Umpire Gear – Mask vs Helmet

The Helmet

Extra protection. Having the entire head covered does provide better protection from a foul ball  and a wayward swing, be it an aggressive backswing or the batter losing his grip. I don’t think any mask or helmet provides complete protection, but having something on the side of my head sure makes me feel safer.

The helmet also protects the top of your head. A lot of fields these days have overhanging backstops and foul balls behind you will ricochet down in a hurry. Getting gonged on the head when wearing a traditional mask doesn’t feel good at all.

Field of vision. The bars on the helmet are farther away from your face, which tends to open up the field of vision, making it easier to see, with fewer blind spots. Maybe it is psychological, but I definitely believe that I see the pitch more clearly with the helmet than I did with the mask.

Not wearing a hat. Others who wear helmets agree that not wearing a hat is nice. Not only does it mean I don’t have to buy a new hat every half-season because of the sweat stains, but it’s a lot cooler (temperature-wise) to have the helmet with its airflow as opposed to the mask and a wool hat that lets no air in whatsoever.

Weight distribution. The weight of a hockey-style mask is distributed evenly, so that makes it easier to wear for longer periods of time.

The Mask

Less stigma. There aren’t any nicknames associated with being a traditionalist. But every umpire who wears the bucket has been called Darth Vader or made fun of in other ways — usually by other umpires.

Improved technology. Mask technology has improved greatly over the past few years. Stronger metal is being used to make the masks and the ability for that mask to absorb a direct hit is definitely greater than in previous years. And the advantage of weighing a lot less than a helmet makes a mask the call made by a lot of umpires.

Handles indirect shots better. Neither the mask nor the helmet is going to keep you from seeing stars on a direct shot, be it a fastball or a foul ball. But the mask is designed to be worn loosely enough so that it will spin off your head when it gets drilled. That will deflect some of the energy from the hit and provide protection for you. A hockey-style mask has nowhere to go.

Avoiding sweat. An umpire working the plate will definitely sweat, but by wearing a hat, you don’t get sweat in your eyes, like you can with a helmet.

Weight. Especially with today’s lightweight masks, a mask is a lot lighter on the head than a helmet.

If you have any sort of neck issues, the mask may be the way to go. Although the weight will be frontloaded, it’s still lighter overall than a helmet.

And if you are working a lot of games, whether in a season or just in a stretch, the lighter weight makes a tremendous difference.

Cost. The best hockey-style masks are still more than $225 at many retailers.

Since baseball umpires already spend the most on equipment, any savings is a good savings.

Easier to handle when off. Ask any helmet wearer and he will tell you the most difficult thing is where to hold the helmet when you aren’t wearing it.

The mask is much easier to get off when running down the first-base line or for being in position to make any call. It’s also lighter when you have to make that emphatic safe call.

And between hitters or between innings, the mask is easier to carry than the helmet. When you have to make substitutitons or record an offensive or defensive conference, the mask fits up under your arm, where a helmet wearer always has to monkey with it to get it adjusted correctly.

Whatever decision you make — mask or hockey-style helmet — don’t be averse to trying something different. You might like the new equipment better.

(This article was published in the 07/12 issue of Referee Magazine.)
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