in which fans were struck by foul balls, along with threats of legal action, MLB finally pressured franchises to install more protective netting between dugouts and even down the baselines.

Common sense should be embraced, not resisted.

Don’t count me among those concerned about the Giants’ various pitching calamities. Yes, Madison Bumgarner has a neuroma in his left foot and discomfort in his rib cage. Yes, Matt Cain has unexpectedly had a cyst removed from a pitching arm that already is a sad story. Yes, Jake Peavy has been rocked and Jeff Samardzija has been rolled.

But all I want, from now until Opening Day, is for Johnny Cueto to at least consider wearing the half-cap and set a trend for his profession. The dreads will survive just fine.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

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