Whether you follow the Minnesota Twins or not, you've heard of Joe Mauer. Mauer is the quintessential local boy who made good. A star in high school in St. Paul, Minnesota, Mauer was eligible for the draft when the Twins had the first overall choice. It was a bit of serendipity made particularly relevant by Mauer's quick development into a perennial All Star and MVP candidate, and furthered when he signed a then-record $184 million, eight year contract extension to stay home in small-market Minnesota. "I always wanted to stay here. That was my main goal. I want to stay here and I want to win here," said Mauer at the time.
The storybook career should go on for another decade before Mauer gets his plaque, complete with Twins hat, in Cooperstown. Except there have been some bumps in the road. On August 21, Mauer was placed on the seven-day concussion disabled list after experiencing dizziness from taking multiple foul tips off his mask. There were reports of progress, but then the symptoms would return. In the end, Mauer's season was over.
This is an unfortunate story of player injury, but it's more than just that, because Mauer is hardly the only one. On August 21, Hardball Talk's Aaron Gleeman wrote, "…within the past 30 days around 15 percent of [catchers in MLB] have been on the disabled list specifically designed for concussions." That seems high, though Gary Green, MLB's medical director, told Jorge L. Ortiz of USAToday in mid-September that the number of concussions across baseball is not any higher this year than normal.
Anecdotally, the American League Championship Series featured two catchers who overcame concussions to return to the field this season in Alex Avila of the Tigers and David Ross of the Red Sox. Then, Avila was injured in Game Five of the Series when Ross, of all people, barreled into him trying to score. The collision jarred Avila's head, forcing him to leave the game.
But whether or not there were really more catcher concussions this past season or just the regular amount isn't the issue. The issue is that there are any.
Of course, concussions come from several different aspects of the game. Players are allowed to run full speed into catchers when trying to score, as Ross did into Avila; a tweak to the rulebook could solve that problem, and it seems we're moving in that direction. Concussions also come from catchers getting accidentally hit in the head on backswings. But neither of those is as big a problem as foul tips. Pitches that get redirected just slightly away from the catcher's glove by a swinging bat and into their mask are the biggest causes of concussions in the sport.
While we are learning more and more about concussions, we still don't know a whole lot -- at least, not nearly as much as we need to. The basics, though, are frightening. A concussion is a brain injury, and brains are fickle things. They can heal quickly or not at all. The more injuries the brain suffers, the longer it can take to recover from each additional concussion and the deeper and more difficult the symptoms become.
First, it helps to be able to identify a concussion when one happens. Sometimes it's not hard, but many times the immediate effects are subtler. Major League Baseball implemented new concussion protocols in 2011 that seek to improve the ability to detect concussions when they happen and to protect the players who have suffered them. Those are advancements, and MLB is to be commended for them, but all the awareness in the world won't stop the repeated smacking of the catcher's facemask, and that's what causes long-term injury. Treating the concussion is important, but so is preventing concussions in the first place. So the question becomes, how can we better protect catchers against the effects of head injuries?
One obvious answer is to improve catcher equipment. How to do that, though, can be problematic. For example, Mike Bernadino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote a piece questioning whether the Twins' catchers' switch to lighter titanium facemasks might be at least partially at fault for the concussions suffered by Mauer and Ryan Doumit. While titanium masks may be lighter and thus more comfortable for players ("It's extremely light, which is what catchers like," Doumit, told Bernadino), it makes some intuitive sense that they wouldn't provide the same protection against foul balls to the facemask as the traditional heavy steel mask. However, Berandino admits that of the seven concussed catchers in the month before he wrote his piece, just three were wearing titanium facemasks. The four who weren't still suffered concussions. So were the titanium facemasks responsible? Maybe, maybe partly, maybe not at all.
Of course tying a brick wall to a catcher's face will protect him from foul tips even better than a steel catcher's mask will, but it has other drawbacks. We'd like to think there is a middle ground between weight, strength, comfort, and safety, but if so nobody has found it yet.
More padding both inside the mask against the face and, potentially, outside the mask as well could help cushion the impact of a 90 mph fastball. How to do it so the catcher can still move his head and do his job all without looking like the pro baseball version of Dark Helmet isn't certain, but it seems possible, at least in the abstract.
Injury expert Will Carroll, now with Bleacher Report, agrees that better masks are one obvious solution. "I'd like to see better catcher's masks, with baseball funding research," he said. "There's probably a way to make it better -- better padding, deeper cushions, some form of deformable face mask -- and I'd like to see MLB lead the way. It will help all levels of baseball and show leadership on the issue."
I asked Carroll if there were any new advancements in catcher safety that he's aware of on the horizon. "Sadly," he said, "none. I have hope. Some new padding is coming into baseball from companies like Evoshield and Unequal and I'd like to see them do more."
The biggest reason for optimism probably comes in our -- and thus MLB's -- increased awareness of the issue. Decades ago nobody really understood the implications of concussions or the long-term danger they posed to player safety. The NFL's recent troubles in this department have served to highlight the problem across all sports, a silver lining to a very dark cloud.
In any case, it is clear more should be done, including research into different masks, new types of padding, and working towards increased teams, players, and fan understanding.
Back in college I played some ice hockey. During one game I skated into the corner to dig out a puck, and an opposing player skated in to try to separate me from the puck, swung his elbow, and hit the back of my head. My skull hit, in order, his swinging elbow, the glass, and the ice. I don't know how long I stayed down for, but I do know that the play continued. When I staggered to my feet and made it back to the bench, I was surprised to find the players next to me wearing different uniforms because I had skated back to the wrong bench.
I usually tell that story as a joke, but it occurs to me now that it's not so funny.
For MLB, the problems are clear and only becoming clearer with each successive concussion. There only real obstacle to improving catcher safety is will. The will to solve the problem, regardless of the cost and effort required, must be there. Once we have that, I have no doubt a solution will appear.
It may seem like this is a new problem, but really it's an old problem we just noticed. The end of the story of Joe Mauer and players like him depends upon how effectively we work to solve it.