New Oversized Baseball Helmets Big On Safety, Not Style

May 27, 2010

One ballplayer says he can’t even stand to see his own reflection. Another says he feels like some creature wandering outer space. “Gazoo” is the term of choice for this latest sports look.

Minor league baseball is bulking up on its helmet size this season, promising unprecedented safety. But the new helmets, which can withstand pitches up to 100 mph, are emphatically not winning any fashion points with players.

In short, they hate ’em.

“I don’t even look in the mirror,” said Justin Turner, an infielder for the Norfolk Tides, the Triple-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. “I think they’re ridiculous.”

“I’ve been hit in the face in the College World Series. There’s got to be a way to put more protection in the helmet and not have them look that atrocious,” he said.

The Rawlings S100 helmet is must-use equipment this year throughout the minors. Noticeably bigger than what the major leaguers wear, it includes an expanded liner made of polypropylene, a foamlike material that’s also in some bicycle helmets.

At a time when head injuries in sports have drawn greater attention — this week there was a congressional hearing on NFL concussions — the S100 is being touted as a breakthrough in injury prevention.

In reality, there’s just about a half-inch of extra padding all the way around. But to many players, that makes them hugely unpopular.

New York Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli is the only big leaguer wearing one on a regular basis. He’d already sustained a couple of concussions when manager Joe Girardi persuaded Cervelli to pick safety over style.

“It’s ugly,” Cervelli said in spring training, adding, “It’s not about how it looks, I’ve got to take care of myself.”

Cervelli’s choice also brought him a new nickname: “Gazoo.” That comes from “The Great Gazoo,” the tiny green character in “The Flintstones” with the giant space helmet.

Teammate Derek Jeter recently tried Cervelli’s helmet for a couple of swings in batting practice and quickly ditched it.

All-Star third baseman David Wright of the New York Mets landed in a hospital last August after getting beaned by a 94 mph fastball from San Francisco’s Matt Cain. Wright wore the S100 when he returned to the lineup — for a day, anyway — and six S100s were sent to each major league team for its players to try out for the rest of the season.

With the helmets optional in the majors, the new shell is a tough sell in a sport where players strive to look good.

Cincinnati third baseman Scott Rolen suffered a concussion when he was beaned last season. The Reds gave him one of the concussion-resistant helmets to try when he came back, but he found it too uncomfortable.

Kansas City catcher Jason Kendall has been hit by pitches 251 times, among the most in major league history. Still, he’s not switching.

“When you’ve got somebody throwing 95 mph and hits you in the helmet, it’s going to ring your bell,” Kendall said. “But you’ve got to be comfortable. You don’t want a 10-pound helmet on your head.”

According to Minor League Baseball, more than 2,000 batters have been hit by pitches in the minors this season. Statistics on how many of those were beanings are not kept, spokesman Steve Densa said.

“It just looks a lot different, and baseball players don’t like to look different,” said Pat O’Conner, president of minor league baseball. “I don’t know that there’s been any consistent complaints or comments one way or another. I think the players are looking at it as, ‘It’s a helmet and we’ve got to wear one.”‘

Rawlings said last year that it didn’t expect major leaguers to “do cartwheels” over its newest product. There is talk, too, that a modified helmet that’s a bit smaller might be in the works.

Outfielder Justin Maxwell, who’s been back and forth this year between Washington and Triple-A Syracuse, was hit in the helmet by a 95 mph fastball in the second game of the International League season.

“I didn’t feel anything,” he said. “I’ve been hit in the head before with the old helmets. I remember I got hit in 2007 in spring training. I was kind of dazed for a couple of days and had to sit out. This year when I got hit, I just ran to first base, no problem. It actually broke the helmet. I had to get another one, but I didn’t feel anything.”

Maxwell said adapting to the S100 hasn’t been a problem.

“You get used to it. You really don’t notice it. I was little skeptical of it at first, but after getting domed I know it’s pretty safe,” he said. “It’s not a bad thing, but I can understand the allure of it not looking good.”

Syracuse teammate Chase Lambin was surprised when he first saw the new helmets.

“I’ve never been beaned, knock on wood,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I thought somebody made a mistake. I don’t mind them now.”

“I think they look bad _ actually, they make you feel like Marty the Martian _ but they feel OK,” Lambin said. “It’s just when you glance at yourself in the mirror or see yourself in a picture, it’s like, ‘Geez, that looks really funny.’ I don’t think about it when I’m wearing it, but I’m a big believer that if you look good, you play good. That helmet’s definitely not helping.”

Outfielder Chris Heisey started this year at Triple-A Louisville, then got called up by Cincinnati. For his big league debut, he shucked the oversized helmet, even he acknowledged it works.

“For a while, I’d be hitting myself in the helmet with my bat because it sticks out that much further, but everybody’s getting used to them at this point,” he said. “They look goofy. Luckily, my head’s bigger, but some of the guys who have littler heads, it makes them look like aliens almost.”

Norfolk hitting coach Richie Hebner made his major league debut in 1968, three years before the majors put in a rule requiring batters to wear helmets.

“It’s more protection. It’s safety rules, so it’s good,” Hebner said of the S100. “If I was making the money they’re making, I’d put a trash barrel over my head.”

AP Sports Writers Joe Kay in Cincinnati and John Marshall in Kansas City and AP Baseball Writer Ben Walker contributed to this report

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