Tigers catcher Alex Avila and Red Sox catcher David Ross were born a decade apart. One is a starter, the other a back-up. One sports a swarthy five o'clock shadow, the other an enviable beard. But they have more in common than just their position and the fact that their teams are facing off in the American League Championship Series. Both have long histories with concussions, the most recent of which occurred this summer, and both are plying their trade in old-school, heavy steel catchers' masks.
The retro equipment has kept them injury-free, allowing them to be on the field this postseason. Ross started Game 1 of the ALCS, catching Sox starter Jon Lester, while Avila has three hits, including a home run, and three RBIs in the series' first two games.
Avila was hit so often behind the plate through the first five years of his career that he routinely fielded questions about where the "ball magnet" was in his body and was dubbed "The Titanium Catcher" by a Tigers' beat writer.
"It did seem for a while that Alex got hit more than other catchers, but maybe it's just coincidence," says Al Avila, Alex's father and the Tigers' assistant general manager. "He plays pretty close to the hitter. The closer you are to home plate, the more calls you get for strikes. But at the same time, you're much closer to those foul balls that are going to hit you directly, as opposed to going right by you."
That's what happened in August, when Avila took a Nick Swisher foul tip to the face and was out of commission for more than two weeks with recurring headaches, lightheadedness and nausea. It was his second head injury in 11 months; he was knocked out in September 2012, when he ran into Prince Fielder while chasing a foul pop.
Ross' issues began with the Reds in 2007, when he was bowled over by Mike Cameron. Ross' helmet flew off, and he struck the back of his head on home plate. There is a 12-hour period of that day Ross still cannot remember. This season, the 36-year-old had a pair of concussions, the first in May and the second in June, which resulted in eight weeks of blurred vision, headaches, balance issues and mood swings.
When Avila and Ross returned to action, both decided to make a change. Ross discarded the hockey-style mask he used for the majority of his career, and Avila put aside the ultra-lightweight titanium mask that had been his staple. Both chose good, old-fashioned steel.
"I've been hit hard a few times since I came back, and I haven't had any issues since then, so maybe it's helping," Avila said. "But I think if you get hit hard enough, you're going to get a concussion no matter what you're wearing."
Ross agrees. "I did my research, and talked to a lot of doctors and equipment people, and there seems to be no correlation between the hockey mask and a higher rate of concussion," he says. "But I switched for my own piece of mind, to try something new, and the old-school mask seems to be working fine. I can see, I've thrown well and clocked well with it, and the weight of it doesn't bother me at all."
Titanium masks, originally developed in a 2006 collaboration between former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada and Nike, are very popular. They were designed to pop off on impact, to help dissipate some of the force of the blow. But should the mask stay put, titanium doesn't give, and the catcher's face and head absorb the entire blow. The hockey mask is designed to stay on at all times and has ear coverage to better protect the entire head. Catchers also report increased visibility, because the bars are much closer to the face, allowing for better peripheral vision. But because the hockey mask fits so closely to the face, many believe it does not do a great job of dispersing the force of impact.
Steel masks, though heavier than both the titanium and hockey masks, do give, and the bars are farther away from the face and backed up with thicker padding, allowing for better dispersal of the force of impact.
Avila and Ross liked the sound of that, and have also tried other things to better protect their heads.
Avila wears a new, extra-padded helmet developed by Rawlings specifically for him, which is similar to those now being used by hitters in the Minor Leagues. For a time, Ross even wore a Kevlar skullcap under his helmet to further protect himself from the force of impact.
"The guys said I looked like a hibachi chef," he said.
Ross and Avila were not the only catchers to deal with head injuries this season. At one point this summer, Houston's Carlos Corporan and Max Stassi, Oakland's John Jaso, Colorado's Yorvit Torrealba and Minnesota's Joe Mauer were all on the seven-day concussion DL, instituted by MLB prior to the 2011 season to specifically deal with head injuries, at the same time.
"I think the awareness of head injuries has really come along," Ross says. "If I'd had this injury five years ago, it would have been chalked up to having a bad year, and I would have been told, 'Oh well, go get 'em next year.' But now we know each concussion is different, and can affect a different part of the brain and create a different set of symptoms. We also know that once you've had a concussion, you're much more susceptible to having another one in the future."
Which is why he and Avila are taking the issue so seriously, and opting for the safety of throwback steel.