For generations, catcher's equipment has been known as "the tools of ignorance." But it may soon be known as the next frontier in baseball graphics and team branding.
The Atlantic League -- an eight-team independent minor league based primarily on the Eastern seaboard -- has teamed up with the sporting goods company Rawlings to outfit its catchers in new team-branded chest protectors, shin guards and hockey-style masks. As is often the case with minor league graphics, the designs on the equipment are somewhat cartoonish and eye-poppingly bold, although the basic concept could just as easily be used with more conservative designs. If the idea catches on and spreads to the majors, as the Atlantic League and Rawlings anticipate, it has the potential to provide a significant jolt to the sport's look, especially given the large amount of airtime catchers get from the standard center-field camera shot during television broadcasts.
"We believe this will exert a strong influence on the way catchers are dressed on the field at all levels of baseball," said Atlantic League president Rick White, who came up with the idea about a year ago after seeing a catcher wearing gear that didn't match his team's colors. "That started me thinking and I realized, 'Wow, there's a really a blank canvas there.' It was startling to realize nobody had ever done this before."
The new gear will make its on-field debut Thursday and is expected to be worn for the balance of this season. Atlantic League catchers who prefer to wear the traditional-style mask, which doesn't allow for graphics, can continue to do so, but they'll still wear the new chest protectors and shin guards.
The designs center on team-themed graphics that are sure to draw attention. For the Sugar Land Skeeters, for example, the mask and chest protector feature the team's cartoon mascot character, Swatson -- a ferocious mosquito -- and the shin guards show brightly colored sugar cane; the York Revolution's gear features a hard-charging eagle who appears to be crashing through an iron-plated chest protector; and so on. The designs will be used on T-shirts and other fan apparel, in addition to appearing on the catching equipment. (Mock-ups and photos of all the designs can be seen here.)
Several MLB catchers throughout the years have worn patterned gear for special occasions such as the All-Star Game or Independence Day, including Sandy Alomar Jr., Jason Varitek, Robinson Chirinos, Nick Hendley and Jonathan Lucroy. But no MLB team -- and apparently no minor league team -- has ever used team-branded or custom-patterned catching gear on a consistent basis.
"A big part of our inspiration for this comes from the way hockey goalies have customized their masks and pads," White said. "It takes a product that's traditionally been viewed as being neutral, almost receding in the background, and creates additional visual imagery in a world that's always looking for that."
White formerly served as president and CEO of MLB Properties, which oversees MLB's trademark licensing and merchandising, so he's well-positioned to shepherd the idea from the minors to the majors. He also has a track record of coming up with innovations for the Atlantic League that have been picked up by MLB, like the countdown clock that's now used when MLB coaches and managers visit the mound. He said he's already spoken with MLB officials and the Major League Baseball Players Association about the team-branded catching gear's potential.
"If MLB decides to leverage this for licensing purposes, we would hope that that we could have a division of receipts between MLB, the players' association, and then the Atlantic League and Rawlings, because we brought the idea to them," White said. It's not yet clear what MLB's level of interest is, or how quickly the project could be adopted for MLB catchers, although White estimated a time frame of at least one year, and possibly two.
White found an enthusiastic partner in Rawlings, where executive vice president J. Michael Thompson has been the company's point man on the project. "I think all gear is headed down the road of personalization and customization," he said. "We've seen the explosion with ball gloves, and now it's happening with bats. Everyone wants their own personal touch, everyone wants a hand in the creative process, and MLB seems more open to new things these days with the leadership of the new commissioner. There's the whole Bryce Harper phenomenon, 'Make Baseball Fun Again,' and I think they're just more open-minded, especially for anything that will get kids to look at the game differently and say, 'That's cool.'"
If the concept makes the jump to the majors, Rawlings will be in an awkward position, because rival company Wilson holds the license for team logos on MLB catching equipment. But Thompson said Rawlings -- and, presumably, other companies that outfit MLB catchers, such as Under Armour, Nike and others -- could adapt by coming up with personalized patterns or other designs that aren't team-specific. "It doesn't have to be a team logo," he said. "It could be any number of things where you could get very creative with it from a design aspect."
The graphics for the Atlantic League gear were created by Skye Dillon, owner of Skye Design Studios, a New Jersey-based brand identity and design firm that has created the logos and uniforms for several Atlantic League teams.
"The idea was to visualize baseball catchers as goaltenders in hockey, arguably the coolest position in all of sports," said Dillon. "Unlike most branding projects, where less is more, this was a chance to push creative boundaries by utilizing more colors, more detail and more dramatic designs."
Dillon's mask designs were airbrushed onto the mask shells and then clear-coated (the same process used for hockey goalie masks). The chest protector patterns were sublimated onto fabric that was then sewn onto the equipment. And the shin guard designs were applied via industrial vinyl wrap. Different application processes may be developed later in the project.
One concern for everyone involved was whether the new patterns would be distracting or bothersome to pitchers who are used to zoning in on catchers wearing flat colors, so the league had some players test-drive the equipment. All of them reported that the graphics presented no problems.
So is this the future of catcher's gear? Thompson, the Rawlings executive, thinks so. "Everybody's going to fall in love with it," he said. "And really, it's not like we've re-created the wheel here. We've just taken the movement toward customization and extended the idea to catching gear."
Paul Lukas writes about uniforms and logos for ESPN.com. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.