Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Concussion: It's Not Just a Headache

If you are a catcher in baseball your best friend is not the chest protector or shin guards or protective cup. While they may prevent you from bruising up like a mishandled banana it is the face mask that can save you from debilitating headaches and even concussions.

The first masks were all about visibility. Carbon-steel wire mesh remains the material of choice to this day. Carbon-steel is used because it is flexible but strong. The goal is to get some deformation in the mesh to reduce some of the shock but still retain its structural integrity.

The hockey-style mask, the one Mike Matheny wore when his career came to a sudden end (while the aforementioned carbon-steel well-padded model was the mask in which he broke into the big leagues wearing) is made of high-tech polycarbon. The helmet is said to protect the top, sides, and back of the head but I beg to differ based on the amount of padding used on these models.

The hockey-style mask is said to deflect the ball rather than having the ball hit the catcher flush. Perhaps that is how the carbon-steel model was manufactured but as one who wore both (I used the hockey mask while umpiring) and was really uncomfortable wearing it. It felt too light. And too light made me feel unsafe.

While others considered the big, well-padded mask too weighty for their necks, I was comforted by the support it gave my noggin' when some punch and judy hitter would be up there flailing away at pitches barely getting the bat on the ball and having many a ball glance off my mask.

I can't go into why the hockey mask isn't better because one would think if it could stop a puck at xxx miles per hour it surely could protect a catcher from a batter's foul tips. But I think the fact that goalies can see the puck and it's flight, regardless of how fast it is going, is easy to detect and at the least get out of the pucks way rather than standing idly by letting the hardened rubber meet your mask. Talk about new meaning to "rubber meets the road." "Don't let the rubber meet your mug or you will be seeing images that have never before or ever existed!"

So seeing the ball gives the catcher a chance to react to it. But on pitches above the catcher's head where they can only rely on instinct that's where the deflections seem to dominate the unsuspecting backstop. A player who doesn't see the ball can only hope it lands somewhere on God's green (or brown, depending on where you hang out) earth besides the back, top or side of his head.

In looking up how a catcher's mask has evolved no writer is privy to such information. They can only give you their interpretation based on the information they have. Where Major League Baseball (MLB) comes in is that issues seem to focus on whether the MLB is doing something about concussions not how to better suit the player with gear that prevents such a discussion in the first place. (Exhibit A: an article dated 2/25/14 "The Year of Living Less Dangerously" website: should pull up a somewhat limited perspective of the evolution of the "tools of ignorance" and how to better serve a catcher with the proper equipment.

Isn't that something. He wants to play baseball and actually loves settling in behind the plate, close to the batter. A person with a club who grunts and groans with every swing or ball called a strike in which no attempt to swing was made. And that person, with a glove, chest-protector, shit-guards and a face mask is wearing all of this protective equipment called the "tools of ignorance" and yet that's exactly where it stops. Nothing will be done to advance the protective equipment until enough people wearing the "tools of ignorance" get injured bad enough for the MLB to stop being ignorant on the matter of the health and well-being of its participants.

A new stop sign doesn't go up at the corner of Elm and Grand because of a PTA meeting. It goes there because little Johnny, Mary, Suzy, Billy, and Mikey have all been hit buy a car at that intersection. It took bodily harm for that stop sign to go up at Elm and Grand.

And that's the way the MLB will handle arriving at the best equipment possible in which their logo must be placed so they can receive some monetary gains-regardless if their receiving something for the mere fact that they only wanted their fucking logo to go onto the innovator's equipment- and you would still astute if you get the feeling that the ultimate concern of the player's health and well-being was secondary to the MLB. Yep, that's the way it works.

Welcome to baseball 2014.

Kevin J. Marquez