Alright Ladies and Gentlemen... this has been sitting, open on a browser tab, unfinished, for far too long. Now is the appropriate time to post it, especially with the 2018 season kicking off (up north, at least... our season never ends here in the south) and in light of the recent phenomenon of MLB Umpires mysteriously covering up their CP's branding, and the (good!) rash of Force3 Defender and All-Star FM4000MAG sightings.
Wilson is not / hasn't been / never was (take your pick) our company. Sure, they might have partnered up with Joe West to produce the iconic, hardshell West Vest, but that was only after he left his working-arrangement with Douglas. So too, they developed the Platinum as a sibling-derivative of the classic West Vest, but that was over 15 years ago. In that time, they've done nothing specifically and proactively for us, despite commanding the most precious and treasured piece of real estate in televised baseball.
And this latest one-piece Hockey Style Mask (HSM) is the epitome, the shining example of this indifference.
For the record, Wilson has been a significant character within the baseball industry landscape for decades, if not nearly a century (2022 will be the centennial). It started as a sporting goods company, focusing on leather and clothing goods within the sports of basketball, football and baseball. During the 1960's and 70's, they provided all the uniforms for Major League Baseball. Many baseball players have used their gloves and mitts, and they've maintained a steady, fierce rivalry with Rawlings (who still provides the official ball of MLB and MiLB). It's this rivalry, with companies such as Rawlings, All-Star, Easton, Louisville Slugger, Mizuno, Nike... and soon to be UnderArmour, that is at the center of this topic.
Hockey-style masks, in the format we currently have them, have been the best contribution to the development and safety of the amateur catcher since the invention of the mask, the transition from cotton and wool to protective foam in chest protectors, and the introduction of the cup personal protector. Yes... let that sink in. Me, an avowed Traditional Mask (TM)-lover / HSM-hater, who has made it known throughout the firmament I will never wear a HSM (except for demonstration purposes), do fully endorse and support the use of HSMs for amateur athletes. Furthermore, I understand completely why the NFHS makes their use mandatory; I don't like it, but when you factor in all the pieces to the equation that lie outside the confines of the field (such as that wonderful, ghastly specter called "insurance"), I completely understand it and can sign off on it.
Amateur catchers are morons. Heck, all amateur ballplayers are (would you put a helmet on for crying out loud??!!! And tie your shoes (again!) while you're at it!), but catchers are especially prone to bouts of idiocy. Even while receiving a pitch, they will jolt, or twist their head, or cower, or duck out of the way. Have you seen the condition of their batting helmets? The NFHS forbids tape to be present on a batting helmet, for fear it is covering a crack or holding in padding that would otherwise fall out. Could you imagine what an amateur catcher's TM pads would look like??! Even if the the pads are completely shot within a HSM, the (intact) shell alone should mitigate most of the damage a bat or ball would otherwise cause.
So, for the sake of discussion, let's put a "one piece" Hockey-Style Mask alongside the only other NOCSAE approved headgear for catchers, the "snoopy mask".
Left one? Totally cool. Right one? Totally uncool.
Despite what you might think, the snoopy mask is approved by NOCSAE because the otherwise-traditional mask is chained / bolted / tethered / buckled to the ear-covering helmet. NOCSAE's sole commission is to protect / reduce head injuries, not concussions themselves. What's a concussion? A head injury. But how about a dislocated jaw? Or a lacerated ear? Those are both head injuries, are they not? The jaw hinge and the ears are both part of the head, after all.
And the TM alone (with or without the backwards batting helmet called a "skullcap") does not cover or protect the ears or jaw hinge!
The snoopy mask is (pretty much) unacceptable to most amateur catchers because, style aside (it's hideous!), it's stifling to wear, terribly ventilated, heavy (especially up front), handicaps vision, is impossible painful to take off and put on, causes the most random of ricochets, and... this is really important... it is very challenging to throw with while on.
This leads into why the HSM has become so popular and has maintained its popularity. It exceeds the snoopy mask in each and every factor I listed, along with (with a bit of panache) looking pretty cool. Is it perfect? Heck no! Nothing (currently) still beats a TM in ventilation, frontal concussion protection, and ease of throwing with it. But there are HSMs that are close.
The All-Star MVP System 7 HSMs are the king of the heap, the cream of the crop. They excel at geometry, not only to provide protection by vectoring an impact, but by minimizing the perpendicular facet presented to that impact. This same geometry affords very good visibility (the ability to see out), and as you notice at its bottom, it is minimally intrusive on a catcher dropping his chin (which he should!) to receive or block a pitch, or to pop up, bring the ball up to his ear, and throw with an unaffected motion. Of course, other manufacturers followed suit – they had to, because All-Star proactively tests their helmet designs prior to submission to NOCSAE review! Easton, Rawlings, Mizuno, Louisville Slugger, Worth, TPX, Diamond... a virtual parade of who's-who in baseball, all driven by the NFHS Board mandating that all catcher's headgear had to be NOCSAE -approved. And yes, Wilson did contribute a model too. Oddly, this was one of their offerings... it still is, by the way...
