Andy Fletcher is the only MLB umpire who wears a mouthguard.
During a recent conversation with him via phone, he tells me why he wears one and whether or not it has helped him to prevent injuries.
When I began looking into whether or not umpires could benefit from wearing a mouthguard or whether or not they even would wear one, customer and umpire Aaron Baggett alerted me that while watching an MLB game on TV he saw umpire Andy Fletcher wearing what he thought was a mouthguard behind the plate. I was not aware than any MLB umpire was, indeed, using one so I was eager to speak with Andy, an umpire from Mississippi who worked this year's Tokyo round of the World Baseball Classic. So, thanks Aaron for the heads-up.
I was able to talk with Andy while he was in Cincinnati for a recent Reds-Nationals series. Although he made it clear he was not attempting to champion the cause of umpires wearing mouthguards, he felt very strongly that the mouthguard he has used for 3 years has saved him personally from concussions and jaw injuries.
What was his motivation to start wearing a mouthguard? Andy was candid in mentioning that he experienced a concussion and several jaw injuries such as jaw pain earlier in his career (he's been at the MLB level for 9.5 years) as the result of blows to his jaw area. He began searching for solutions to prevent them from happening again. He first tried a hockey style helmet, but he admitted he didn't like the feel of the helmet vs. a traditional style mask, so he returned to the traditional.
At the suggestion of MLB Umpire Trainer Mark Letendre, he began wearing a mouthguard. He chose one that covered both the upper and lower teeth, so that it would absorb much of the impact and keep his jaw in proper alignment to prevent blows from causing concussions and TMJ type injuries.
ADJUSTMENT AND RESULTS
How did he feel about the result? After an adjustment period where he felt wearing a mouthguard "took some getting used to", he mentioned that he was "surprised" at the noticeable difference from blows with one in and those without. And although he is aware that there is some debate in studies as to whether or not mouthguards are useful in preventing concussions in addition to non-debatable teeth protection, for him he is a big believer in their use for umpires in doing so.
I discussed in detail with Andy the concerns several umpires have expressed to me in regard to wearing a mouthguard and how he had specifically addressed those.
AUDIBILITY OF CALLS
The most frequently discussed concern is the ability to audibly call balls, strikes and outs. Again, after a "very short time" of adjustment Andy said he had no problem doing so, even as a MLB umpire who he confessed is "one of the loudest out there."
TALKING WITH PLAYERS AND MANAGERS
Andy initially admitted that although some of his fellow umpires made fun of him when he first starting wearing a mouthguard, he said no player or manager has ever taken note or discussed this with him. He reasoned that with many players wearing mouthguards these days in the field, that to them, wearing a mouthguard for safety has become accepted practice.
What does he do with his mouthguard when he needs to talk to a player or manager? Andy says that he simply takes out the mouthguard using his hand and typically places it in his pocket. He admits he's often so quick with it that to an observer, he or she might only think that he is covering his mouth to cough. See photo on Bleacherreport.com of Andy that appears to show him with his mouthguard in his left hand.
I truly appreciate Andy's candor, openness and availability on this issue. I'll have more to report later as I talk with others in the know on this very important subject.
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