Titanium catcher’s masks might not be safe enough

David Brown

No fewer than seven catchers working behind the plate in Major League Baseball were sidelined with concussions in August, a fact that reporter Mike Beradino rightly if also pun-tasticlly calls "staggering" in a post for the Twin Cities' Pioneer Press. At least five of those catchers reportedly use titanium masks. Two play for the Minnesota Twins — Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit.

The appeal of titanium is the weight, or lack thereof, when compared with steel. Manufacturers claim titanium masks weigh 16 ounces while being 10 times stronger than their steel counterparts. That makes the alloy alluring to Doumit, who says: "Throughout the course of the game, you start to feel it in the back of your neck."

So this is something that matters, even if it's just for comfort's sake. Lighter might mean easier for catchers to use when it comes to masks, but it might not mean safer.

Any statistician would tell you that it's a small sample size we're talking about — the possibility of coincidence is high — and we're also not privy to the tests that manufacturers do on these masks. Of course it's not in their best interest to make equipment that allows for more concussions. All we have to go on is the players' instinct, and it's telling them that something isn't right:

"From a catching standpoint, I hope the science catches up, and we can find a little better mask," Doumit said. "You look across the league, and you see (what's happening). We hope that somebody comes up with a mask that helps stifle that, because it's scary."

Like Doumit, who took a Jason Castro foul tip off the front of his mask Aug. 4 against Houston, Mauer was sidelined after a pair of hard jolts during an Aug. 19 makeup game against the New York Mets.

The second one, coming into the seventh inning off the bat of Ike Davis, resulted in the first diagnosed concussion of Mauer's professional career.

Mauer has been using a hybrid helmet manufactured by Rawlings that's just like the new oversized batting helmets. It's the best available equipment — which only pins more speculation on the titanium masks. Those are made by Nike.

Mauer said he doesn't know what role the equipment has in the spate of concussions, only that he hopes "somebody a lot smarter than" him is researching it. That brings us the curious comments of Twins GM Terry Ryan, who was interviewed by Beradino the day before Mauer sustained his brain injury.

Ryan, who has been besieged by questions regarding Mauer's future and whether it should be behind the plate at $23 million a year, left no doubt where he sees him playing in the coming seasons:

"That's his position," Ryan said. "Somebody's going to have to get back there. We can't put a mechanical man back there."

Ryan also said the Twins don't have an organization-wide policy on catcher's masks.

"It's a comfort level," Ryan said. "We've got all kinds. All of them are safe. Obviously, they have to go through testing, too."

"All of them are safe." His players don't seem to agree. Perhaps it's because the way the story was written, but Ryan sounds as concerned with opening up the team to liability as he is interested in making sure manufacturers are making the safest stuff possible. At best he's in full "That's the way it is," mode. As Beradino writes, the Detroit Tigers have urged Alex Avila — another of the concussed catchers — to revert to wearing a mask with steel bars and more padding.

Until a better mask comes along, that's probably what the Twins should be doing with Doumit and Mauer. In Mauer's case, don't even worry about his non-mechanical brain, if you don't want to. Just think of it as protecting a $184 million investment.

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