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One Flap Down

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We have a lot of ground to cover today, kids, beginning with something you almost never see: the same uniform mistake made by two different players on consecutive days.

The follies began on Thursday night, when Gary Matthews Jr., who’s a switch-hitter, wore a left-handed batting helmet while batting right-handed for his first at-bat, leaving his left ear exposed. Nobody appeared to notice, and Matthews grounded out without incident. He switched to a proper helmet for the rest of the game.

The following night, in Baltimore, Brian Roberts — another switch-hitter — stepped up to the plate in the 7th inning wearing a left-handed batting helmet — which would have been fine, except he was batting right-handed. He took one pitch, and then someone brought the problem to his attention, at which point he trotted over to the on-deck circle and traded in the lefty helmet for a righty one.

The Roberts incident prompted a small earflap discussion between Orioles broadcasters Fred Manfra and Buck Martinez:

Manfra: That flap makes a difference. That has been such a, uh — well let’s just say at times a career-saving addition to the batting helmet, that flap.

Martinez: Yeah, it’s interesting how it came into being. A lot of players were very reluctant to wear it. I know Ernie Whitt, who’s the first base coach for the Blue Jays, he wore the traditional baseball cap, without the earflap, for a long time, and he was grandfathered in. If you had played with it when the new rule came in, you could stick with that old baseball cap. Ernie wore that cap, and he didn’t have that flap on his helmet for a long time. And you remember Bob Montgomery for the Red Sox, he wore that skullcap inside his baseball cap.

Manfra: Right.

Martinez: This has been a tremendous improvement for protecting hitters. If you see minor league hitters, they wear both flaps.

Martinez’s “analysis” here is so garbled, a translation is in order. First of all, when he says Whitt used to wear a “traditional baseball cap,” he appears to be referring to a basic flapless helmet. The grandfathering Martinez mentions is set out in Rulebook section of 1.16(c), which states: “All players entering the Major Leagues commencing with the 1983 championship season and every succeeding season thereafter must wear a single ear-flap helmet (or at the player’s option, a double ear-flap helmet), except those players who were in the Major League during the 1982 season, and who, as recorded in that season, objected to wearing a single ear-flap helmet.”

The last player to invoke this clause — or so it appeared at the time — was Gary Gaetti, who went flapless for a few games with the Red Sox in 2000 and then retired. But then Tim Raines, who had retired after the 1999 season, came out of retirement. His 2002 season, with the Marlins, now stands as the end of the flapless batting helmet era.

As for Martinez’s mention of Bob Montgomery’s “skullcap”: Much as earflaps were grandfathered, so were batting helmets themselves. Players who didn’t want to wear them could instead opt to wear a plastic insert, sometimes called a liner, inside a regular cloth cap. Montgomery, who retired in 1979, was the last player to go this route. You can see his cap/insert setup here.