Caleb Joseph can smile about it now, and even the boisterous Orioles catcher has taken part in the sneers and snickers that typically follow seeing a man get hit below the belt. But when he took a foul ball in the groin area on Memorial Day, it was the most painful experience he could imagine.
What ensued was even scarier, as he underwent emergency surgery to repair damage the impact had done to his right testicle.
Joseph won't be cleared to catch in a game until June 27, which will mark four weeks since his surgery, but he has been cleared to do all other baseball activities. So he will begin his minor league rehabilitation assignment Friday with High-A Frederick, where he will log at-bats at designated hitter in games and begin to catch bullpen sessions before games.
He's still waiting to heal completely from his surgery. Physically, he can do everything he could before the procedure. But when Joseph steps behind the plate for a first time in a game, he still must overcome a mental hurdle when returning to the catching position — where his body typically takes a beating from wild pitches and foul tips — to gain confidence that his freak injury won't occur again.
"It's more [nonathletes] who have something like this [happen] and they're not putting themselves back in harm's way for the potential of another one, whereas any time you get behind the plate again you're at risk," Joseph said.
Joseph believes his saving grace will be the new protective cup he will wear from now on. It's made by a St. Louis-based company named Nutshellz, which makes a cup out of Kevlar — the material used in bulletproof vests — as well as carbon fiber and aerospace epoxies, like ones used in assembling fighter jets. The company claims the cup is indestructible.
"I know we joke around about this impenetrable cup, but there's something to be said about peace of mind when you feel completely protected now," Joseph said. "The CEO has shot a bullet into this thing, so if it's good enough for a bullet, it's good for me."
The company, which is owned by Jeremiah Raber and Matt Heck, began about six years ago. Raber, a former kickboxer and Muay Thai fighter, wanted to create a more comfortable and less restrictive cup. After designing the product, Raber was able to produce it using Kevlar and carbon fiber — he knew people who used carbon fiber to make race cars — with the goal of making it the more durable cup available, one that could be marketed to not only athletes but also to law enforcement and the military.
"Even though it wasn't made out to be a bulletproof cup, when it was all said and done, it worked," said Heck, who is the company's chief operations officer. "It stopped a .357 Magnum at close range with no penetration."
The duo began selling the cups in 2013. Looking for investors to help increase production, they were set to go on the ABC TV show "Shark Tank" two years ago, but they were bumped from the show at the 11th hour.
So in an attempt to gain more exposure for the product, they decided to post a video of Raber getting shot wearing the cup with a Smith & Wesson .22-caliber rifle to prove it was bulletproof. The video, which begins with Raber insisting viewers not try the stunt at home, went viral. The YouTube version has nearly 650,000 hits and included raw versions it estimated to be viewed 3 million times.
"It was a swing-for-the-fences deal," said Heck, who was the shooter. "We really needed something to spike our business. We always had this idea in the back of our mind. We may have to shoot one of us with the cup at some point. I think we were just so ready to go for a final attempt at it to get some exposure."
Heck is an experienced shooter, and Raber was wearing a bulletproof vest and had additional protection in his abdomen and legs, just in case the demonstration didn't work.
"At the same time, when you shoot a guy in the [groin] at 18 feet, there's still a great deal of risk involved," Heck said. "We did it because we knew it would work and we knew it could get us on the map. … It only penetrated the first layer of Kevlar."
The company approached Joseph through Twitter a few days after his injury, and that video was all Joseph needed to see to be sold. The company sent two cups — one for Joseph and one for catcher Matt Wieters.
"Wiety tested it out that day in the game and comfort-wise he said it was amazing," Joseph said. "Comfort-wise, it looks like a regular cup, just that it's made with Kevlar material. It's a little heavier than other cups, but when you're running slow as molasses, you're not worried about being weighed down as much.
"It gives you peace of mind immediately when you watch the video and then you feel it and you tap it against something and it's like, 'Ding, ding, ding.' Old-school cups back in the day, they were made out of metal, so cups have evolved so they can make them more comfortable because they were super uncomfortable and that's how I got in trouble because I got hit on the side."
Since Joseph was hit in the groin area on May 30 by a foul tip off the bat of Boston Red Sox third baseman Travis Shaw, other similar injuries have occurred. One week later, Cleveland Indians catcher Yan Gomes suffered a testicular contusion after taking a ball in the groin area off a foul tip from Seattle Mariners first baseman Dae-Ho Lee.
Indians third baseman Juan Uribe was hit in the groin area by a batted ball that had an exit velocity of 106 mph Sunday. He fell to the infield dirt in pain, was carted off the field and taken to a local hospital. Uribe was not wearing a cup.
Also, home plate umpire David Rackley was forced from a game May 22 after being on the wrong side of a foul tip to the groin area in a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.
Joseph is friends with Gomes and when he heard of his injury, he told Gomes about the Nutshellz cup. The company speed mailed a cup to him so he could play three days after the injury.
"Yan called me from the hospital about getting a product," Heck said. "We overnighted it to him because he was so desperate to get it before his last game back. They couldn't locate it in L.A., where he was traveling. He was texting me at 1 in the morning because he was trying to find where the product was. He did not want to get behind the plate without it."
A higher-grade version of the cup is also available for those who actually could need protection from a bullet, such as law enforcement and military personnel. While most sales for those cups are on an individual basis, Heck's hope is to make more deals soon.
Heck, who said overall production volume of the cups doubled in 2015 over the previous year, said that the company has reached out to the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, which develops new technology for the army, to pursue making their cup the standard issue model. But Heck said the focus is now establishing a relationship with U.S Special Operations Command outfit special forces troops and "establish the need and proof of concept."
Heck also said he has been in discussion with a police department in Texas about ordering the cup in advance of sending officers to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
The Nutshellz version for athletes already has a growing list of users. Clients include mixed martial artist Daron Cruickshank and several minor league hockey players.
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"If it's good enough for police officers and military guys to stop bullets, it's good enough for athletes," Heck said. "It's basically indestructible in the high-impact sports world. We've got some hockey players, some defensemen and goalies, who have said specifically to us, 'I don't even hesitate going down in front of a shot to block it. I don't have any issues with confidence because I know this thing is basically indestructible.'"
Heck said Nutshellz will be featured on an episode of the CNBC show "West Texas Investors Club" this summer. The owners will campaign for a $300,000 investment. The show has already been filmed, and Heck said he can't divulge what happened but is excited just from the exposure the company could get.
As for Joseph, he not only committed to wearing the cup during games, he said he might wear it all the time off the field.
"I've had peace of mind," Joseph said. "You don't know how much contact your groin has with the everyday world until you get hit there, and I'm seriously considering wearing it all around every day. I have a 15-month-old right now and all he does is want to hit me. … The thing you're worried about with this super-durable cup is mobility and comfort and I can't even tell a difference right now between this one and the other one. So this company, they make cups for people in law enforcement and military to withstand traumatic events, so why wouldn't you introduce it to the sports world?
"Everybody I talk to, I try to push it on them because trust me, nobody wants to experience what I had to experience. It was terrible. It was awful. And if you could prevent it somehow, why wouldn't you?"