In many ways, John Buck is your typical dreamer arriving in New York for the first time. The Utah native, who played for Kansas City, Toronto and Miami before a trade to the Mets this winter, had been anticipating coming to the big city for quite awhile.
"My dreams growing up playing baseball, I loved Kansas City, but you don't dream of playing in Kansas City," Buck told Newsday after the Mets' 2-1 loss to the Padres on Thursday. "You have that image in your head of, at the time, Shea Stadium - New Yorkers hanging over the fence. Or Yankee Stadium - fans screaming. To me that's the vision I had in my head and now I'm getting to do that literally every day."
Buck brings power and veteran leadership to the Mets -- he homered in the ninth inning Thursday. But his longtime New York state of mind has also contributed something else - a dazzling, Big Apple-themed catcher's mask that's the only one of its kind left in the majors.
Wilson, which supplies the catcher's masks in MLB, has now banned personalized art on the equipment. But Buck and fellow backstop Gregg Zaun, who both had an artist paint their mask before the Wilson ruling, were allowed to continue the practice because they auction the items off to fund their children's charities. Zaun hasn't played in the majors since 2010, making Buck the only member of a most exclusive club.
Voodoo Air, which personalizes many professional hockey masks, captures the essence of whatever team and city Buck plays for.
His Mets mask features the Brooklyn Bridge, 7 train, graffiti, Statue of Liberty, Manhattan Skyline, a Big Apple (mostly eaten) and the 9/11 memorial Tribute In Light. The mask also features a hidden element: stars that aren't visible to the naked eye unless the mask is tilted on a certain angle.
"I just picked whatever I thought New York was," he said. "Being a kid from Utah you have these perceptions of what New York stands for. Being the biggest city in the country, with so much history, baseball history. You think of the 7 train going to the ballpark. I think the coolest thing I have on there is the illuminating lights."
Buck started the practice about seven years ago in Kansas City. He first saw a painted mask on Astros catcher Brad Ausmus when Buck was still in their minor. But the reserved, modest and soft-spoken Buck didn't dare don a flashy mask until years afterward.
"I was kind of that prospect coming up thinking, 'Man, that's pretty cool,'" Buck said. "But I never painted mine. Once I got to Kansas City and I had a little clout to cover me, I thought, 'Alright, I'm gonna do that.'"
By the time he signed a three-year deal with the Marlins prior to the 2011 season, he was ready for something a little more colorful.
"In Miami I said, 'Alright, we're in Miami, go ahead and brighten it up a little bit,'" Buck said. "But I like it a little more calmed down 'cause I don't want it to be distracting. I like to think of myself as kind of old school. But the more details, the more things it has, the more the fans like it. And the reason I'm wearing it is obviously the fans, and to create the money for children."
During previous seasons, the proceeds from auctioning off Buck's mask went to fund the "Buckaroos," an organization started by Buck and his wife, Brooke, to help under-privileged children come out to the ballpark to watch games. But the charity he's leaning toward supporting this season might be even closer to his heart.
"My little cousin has autism," Buck said, "So my wife and I have talked about doing something to raise money to help a child out with autism. They have special dogs they're able to train to help the child when he starts to have sensory issues. They give them a calming effect. But they're obviously really expensive."
Buck's mask has enabled him to make a difference in each new community of his baseball life. It's helped him stand out to the fans. But the goalie-style mask he wears also has other benefits.
Less fiberglass around the eye-level increases his vision and means Buck doesn't have to throw the mask aside when chasing down a pop up.
And one more thing: "Plus, my face is so long," Buck said, "with my other (traditional) mask, my chin hangs out."