By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

It's not easy being a catcher -- the foul tips, the collisions at the plate, all those jokes about "catcher's speed," the endless "tools of ignorance" comments.

But in recent years, catchers have enjoyed a small measure of uni-related revenge. Most players aren't allowed to personalize their uniforms -- no inscriptions on caps, no cutting slits in your sleeves, etc. -- but more and more catchers are adding a personal touch to that most utilitarian of accessories, the chest protector.

The key to this trend is a subtle evolution in the design of the chest protector's collar area. Years ago, this was basically just a scalloped cutout that accommodated the catcher's neck. But now most manufacturers put a little extra strip of padding there -- sometimes contrast-colored, sometimes not -- and many catchers are now using this little patch of real estate as a de facto nameplate to personalize their gear.

The godfather of the personalized chest protector appears to be Ivan Rodriguez, who had "Pudge #7" inscribed on his collar way back in the mid-1990s. The uni number soon disappeared, leaving him with just his nickname, which has remained visible during his subsequent stints with the Marlins and Tigers. But a source at Wilson, who prefers to remain anonymous -- let's call him the Wilsonian -- tells Uni Watch that Pudge actually copied the idea from Javy Lopez: "We originally made a prototype for Javy, with his number on it. He never wore it, but Pudge saw it and said, 'Well, I want my name there.' That's how it started."

So does the manufacturer personalize the gear for the catcher, or does the team do it? "We do it," says the Wilsonian. "When I sign a catcher, I'll say, 'Hey, we'll personalize your gear.' Some guys will say, 'Nah, I'm just a low-key guy,' and other guys say, 'Yeah, that'd be cool.' Actually, these days we pretty much put the name on there for all our guys, because we don't want someone coming to us and saying, 'How come you do it for him and not for me?' If they don't want it there, they can come back to us and tell us to take it off."

By Uni Watch's count, about a third of today's MLB backstops have something printed on their chest protector collars. The annotations fall into three primary categories:

Last name. The simplest (read: most boring) approach. Current devotees include Jorge Posada, Toby Hall, Ramon Castro, Michael Barrett, Rod Barajas, Sandy Alomar Jr. and Joe Mauer (plus the recently released Kelly Stinnett).

Uniform number. Unimaginative, but cleaner and more understated than a surname. This category includes Paul LoDuca (who also wore his number while playing for the Dodgers and Marlins), Jason Kendall, Jose Molina (the "#" is unnecessary, no?), Brian Schneider, Ramon Hernandez, A.J. Pierzynski and Brian McCann.

Nickname. The coolest approach, if you have a good enough nickname to pull it off. In addition to Pudge Rodriguez, this grouping currently includes Jason Varitek, Kenji Johjima, Yadier Molina (who supplements his "Yadi" nickname with his uni number and therefore gets points deducted for overkill), Yorvit Torrealba and Uni Watch's current favorite, Gregg Zaun. We should probably put Bengie Molina in this category as well, since his real name is actually Benjamin.

But the prize for the most innovative use of the collar nameplate goes to Johnny Estrada, who's a category unto himself. Estrada runs an anti-drugs foundation, and over the past few years he's used his chest protector's collar to publicize that cause. Back in 2004, while playing for the Braves, he wore "No Drugs." Then he took his foundation's logo and wore that. He's continued to display the logo now that he's with the Diamondbacks, plus he also wears it on his mask's backplate.

Uni Watch is usually opposed to stylistic maneuvers that glorify the player instead of his team. But catchers have it pretty rough, so let's cut them some slack on this one. Besides, Uni Watch can't wait to see what lengthily surnamed Braves catching prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia ends up putting on his chest protector. His collars in the minors have all been blank, but surely he'll want to personalize his gear if he makes it to the bigs, right? Can they fit his full name on there? Will he wear "Salty"? Will he cop out and just use his uni number?

Vexing questions such as these would no doubt come as a surprise to Charley Bennett, who by most accounts was the first catcher to wear a chest protector, way back in 1886. Bennett, who played for the Detroit Wolverines (a National League team at the time), later explained that his wife was worried that he'd get hurt, so she made him a "crude but very substantial shield … by sewing strips of cork of a good thickness in between heavy bedticking material." By the following year, ads for chest protectors were appearing in trade publications, and Sporting Life magazine noted, "The chest protector is coming into general use. It is as necessary as the mask." (For more on the history of chest protectors, and other catching gear, look here.)

