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Tigers' Alex Avila: Show me the hockey mask

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — While fans and media might've made a big deal out of Alex Avila's club option, which eventually was picked up at a cost of $5.4 million, the Tigers catcher wasn't sitting at home obsessing over it.

Rather, his attention has been on his equipment.

For the first time publicly, Avila acknowledged he is considering switching from the traditional catcher's mask to the newer-age hockey-style mask, he said in a conversation with The Detroit News on Tuesday night.

Avila, a victim of several concussions the past couple years, said he has started the process of researching whether a change in mask might do him some good. He's talking to experts, as well as those who've worn the hockey mask, including backups Bryan Holaday and James McCann, and his manager, Brad Ausmus.

"Yeah, I've been looking into it, as far what type of testing has been done on masks and helmets," Avila said. "I'll be wearing, from the people who do the testing as far as equipment companies, what would be the best thing to help."

While many of the game's younger catchers wear the hockey masks — some places, it's even required in Little League and high school — Avila, 27, has been a holdout for a variety of reasons. The first is comfort level. The traditional mask is easier to discard when chasing popups and such, and it's less restrictive.

Fans of the hockey mask, though, argue it offers a better line of vision, plus the helmet provides more head coverage, particularly around the ears.

Avila takes a pounding behind the plate, particularly on foul tips — but also on the occasional back swing of batters.

Ausmus, who switched from the traditional mask to the hockey helmet in 1997, Year 5 of an 18-year major-league career, applauds Avila's openness to the change, particularly in regard to the back swings of long-armed sluggers like David Ortiz, who conked Avila once this season.

"I don't think it will hurt," Ausmus said.

For the first time, it seems Avila might agree.

It's not that Avila hasn't thought about before. In fact, during spring training five or six years ago, he gave the hockey mask a try. But not much of one.

"A couple days," Avila said. "I didn't really give it much of a chance. It just felt so much different than what I was used to."

Still, that's a better feeling than what Avila felt this past season — specifically in June, in September and in October, when he suffered concussions. Avila has suffered other concussions in previous seasons, as well, leading to concern among Tigers brass, particularly Avila's father, Al, the Tigers' assistant general manager.

Alex Avila had to watch the final innings of the season finale, Game 3 of the American League Division Series, because he was knocked out again. After the game, he talked about his concern not just for his future in the major leagues, but also his future as the father of a 1½-year-old daughter.

He stayed in Detroit for 10 days after season's end to undergo extensive testing, and that helped alleviate any fears, as doctors told him he's not at risk of further damage — so long as when he suffers a concussion, he immediately gets out of the game and starts the healing process.

"I shouldn't have any concern moving forward," Avila said.

Avila is pretty matter-of-fact about concussions, and how common they are among catchers. After all, if you sit behind home plate for 100 games or more a season, you're going to take your licks. It just seems that Avila takes more than most.

Perhaps that's why he's now open to seeing if he can find something to curtail that.

Avila's made equipment changes before. A couple years ago, after a concussion, he started using a new helmet from Rawlings — which had batting-helmet thickness, without the ear flaps.

"That makes the one I used to wear feel like one of those toy helmets you get ice cream in at the ballpark," Avila said, chuckling.

That helmet can't protect everything, nor can the hockey mask. But if it helps, even a little — and hockey-mask fans say the angling, as opposed to the flatter traditional mask, does soften the blow on foul tips — Avila finally is open to exploring the possibilities.

"I'm just starting to figure out what all the research has shown," said Avila, "and would be the best option for me when next year rolls around."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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