The face of MLB: Harper, Trout, more hitters try face guard

BEN WALKER (AP Baseball Writer)
The Associated Press

Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Kris Bryant, they're all the face of Major League Baseball.

How about Herb Markwort? Haven't heard of him? He's the person helping protect those faces.

Tune into any game these days and you're bound to see hitters wearing helmets with a seven-inch piece of plastic - the C-Flap - curving around their cheek and jaw.

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Giancarlo Stanton, Carlos Correa, Miguel Cabrera and Yadier Molina are among the many converts, with more and more batters making the switch each month.

''I think there's a lot of first-time guys this year. Me, Trout, Cabrera,'' Harper said. ''You can go on and on. A bunch of guys.''

Most, like longtime star Hanley Ramirez, offer the obvious reason: ''Safety, that's it,'' he said.

Makes sense, too. For a while, hit by pitch rates this season were the highest they'd been since the early 1900s.

''Just to be, maybe, a little bit more comfortable in the box,'' Harper said. ''Guys are throwing a little bit harder and you see guys getting hit in the head a little bit more. Just trying to be precautionary. Rather have it there if I get hit than not.''

Tampa Bay infielder Brad Miller sees a benefit beyond extra confidence.

''It kind of acts like a scope. I know that might sound a little extreme, but it helps get you focused - at least it does for me,'' he said. ''You have something physical to remind you to sharpen your focus. That's just my unique twist on it.''

Whether it's the tunnel-vision view between the flap and helmet brim, or purely protection, that's fine by Markwort.

He runs the Markwort Sporting Goods Company in St. Louis, a family business founded by his father in 1931. In 2004, the firm bought the C-Flap from Robert Crow, who had developed the device three decades earlier when he was the Atlanta Braves' team doctor.

For a long time, only a handful of players used them. They got a big endorsement last year from Milwaukee's Keon Broxton, who suffered only minor injuries after the face guard intercepted a fastball.

''That C-Flap, man, that thing just saved my life,'' Broxton said postgame.

This season, the hard plastic piece with the foam padding that sells for under $25 has suddenly became hugely popular in big leagues.

''There's no doubt about it,'' Markwort said last week from his office, as midnight neared. ''We've been so busy.''

''They keep ordering and ordering. It's 'rush, rush, we need 'em!''' he said.

Rawlings, also based in St. Louis, is the exclusive helmet maker for MLB. It buys the C-Flaps from Markwort, along with seven little nuts and screws to attach them.

Up to three holes are drilled in the helmet for assembly and then, painted in team colors, they're game ready.

''Last year, it seemed like it was about one per team,'' said Mike Thompson, executive vice president of marketing at Rawlings. ''We've quadrupled the number we've sold this year.''

No surprise, Rawlings plans to come out with its own model in the next year.

''We'll probably call it the R-Flap,'' Thompson said.

Bryant began to use it this season after getting beaned. Stanton and Jason Heyward did the same in the past after suffering facial fractures.

Stanton led the majors with 59 home runs last year with Miami, proving the extra piece isn't an impediment.

''The more guys wear it, everybody does it and you don't look different from anybody else,'' Marlins manager Don Mattingly said.

''Before, wearing a face mask, it was almost like, 'This guy has been hit before.' It was almost like, 'This guy is afraid of the ball in,''' he said. ''It was almost an invitation. Now everybody has it, so you don't even think about it.''

Marlins rookie Lewis Brinson was hit in the head a couple times in the minors. He experimented with the C-Flap last year in spring training and found it a tad cumbersome, but quickly adjusted.

''It takes a little getting used to,'' he said, likening the protection to what elbow and shin guards provide.

''You definitely don't want the ball up near your face. You don't want any damage up there,'' he said. ''I would say if anyone is debating and on the fence, use it.''

The Brewers made that choice for many of their youngsters. Milwaukee mandated all players who finished 2017 below Double-A wear the C-Flap this year and keep using for the rest of their minor league careers.

Within a few years, as players move up and filter out, every Milwaukee minor leaguer will wear them.

New York Mets infielder Wilmer Flores made the switch after he fouled a ball off his face last September, breaking his nose and ending his season. Plus, he knows triple-digit heaters are becoming more frequent.

''A lot of guys throw hard, and sometimes they miss,'' he said.

Markwort said he's glad players like the C-Flap. He hasn't heard that directly from any major leaguer, though, most likely because they have no idea where the piece comes from.

Flores, for one, was surprised to learn it was Markwort.

''Really?'' he said. ''I bet he's making money now.''

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AP Sports Writers Howard Fendrich, David Ginsburg and Steven Wine and AP freelance writer Ian Harrison contributed to this report.

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