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M.L.B.’s New Uniforms Are Another Fashion Flop

SportM.L.B.’s New Uniforms Are Another Fashion Flop

Twenty years ago, after blowing the lead in a critical playoff game for the Minnesota Twins, Juan Rincón described the feeling with an all-time baseball malaprop: “Nobody wants to be in my pants right now.”

These days, it seems, nobody wants to be in any pair of baseball pants. Major leaguers reported to spring training this week to find that they cannot customize their pants anymore, and that their new style of jerseys – designed by Nike, manufactured by Fanatics – is not up to big league standards.

As The Athletic’s Stephen J. Nesbitt wrote, players around the league “criticized the jerseys’ poor fit, cheap look, inconsistent quality and small lettering.”

Sigh. Major League Baseball just can’t help itself, and it just keeps getting worse.

In 2019, for the cringy “Players Weekend,” they staged an all-white vs. all-black uniform series that evoked “Spy vs. Spy” from the old Mad Magazine. The next year, as part of a 10-year deal with Nike worth more than $1 billion, they let Nike slap its logo on the front of every jersey.

Then came “City Connect” uniforms, in case you ever wondered how your favorite player would look as a blueberry, a cloud or a license plate. The All-Star Game, always a cavalcade of colors with players wearing their regular uniforms, became a three-hour ad for generic Nike jerseys.

Now this.

Baseball’s relationship with Nike is like the “Seinfeld” episode when George tries to be friends with Elaine’s cool boyfriend. He wears his hat backwards and goes rock climbing, unable to hide his infatuation. He’s desperate to be a dude, but he’s still a Costanza.

That’s not to say baseball should be stuffy. Last season’s rule changes made the product more dynamic and appealing. Plenty of other initiatives – the annual Little League Classic, the DREAM Series, the “MLB The Show” video game, the comprehensive, user-friendly MLB app – also help grow the game.

But baseball doesn’t seem to understand its own visual appeal. Let the other leagues cheapen their jerseys with advertisements. Baseball should be above that, but the last collective bargaining agreement allows teams to sell ad space on uniforms. So now the Atlanta Braves wear a sleeve patch depicting a yellow bag of concrete mix, the Toronto Blue Jays come at you with a neon green square for a bank, and the Houston Astros sport a garish patch for Oxy – the energy producer, not the drug.

When Rob Manfred became commissioner in 2015, he said he had no interest in allowing ads on jerseys. That changed, of course, and Manfred was at least honest about the reversal in 2022: “It’s a revenue source that is significant enough that it’s really impossible for a sport to ignore over the long haul. I think that’s the truth.”

It’s a business, of course. But just because you can make money by selling something doesn’t mean you should. Several teams will not sell naming rights to their ballparks because there’s more value in continuity and tradition. It’s still Dodger Stadium, not Guggenheim Field. It’s still Yankee Stadium, not Starr Insurance Park.

Manfred’s approach to the All-Star uniforms reflected a belief that Nike can do no wrong.

“I never thought that a baseball team wearing different jerseys in a game was a particularly appealing look for us,” he said in 2022. “I understand that people can have different views on that topic, but it is part of a larger program designed to market the game in a non-traditional way.”

Fine, but why obscure the identity of your players? The All-Star Game should be a showcase, and a regular-season uniform gives an easy clue: “Oh, right, he’s that guy on the Marlins who’s been doing so well….” If everyone looks the same, you miss that connection.

Manfred reiterated his faith in Nike on Thursday at Grapefruit League media day.

“I think you know, in baseball, with any new initiative, there’s going to be some negative feedback. First and most important, these are Nike jerseys,” Manfred said. “We entered this partnership with Nike. Just who they are and the kind of products they produce, everything they’ve done for us so far has been absolutely 100 percent successful across the board.

“The jerseys are different. They’re designed to be performance wear as opposed to what has traditionally been worn. So they are going to be different. But they have been tested more extensively than any jersey in any sport. The feedback from the All-Star Game last year was uniformly positive from the players. I think after people wear them for a little bit, they’re going to be really popular.”

The 2024 uniforms have a markedly smaller typeface for the player’s name. This, quite obviously, will only make it harder to know who we’re watching. How is that a possibly good thing?

“Look at the last names, bro,” Angels reliever Carlos Estévez said. “I’m 6-foot-6. This is going to look tiny on me.”

Hey, maybe the players – many with Nike sponsorship deals – will change their minds once they play a few games. Maybe, in time, the jerseys won’t look like the replica you buy when you’re trying to save money but still want to kinda look authentic.

But the underlying concept persists. Baseball, guided by Nike, is trying to force-feed all these stylistic changes instead of just letting them happen organically. Consider the last few decades of uniforms trends, and how they reflected the times:

In the 1970s, color TVs gave rise to bright, gaudy uniforms. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, things were more conservative – button-down jerseys, belts, whites at home, grays on the road, a nostalgic turn also reflected in the retro ballpark boom.


The Marlins won the 1997 World Series while wearing their sleeveless white jerseys. (AP Photo/Eric Draper)

Four expansion teams joined MLB in the 1990s, and two, the Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks, would soon win a World Series while wearing sleeveless jerseys in Game 7. All of the expansion teams wore black – with some combination of purple and/or teal – and black became the popular color, with the Mets, Blue Jays, Royals, A’s and others diving in.

In the 2010s, teams increasingly pivoted to alternate jerseys, which often became their de facto primary look. Four seasons in a row ended with the World Series winner wearing a colored jersey: the 2016 Cubs, 2017 Astros, 2018 Red Sox and 2019 Nationals.

The pants, thankfully, were still white or gray. Then City Connect came along, and now we’re seeing the White Sox, Pirates, Mariners, Reds, Rangers and Orioles in black pants. The Astros and Cubs have all-navy getups, and the Diamondbacks sometimes wear all-yellow. We’re reverting to the worst of the ’70s.

Some teams have made sharp updates to classic looks. In the last decade or so, the Orioles, Brewers, Blue Jays, Padres, Astros and Rangers have streamlined the vintage styles of their glory years, honoring their traditions in a fashion-forward way.

But when the league gets involved, it’s too much, too fast – an assault on the eyes for a sport that can, and should, be a visual delight.

(Top photo of Giants pitcher Juan Sanchez: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)


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