Hydro dipping, a high-tech graphic process that has provided a flashy look for many college football helmets, is coming to Major League Baseball.
When the Atlanta Braves play their first regular-season game at their new stadium, SunTrust Park, on Friday, their batting helmets will feature a carbon fiber pattern -- an MLB first, and a move that may open a new frontier of baseball headwear design.
"We want to be cognizant of our history and what it stands for, but you've got to balance that with moving forward," said Braves general manager John Coppolella. "You can still innovate and do new things while staying true to your roots, and this helmet is a good example of that."
The special helmets are the brainchild of Braves equipment manager Ben Acree, who got the idea after several Atlanta players and coaches visited the United States Naval Academy's football program last year. "The guys came back from the trip talking about some of the special helmets they saw, which Navy had worn against Army a few years back," said Acree. "That got me thinking about whether we could do something like that, so I kind of did a deep dive on college football helmets. I saw what teams have been wearing the past few years and started to explore what it would be possible for us to do."
True carbon fiber helmets have a distinct, textured-looking exterior pattern and are common in motorcycle racing and auto racing. That pattern was brought to the football field in 2009, when the University of Oregon unveiled a new uniform set that included a helmet with a carbon fiber-themed shell. The pattern was applied to the helmet via hydro dipping, a process that applies printed graphic patterns to three-dimensional surfaces. Since then, several additional college football teams have used hydro dipping to create the carbon fiber look and other patterns on their helmets, but the Braves are the first MLB team to use the process on a batting helmet.
"We played around with a few different ideas, but we found that the carbon fiber look works well for us," said Acree. "The pattern fits on our navy helmet and doesn't really mess with the design too much. It's a subtle pattern, not too crazy. That's important because we wanted to walk a fine line between our very strong team tradition and being innovative."
The headgear was produced by MLB's official batting helmet provider, Rawlings. Mike Thompson, the company's executive vice president for marketing, confirmed that the helmets were hydro dipped but declined to discuss specifics of the process, citing trade secrecy. He said Rawlings has previously used hydro dipping for a few college baseball teams, including a camouflage pattern for the University of Virginia, but had never explored the process for a pro helmet until now.
"The helmet is a very sensitive piece of equipment, obviously, and MLB wanted to be sure that the process didn't compromise the integrity of the helmet," said Thompson. "So we worked closely with them to make sure we were compliant with their safety standards."
A team spokesperson said the Braves plan to wear the new helmets for their home opener on Friday and again on Sunday (but not on Saturday, out of respect for MLB's annual Jackie Robinson Day festivities). After that, the helmets will be auctioned off, with a portion of the proceeds going to charity. Acree and Coppolella both said the team has some additional helmet concepts in the works, but the carbon fiber design, at least in this iteration, will not be used again after this weekend.
The Atlanta helmet is the latest in a series of developments that have suddenly made batting helmets an unlikely hotbed of baseball uniform activity. Although there have been advances in helmet safety and technology over the years, the basic visual concept of the helmet as a solid-colored glossy shell with a flat logo decal has been the norm for half a century. Things are starting to change: Twelve of the 30 MLB teams are now using matte-finish helmets instead of the standard glossies (up from five last season), and six teams, including the Braves, are using custom-molded three-dimensional helmet logos instead of conventional decals (up from one last season). Similar changes can be seen in many of the top college programs.
Thompson, the Rawlings executive, expects hydro dipped helmets to spread throughout the game as well. "Once the other equipment guys see this thing, everyone's going to want it," he said. "And then it'll trickle down to college teams, youth teams. We see hydro taking off, so we're gearing up for that."
If that happens, the Braves will be only too happy to view imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. "I'll be proud that we did it first, but that doesn't mean others can't do it too," said Coppolella. "If it's good for the game, it's good for all of us, and I'm happy that we can help be that leading agent of change."
Paul Lukas writes about uniforms for ESPN.com. If you like 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.