By the 1920s, chest protectors had arrived at a fairly standardized architecture of horizontally ribbed foam padding. Aside from a few alterations -- the disappearance of the crotch extension (Uni Watch hasn't been able to pinpoint exactly when or why it fell out of use), the addition of shoulder pads -- this basic design was worn by generations of backstops, from Yogi to Grote, from Carter to Schroeder, and is still worn by some players today.

But most contemporary protectors have more complex designs. The manufacturers will tell you it's because of their high-tech construction, but Uni Watch knows it's really all about branding. Nike has the giant swoosh-emblazoned diamond in the center, Mizuno has the tapered effect that makes the catcher look like he's got a narrow waist and totally ripped abs, Louisville/TPX has the dimpled thingie that makes the catcher look like a pockmarked Cingular logo and All-Star has the inverted brackets that supposedly help frame the strike zone (a nifty idea, but the protectors look soooooo awful from behind, like the catcher's wearing an industrial-strength bra or something).

For two backstops, the choice of brand choice was obvious. Uni Watch is referring, of course, to Vance Wilson and the now-retired Dan Wilson, who didn't have to go through the trouble of personalizing their collars.

But how do other catchers end up wearing a particular brand? Through endorsement contracts, natch. The Wilsonian won't discuss the finances involved but says a typical contract runs two or three years and that the companies compete for top catchers. "In the end, a lot of it has to do with the relationship between the company and the player's agent. Also, if the player used a particular brand of gear in high school or college, he may get used to that gear and want to stick with it."

And what about all those high-tech designs? "We've hired industrial designers to update our look, just like the other companies," says the Wilsonian. "But the guys I've signed, they still like the classic Orlon [ribbed] protectors. Because when a ball hits it, it drops dead right in front of you. Most of the newer compression-pad designs, the ball bounces six or seven feet. When you look at the collegiate players, they love the new look. But we were down at the Reds' camp this year, and Johnny Bench came up to us and said, 'Can you please get your gear in here? The guys are using these new designs and the ball keeps bouncing off of them. It's driving me crazy.'"

In addition to all the brands, today's crazy quilt of alternate uniforms makes for a dizzying array of chest protectors. "The Mets are through the roof," says the Wilsonian. "They recently acquired Eli Marrero, who's a utility guy but is also their third catcher. With all their uniform combinations, their equipment manager is telling us he practically needs five different chest protectors -- the black one, white with orange, orange with black. I mean, it's just crazy. And the thing is, the guy's probably not even going to catch any games."

Actually, Marrero caught in exactly one game for the Mets -- for three innings -- before being released last week. No word on what's happened to his gear.

Gridiron Roundup
As you may have noticed, the big story of the NFL preseason is those weird new officials' jerseys. You can get the full scoop on them here. And for other uni-related NFL preseason news, look here and here.

And the Winner Loser Is …
While everyone else was fixated on the electoral results from the Connecticut senatorial primary, Uni Watch was keeping a close eye on the returns from last column's "Ugliest Uniforms Ever" contest. We had clear winners in three of the four sports: On the gridiron, the Orlando Thunder's lime green design was the runaway winner; the Nuggets' rainbow skyline easily mopped up the competition on the court; and Anaheim's 1995 Wild Wing alternate jersey handily won the hockey category. The closest race was on the baseball diamond, where the late-'70s Astros edged out the mid-'80s White Sox.

Thanks to all who voted. Stragglers and ballot-box stuffers can cast late votes and see the full tallies here.

Looking Ahead
That tune you hear faintly in the background is the Uni Watch fight song, as we all get geared up for the onset of the college football season. With so many NCAA teams out there, and no centralized source keeping track of them all, Uni Watch could use a few extra sets of eyes and ears. So if you know of a school that's updating its unis, get in touch. We'll have a complete rundown -- or at least as complete as possible -- next time around.

Paul Lukas is left-handed, so he never had a chance to wear the tools of ignorance (and yes, he knows there have been some left-handed catchers, but they've been very rare). His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and archives of his columns are available here, here, and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted? Contact him here.