Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
On Tuesday night, Joe Mauer was placed on the 7-day disabled list with concussion-like symptoms after taking a foul tip off the mask during Monday’s game against the Mets. Unfortunately, Mauer is having a great year on both sides of the ball and has been able to stay off of the DL until now. However, the worst part of the situation is that Mauer becomes the eighth catcher this year to land on the DL because of a concussion.
It is important to ask whether this rise in concussions is due to suddenly increased danger to catchers or whether it’s because of increased concussion awareness. Sure pitchers are getting stronger and throw the ball harder, but catchers have been exposed to the same foul tips for the entire history of baseball, making it very unlikely that just recently they’ve started to experience concussions from them. Catchers have probably been playing through concussions for many decades without knowing that their “dizziness” was much more problematic and dangerous than a bad headache.
However that absolutely doesn’t mean that catchers should just suck it up and play through it like they used to in the old days. Repeated impacts and concussion injury histories from foul tips could eventually lead to life-long problems for catchers. The NHL and NFL are already learning the hard way about the dangers of career long hits to the head. Minnesota Wild fans should all be familiar with former enforcer Derek Boogaard’s tragic death and the posthumous examination that found he suffered from advanced Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Caused by repetitive brain trauma, this degenerative disease can cause dementia, memory loss and severe depression. Long time NFL Linebacker Junior Seau took his own life with a gunshot to the chest, prompting many to believe that he was protecting his brain so it could be studied for potential damage. Tests returned positive for the same Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy that Boogaard suffered from. Hits to the head occur much more frequently in football and hockey but there is a slim chance that foul tips could add up to be just as jarring. It might not be enough to cause a dangerous brain disease, but that doesn’t mean the MLB should ignore the danger catchers are in. Even one concussion can cause untold side-effects down the road.
When Mauer’s trip to the DL came out, reporters asked how long Mauer could continue to play catcher with the risk of further head injury hanging over him. Joe Mauer is the best Twins player and the best catcher in the league so he obviously needs to be protected, but what about the catcher that fills his place? Ryan Doumit has already landed on the DL with a concussion and perhaps it will only be a matter of time before Chris Herrmann does as well. This issue goes so far beyond the Minnesota Twins protecting Mauer for the rest of his career. The catcher position is never going to change; they will always be at risk to be struck with foul tips. That’s why the catcher’s mask should be improved as soon as possible so that catchers of this generation and all future generations don’t suffer from brain damage after long careers of taking beatings behind the plate.
The NFL is constantly changing the helmets players use to make them safer and the same thing should start happening with the catcher’s face mask. Currently there are two basic styles of helmets, the “hockey style” helmet and the traditional facemask. Houston catcher Carlos Corporan uses a “hockey style” helmet. Interestingly, Boston’s David Ross also used to use a “hockey style” helmet, but after returning from his second concussion a few days ago, he switched to a conventional facemask. The conventional facemask is said to be safer but the numbers still highlight the facemask’s own set of problems, with concussion sufferers Mauer, Doumit, Detroit’s Alex Avila, Oakland’s John Jaso, Colorado’s Yorvit Torrealba and Kansas City’s Salvador Perez all using the standard facemask. A new and improved type of mask should be explored.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, quoted in La Velle E. Neal’s Star Tribune article, questioned the effectiveness of adding more padding to masks by saying, “I don’t know what you can do to keep your head from being jerked back.” Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong. Whatever new helmets might turn out to be, rigorous safety tests should be adopted in the creation process to ensure that they can stand up to any foul tip and can successfully divert the energy impact away from the skull and brain. Inevitably new prototypes will be called “bulky” and will be said to negatively impact the catcher’s vision and ability to do the things they’ve done all of their lives with their current equipment. But someone should step up and advocate for a safer mask, whether it be manufacturers, the MLB or an All-Star catcher like Joe Mauer. Catchers shouldn’t suffer after their careers are over because they dedicated themselves to the game and position they love. There is life after baseball, and for Joe Mauer, newborn twins Maren and Emily are the proof.