Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Rant #482: Tools of Ignorance

April 12 is a memorable day if you are an outer space nut, because today is the day that Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to fly in space, orbiting the earth a single time before making a safe landing.

That was back in 1961. I was four years old, and I probably was amazed at the whole thing. Still am.

However, way back in 1877, another momentous occasion happened on this day, and everybody from Johnny Bench to Carlton Fisk to Yogi Berra to Joe Mauer should stop and pause today.

What would their careers have been as catchers if not for the braveness of James Tyng, of Harvard University?

Tyng was a catcher in the very early days of the sport. He didn't feel like getting hit in the face or the head anymore when foul balls came off the bat.

So he became the first baseball player to use a catcher's mask in a game.

Leave it to a Harvard kid to be the first to do something.

A catcher's mask is an ungainly invention, but one that works. It is uncomfortable, must be thrown away when going after foul balls, and is easily stepped on when it is.

Yet, it is the very foundation of a catcher's arsenal of tools.

Today's catcher's mask is very, very different from the one Tyng wore. It is more lightweight, and aerodynamically designed to bear the brunt of foul balls with relative comfort.

And in a nod to Gagarin and other astronauts, the modern catcher's mask resembles an astronaut's helmet.

But it does what Tyng's basic mask did--it protects the face from foul balls.

When I was a kid in Little League, I did some catching. Let me tell you, that mask is annoying. It rubs against you the wrong way and actually, in my mind, cuts away part of your vision.

But I am sure it protected my face from severe hits with the ball. Last time I looked, I didn't have any balls etched into my face, so I guess it worked.

And it's worked for millions of others who have decided--or been told to--be the catcher.

So thanks to Tyng, and his bravery for trying something different.

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