The come-as-you-are approach was universally embraced. For decades. Who didn’t like it? It was baseball’s whimsical, delightful aquarium, a tank full of all the best known fish, each them easily identifiable for their shapes, stripes, and colors.
Instead, MLB this year served up a big plate of bland hardball homogenization. Everybody in the dugouts looked the same, which is to say everyone looked uniformly awful in outfits that should have been shipped postgame to Goodwill Industries rather than the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Now, granted, a 60-something sportswriter offering thoughts on fashion design in 2021 is no doubt a left field wall too far. But these threads were offensive, irrespective of any critic’s credentials, even one who somehow survived the tie-dye T-shirts, headbands, and clownish bell-bottom pants of the ’60s (and the sign said long-haired freaky people need not apply). Oh, also one who survived the short-lived Burger King unis of the Vancouver Canucks.
The MLB shirts were pullovers with two-button tops. Each player’s home city was noted in a three-letter abbreviation, large capital letters, in a vertical stripe on the front of the shirt, with team logo blended into the mix. It was all almost as identifiable as that large Nike swoosh logo near the left shoulder. Almost.
Finally, and most dreadfully, a floral print band trimmed each of the shirt’s half-sleeves. Why? Because when in doubt, you know, trick it out with a floral print and ship those suckers to Denver! Really, even an old sportswriter knows it would be better to send the boys out there in Buck Naked boxers than looking like they’re desperate to regain Merlin Olsen’s old turf as FTD pitch man.
Ex-Red Sox reliever Mark Melancon labeled the new approach “boring.”
“I don’t like it,” Melancon, now a member of Padres, told the Los Angeles Times. “I like to see everybody’s personal uniforms, show all the team’s different colors. I’m not sure why they went this route.”
Milwaukee Brewers lefthander Brett Anderson, via Twitter, agreed with that sentiment, adding that the new iteration looked like “slow-pitch softball” uniforms.
Worst of all for MLB, the bad threads stole the spotlight from what was a pretty good night of ball, with the AL winning (5-2) for an eighth consecutive time. Angels pitcher/home run spectacle Shohei Ohtani grew his legend. Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. hit a home run ball that Jeff Bezos might track down when he fires up his Blue Origin space buggy in the coming days.
“You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it,” comedian Jerry Seinfeld once famously said about sports. “You want your clothes to beat the clothes from another city.”
When MLB staged its first All-Star Game in 1933, the Reserve Clause was intact and the idea of player free agency mere fantasy. Players signed on with teams and often, especially if they were stars, lived out their careers with the clubs that brung ‘em to the dance.
Through the ’70s and into the ’80s, the players and the clothes were pretty much inseparable. We rooted for both, with a passion.
By the way, in the ’33 All-Star Game, members of the NL team all wore the same flannel shirts, with large blue letters “NATIONAL LEAGUE” across the front. Tuesday then was a bit of a retro night, although one that didn’t have many yearning for the yesteryear of 88 years earlier.
Free agency has led to constant player movement and roster churning over the last 40-plus years, a fact, once hard for fans to reckon, that is now baked into the cake. We’ve accepted that the players are multimillionaire transients. We root for them with ease, and for the most part adjust when they depart. Red Sox Nation has pretty much dried its tears over the loss of Mookie Betts. Some never wept. It’s baseball. It’s business. We know that drill on the street once known as Yawkey Way.
Baseball’s far bigger issues at the moment are rooted more in length of games, the lack of action within games, and the general pace of play. All of those factors are bundled into the mega issue: why the industry is struggling mightily to attract American kids and young adults as fans.
No doubt, faster games with more action would keep more fans engaged. In America, faster is always better, even when results contradict the desire for speed. Yet there’s no knowing for sure if picking up the pace and action will hook young kids, keep them engaged, and thus grow the game. Maybe. Maybe not.
What MLB can cling to, at least for now, is that it still has a very sizable and affluent fan base, one that revels in its history and traditions. It’s an appreciation, frankly, that continues to fuel a multibillion-dollar industry, the only one in America that can boast it has flourished across three centuries.
Amid all that history, lore, and appreciation, baseball decided Tuesday to put on new clothes, and yes, everyone noticed, albeit for the wrong reason.