Monday, December 13, 2010

A Beginner’s Guide to Properly Fitted Umpire Gear

Protecting yourself as an umpire boils down to three things:

(1) using proper mechanics,
(2) selecting proper equipment, and
(3) wearing that equipment correctly.

Properly fitted gear can mean the difference between being protected and being hurt. As the old saying goes, "if you are not protected, the ball will find you!" Today’s article discusses three important umpire protective items, and how to wear these items correctly.

There are many “veteran” opinions on the best way to wear a traditional mask. Since this article is directed at the beginner umpire, advice directly from the manufacturer is a good place to start. Jacquie Rooney, a Product Manager at Wilson Sporting Goods, gives some great insight:

The forehead and jaw area of your face should make snug contact with the upper and lower pads, respectively, in order for the pads to properly cushion upon impact. The pads attached the mask should be also firm enough so that they do not “bottom out” with a hard hit. Proper contact is achieved by adjusting the top and two side straps on the mask harness. Ideally, the harness should wrap around the head in the same position as a comfortably fitting baseball cap. Some umpires also desire throat protection that extends beyond the frame of the mask. The throat guard should be attached so that it hangs below the mask and does not contact the body when the umpire is in the slot.

Many veteran umpires advocate wearing your traditional mask very loose. As a practical matter, a mask that is too loose may move and obstruct your vision. The mask may also move if you flinch at a pitch which could result in an otherwise avoidable injury. On the other hand, a mask that is too tight can transfer more of the foul ball’s energy directly to your head, which may cause a concussion. A properly adjusted mask will move or even spin when hit by a foul ball. This will help dissipate the energy of the ball impact. Your mask is too tight if you cannot take it off easily with one hand.

Throat protection is not only desirable, it is just plain smart. Baseball thrown at 95mph generates around 2400psi of force, more than enough to crush your windpipe, larynx, or trachea. That sounds like a bad day to me.

Chest Protector
A good chest protector provides collar bone protection. Collar bone (clavicle) injuries are an umpire’s nemesis. Not only do they hurt like heck, a broken clavicle can be a very serious injury. Good protection means both padding to absorb the impact and plastic plates to deflect the impact. Do not compromise your protection in this area!

Dave Pherin, Promotions Manager at Diamond Sports, provided information about how to select a properly sized chest protector. Chest protectors are sized by measuring the top of the protector’s throat guard area to the bottom of the protector’s padding. Chest protectors are sized by the inch and range from 11” to 20.” The chest protector must extend to protect your rib cage, so measuring yourself is easy. Take a measuring tape, hold it at your collar bone and measure to your last rib. Extend the tape if you want or require additional protection. Keep in mind that at some point the length of your CP will restrict your movement. Additionally, a longer CP will add weight and prevent heat from escaping.

Adjusting your CP is easy. All CPs have adjustable straps. The chest protector should be snug against your body to minimize sag. Once the CP sags, your collar bone is exposed. Some hard shell chest protectors are stiff and ill-fitting when initially purchased. But don't worry! After a few games the CP will conform to your body.

Leg Guards
Sizing leg guards are often a great mystery for umpires. Measuring is actually very easy. Jacquie Rooney from Wilson says,

Leg guards should move as little as possible while worn, and this is achieved by both the length of the guards as well as the straps in back. Measuring from the middle of the knee cap to the top of the foot will give a good indication of the right leg guard size, and the adjustment features on Wilson’s leg guards should do the rest of the job. Once the right length of leg guard is chosen, you can further adjust the positioning on the kneecap of the West Vest and Pro Platinum leg guards to ensure that the circular shaped pad rests directly on the kneecap. This, combined with the extra rib of padding that rests on the shin, will provide protection at the most vulnerable areas of the leg. Some umpires like to cross the leg straps in the back, and some like to position them straight across, but the key is to tighten them as snugly as possible, positioning the calf straps underneath the calf muscle for leverage. Some also choose to remove the knee straps altogether, because their pants provide sufficient bracing and the straps behind the knee can irritate over time. In fact, our Gerry Davis “Davishins” leg guards omit the knee strap for that very reason.

Notice how Jacquie snuck in some product plugs? Well, Wilson makes some excellent leg guards, so all is forgiven. Jacquie is also spot-on. Leg guards need to stay snug. When you are busting up the line to follow a runner to first, or covering a play at third, your leg guards need to stay in place.

Ankle coverage is also important. Remember the warning: "if you are not protected, the ball will find you!" Ankle flaps protect the ankle bone and do not hinder your mobility.

My many thanks to Jacquie Rooney of Wilson Sporting Goods and to Dave Pherrin of Diamond Sports for contributing to this article. Reviews of umpire products made by Wilson and Diamond can be found throughout the Midwest Ump site.

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