Tuesday, September 13, 2005

September 13th, 1996

Charlie O'Brien Debuts New Gear

Baseball is an ever changing game. The "take-and-rake" offensive style that has won championships for the Yankees and Red Sox, and division titles for the A's and Dodgers would never have worked in the early portion of the century. You could walk then, of course, but if you waited for the big home run, you would be waiting, waiting, and...losing. On the other hand, John McGraw's 1904 Giants won one hundred six games and had one hundred sixty-five sacrifice bunts, more than one a game. If you tried that these days, you'd bunt your way to a bunch of a 5-1 and 7-2 defeats.

In the same manner, the equipment changes. The kind of glove Honus Wagner, a shortstop, would use (you can also see it here) bares so little resemblance to the glove that Derek Jeter uses that although you can see how one got to the other, you would hardly guess they were used for the same purpose. On the other hand, some gear has remained more or less the same. Catchers' masks are one piece of equipment like that. The mask worn by Roger Bresnahan is basically the same as the one worn by Yogi Berra as the one worn by Johnny Bench as the one worn by Mike Piazza. And it might have stayed that way but for Charlie O'Brien.

O'Brien was an unremarkable catcher whose 1996 in
Toronto was his only year as a starter. On this day that year, as the Jays were losing to Andy Pettitte (the lefty's twenty-first victory of the season) , O'Brien came out in a mask that must've made much of the SkyDome crowd wonder if the Jays had brought in Curtis Joseph in an attempt to drum up late season attendance. O'Brien was the first catcher to wear the now fairly common style of hockey masks behind the plate. The trend took a few years to take off, but is now fairly popular, worn by catchers including Gregg Zaun (pictured in the collision), the Nats' Brain Schneider and John Flaherty, who has apparently switched from the old style mask to the new.

Changes in baseball are inevitable, and they generally happen in slow bits. Charlie O'Brien, however, made a huge leap in one game, and one that may someday relegate the traditional catchers' mask to the realm of memory.

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