KBO saves face as batters opt for C-flap

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KBO saves face as batters opt for C-flap


From left: Shim Jeong-soo of the Hyundai Unicorns, Park Yong-taik of the LG Twins, Choi Joon-suk of the NC Dinos and Na Ji-wan of the Kia Tigers.

The C-flap helmet, also called the gladiator helmet, is back in the KBO this season and more popular than ever.

The KBO isn’t the only league where the C-flap is enjoying a heyday; the distinctive headgear is showing up on more heads in the majors as well.

The history of the gladiator helmet goes all the way back to 1988, when Terry Steinbach of the Oakland Athletics took a ball to the face in a freak pregame accident, breaking the bones around his eye and forcing him to undergo surgery. Remarkably, Steinbach returned to the plate just one month later complete with a new helmet accessory to protect his recovering face. Steinback went on to hit a home run in the All-Star game and play in the World Series, and his C-flap came along for the ride.

But it wasn’t until 2001 that the C-flap crossed the Pacific Ocean and arrived in the KBO, with Hyundai Unicorns’ slugger Shim Jeong-soo the first to adopt the gladiator helmet after he was hit in the face while playing the Lotte Giants.

As the Unicorns didn’t have immediate access to a proper American C-flap, they had to quickly cobble something together.

“After pulling an all-nighter trying to design a helmet, we finally came up with something reasonable,” recalled Yeom Kyung-yup, a former Unicorns’ employee and now the general manager of the SK Wyverns.

Though Shim wore the gladiator helmet for a while, once he recovered from his injury he went back to the regular helmet. Shim reattached the C-flap in 2003 when the Giants struck again, once again hitting him in the face.

For a short period of time, Lee Jong-beom, Cho Seong-hwan, Cho Dong-chan and Lee Jong-wook have all adopted some form of the gladiator helmet after getting hit in the face.

The C-flap disappeared after Shim retired in 2008, not resurfacing in the KBO until last season when Park Yong-taik of the LG Twins, Choi Jun-seok of the NC Dinos, Na Ji-wan of the Kia Tigers and Choi Jae-won of the Korean Police Baseball Team all adopted the style. This season, the number of batters sporting a C-flap has increased to 30. The NC Dinos are particularly fond of the style, with more than half of their batters playing in gladiator helmets.

“Pitchers have been pitching more toward batters’ bodies,” said LG’s Park. “It’s a choice I made to minimize the risk of injury.”

C-flaps are made by attaching a piece of plastic onto a regular baseball helmet. KBO batters wear C-flaps manufactured by a local company that sells the helmet attachments for about 50,000 won ($47).

The C-flap also makes regular appearances in the major leagues, with Giancarlo Stanton of the New York Yankees opting for the extra protection since 2015. Stanton was hit in the face in 2014 and now wears the gladiator-style helmet whenever he faces a right-handed pitcher as it’s harder for him to focus on the pitch.

Aside from Stanton, Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals and many other major leaguers started wearing C-flaps this season.

But despite the extra protection, most batters would rather avoid the C-flap if they can. The extra plastic blocks the batters sight, limiting their peripheral vision and view of the pitcher. Sports equipment manufacturer Rawlings has recently improved the design, increasing the number of players that are willing to use it.

Baseball headwear is always evolving - when the sport first became popular the helmet wasn’t even part of the uniform. The Brooklyn Dodgers, now the Los Angeles Dodgers, were the first team to give helmets to their players in 1941. At the time the players refused to wear them as they thought helmets were for cowards.

It wasn’t until 30 years later in 1971 that helmets became a requirement in the major league. Since injuries can seriously derail a players’ career, it may be just a matter of time before the C flap is mandatory as well.

BY KIM WON [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]
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