Since companies routinely design and develop gear on a shoestring budget, they started to imitate, if not outright use, each others' planforms. All-Star would of course have their copyright -protected System 7's, but their lesser, more common, more budget-friendly shell planforms would be shopped around China (always China) and find their way into models from their competitors, sometimes with different cage configurations, sometimes with nothing more than just a brand-logo change! Hey, if NOCSAE approved this one, then this one must be right, so we don't have to invest the capital to design, develop, test and refine an unique planform all our own!
All-Star was super smart and proactive, recognizing that both branding and technical innovation was very important, and proceeded to produce the System 7 and get it on the heads of young, star-studded catchers such as Buster Posey. Instead of trying to elbow into MLB, Easton instead imbedded itself in the Collegiate scene, culturing the Mako and M-series of HSMs. Amateur catchers began buying All-Star and Easton catcher's gear by the wagonload. Even Rawlings was forced to update their HSM from one of the common planforms to something more unique and signature, despite them having one of the poster-boys of catchers in their backyard, Yadier Molina.
Wilson, however, went a different route. In a stroke of remarkable, proactive design, they developed a HSM shell that had active spring-&-shock absorbers upon it. The thing actually worked, dampening impacts and reducing the the volume of padding required to provide equitable protection. This was the Wilson Shock FX, and it made for a fairly light and rather well-ventilated model. There were three problems, though:
The shock housings were cast into the mold of the shell, and resulted in a wider-than-typical shape, which hindered some catchers favoring, and ultimately, recommending it.
Because amateur catchers routinely dump their HSMs on the ground on every batted or live ball they can't immediately find, those HSMs take an enormous amount of punishment and abuse. The shock absorbers on the Shock FX would get fouled by dirt, mud, or sand, or get wet and corrode, or would get knocked out of alignment. When a HSM costs $200+, and is no longer functional, what are you likely to do about it? Yup, call up Customer Service for a resolution. After a few seasons, Wilson could no longer keep up with the demand for repair, replacement, or reimbursement.
Wilson lacked a MLB catcher endorsement. They only sponsored AJ Ellis, and he was an adamant TM wearer.
On this last point, Wilson had one sliver of hope so as to remain "in the game". They had us, the umpires. So, they ramped up the exposure of the Big Yellow W on TMs, HSMs, and CPs worn by Plate Umpires, standing right next to the premier, marketed catchers that the likes of All-Star, Nike, Rawlings and Mizuno endorsed. Several MLB Umpires used the Shock FX, among them Gary Cederstrom. To this end, the Shock FX was a wonderful HSM for umpires! It was very well ventilated (for a HSM), had those excellent shock absorbers, and was offered in a shell size that could accommodate even big ol' bucket-heads like Wally Bell and The Big C. But without a catcher's endorsement, the Shock FX was steadily losing ground – popularity and profits – to All-Star, Easton and Mizuno where it mattered most – the High School-age amateur baseball programs. High School catchers didn't want to look like Gary Cederstrom! They wanted to look like Buster Posey, or Martín Maldonado, or any of the young HSM-wearing catchers in the Bigs! Or, they wanted to look like the catchers in the Power conferences of the NCAA!
Thus, facing an 0-2 count and near-exhaustion against a top-notch closer, Wilson ended the Shock FX and embarked on an all-new HSM design, dubbed the Pro Stock, that fully featured everything a preeminent, elite catcher wanted:
Outstanding visibility (All-Star and Easton excelled at this)
Forehead/crown protection (Mizuno excelled at this)
Minimalist, vectored chin section to allow a chin to drop to chest and allowed near-free range of throwing motion
On this last point, the Pro Stock absolutely excels – so much so that your nose is pressed up nearly against the cage (affording great visibility!), and you rarely find the need to take the HSM off!
Huh! That's wonderful!... but what are umpires expected to do?
Yeah, thought so.
So too, the Pro Stock is only offered in a size up to 7 1/2", and I can assure you – that's hat size, not including if you have a chubby, full face or an adult's neck! Gary Cederstrom would not be able to wear this! But why should he or why would he? The Pro Stock was designed with catchers in mind! Surely there's an alternative that has umpires in mind, right? One that can be taken easily on and off, and accommodates an adult's head-and-hat size, and actively dampens impacts without concern of ever being tossed on the ground or into a dugout in a fit of frustration, and protects the chin and jaw area because that is taught to be held, stiff and unmoving out there in space so as to keep the eyes as stable as possible... oh, and one that is not only comfortable to wear, but is easy to hold in your hand if off, or allows you to be vocally heard while on... over the span of 18 half-innings? Surely such a thing exists from the company that supposedly represents Umpires?!
I rest my case. Wilson Pro Stock – ideal for catchers, not for umpires.