By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

If you watched the NBA Finals, you probably noticed the O'Brien Championship Trophy jersey patch that everyone was wearing (although the NBA also plastered images of the trophy on the court, the backboard posts, towels, caps, T-shirts, interview backdrops, and pretty much everywhere else they could think of, just to be safe). The NBA isn't the only league to showcase its trophy on players' uniforms. In recent years, NHL playoff finalists have worn a Stanley Cup jersey patch.

Depicting a trophy on a uniform is fine. But there are two major sporting events where the uniform is the trophy. The first is the Masters, where for some reason grown men get excited about winning a garish emerald blazer. The other event kicks off this weekend – the Tour de France, where cyclists compete for the coveted yellow jersey, or maillot jaune, worn by the race's overall time leader.

Although the Tour de France dates back to 1903, the yellow jersey didn't debut until 1919, when French journalists covering the event asked the race director, Henri Desgrange, to make it easier for them to pick out the leader amidst the other cyclists. Since the Tour's sponsoring newspaper, L'Auto, was printed on yellow paper, that became the color of choice. And so on the morning of July 19, 1919, prior to the Grenoble-to-Geneva stage, Frenchman Eugène Christophe became the first to don the yellow jersey. Christophe also became the first to learn that wearing the yellow jersey in a given stage is no guarantee that you'll wear it at the race's conclusion: He was eventually sidelined by mechanical problems, and it was Belgium's Firmin Lambot who won that year.

Although the yellow jersey gets most of the attention, the Tour also features several other award jerseys, plus a few more that have fallen by the wayside over the years. Here's the breakdown:

The green jersey: First awarded in 1953 to celebrate the Tour de France's 50th anniversary, the maillot vert is worn by the race's sprint points leader, a complex computation whose full explanation always leaves Uni Watch with a headache. Its color was chosen because of its initial sponsor, Belle Jardinier, a gardening store.

The polka-dot or red-and-white spotted jersey: Ugh – maybe something got lost in the translation from maillot à pois rouge, but who wants to wear something called the polka-dot jersey? In any case, it's given to the best climber, or King of the Mountains, a category created in 1934, although the actual jersey wasn't introduced until 1975. The first to wear it was Joop Zoetemelk, although he'd surrendered it to Lucien Van Impe by the race's conclusion. Once again, the design is essentially an ad: The jersey's initial sponsor was Poulain, a chocolate maker whose product was packaged in polka-dot-patterned wrappers.

The white jersey: Introduced in 1968, this was originally awarded to the combination classification leader. That category was eliminated in 1975, at which point the white jersey was given to the top finisher among the young riders, defined as those who are less than 25 years old on Jan. 1 of the Tour year. Eliminated in 1988, when the Tour got back to basics, the white jersey was revived in 2000.

The red jersey: In the mid-1980s, a red jersey was given to the leader of the intermediate sprint bonus competition (and if you can explain how that was determined, you're way ahead of Uni Watch). In addition, the green jersey was red for one year, 1968, due to a sponsorship change.

The combination jersey: Another short-lived 1980s phenomenon, essentially a composite award based on standings for the yellow, green, red, and polka-dot jerseys. The actual garment was a patchwork, with areas resembling each of the individual jersey designs.

The blue number: The rider deemed to have worked the hardest in a given stage gets to wear a white-on-blue number, instead of the standard black-on-white, the following day. Sort of an "A for effort" consolation prize.

And there's additional arcana: Reigning world champions, for example, get to wear rainbow stripes on their jerseys, and former world champions have the option of wearing rainbow-striped sleeves.

The yellow, green, and polka-dot designations have been adopted by many other cycling races, but a few events prefer to use their own chromatic hierarchies, most notably the Tour of Italy, or Giro d'Italia, where the overall leader wears pink instead of yellow, and the sprint points leader wears – shudder – purple instead of green. (Uni Watch note to self: Under no circumstances lead the Tour of Italy.)

But the most interesting aspect of all this, at least from Uni Watch's perspective, is the logistics of how the actual physical jerseys are awarded. According to a Wikipedia entry about the Tour de France:

"The rider leading a classification at the end of a stage is entitled to wear the corresponding jersey during the next stage. Jerseys are awarded in a ceremony immediately following the stage, actually before trailing riders have finished the stage. … A rider who leads a classification for a stage of the Tour gets three copies of the colored jersey. The jersey bears [his] team logo, and the copy that [he is] awarded immediately after the stage end must have the logo attached in a matter of minutes, so this is done by a rapid process that can be done in the field but which yields an inferior jersey. Overnight, a high-quality jersey is printed to be worn the next day. They also get a high-quality jersey to keep as a souvenir – the ones that are worn get dirty and are sometimes damaged by the day's cycling."

Speaking of logos and sponsors and such, you won't be seeing Lance Armstrong's familiar Postal Service jersey during this year's Tour, because the USPS is no longer his team's sponsor (a move that should keep the price of stamps level for an extra year or two). Armstrong's new sugar daddy: the Discovery Channel. He also seems to have stopped wearing that weird helmet that made him look like a refugee from "Alien."

But of course Armstrong's real contribution to sports fashion, if you want to call it that, is the ubiquitous Livestrong band, which is now worn by professional and amateur athletes, kids, celebrities, bimbos, politicians – and pretty much everyone else.

Pretentious Metal
The next Livestrong-esque accessory trend appears to be those necklaces that so many ballplayers are now wearing (and that Page 2's Tim Keown adroitly summarized toward the end of his Tuesday column).

It turns out that the necklaces are embedded with titanium, which supposedly relieves pain, relaxes muscles, and counteracts fatigue – at least according to the Japanese company that makes them. And hey, that sounds like an unbiased source, right?

The first player to wear the necklace was Randy Johnson, who now shills for the manufacturer and has been quoted giving the following highly scientific explanation of titanium's benefits: "The titanium itself penetrates through the skin, I guess, and gets into the blood, I guess, and allows the blood in those areas that wouldn't normally flow as freely, to flow a little bit better." Sounds reasonable to Uni Watch. No word on whether Johnson is also burning incense, sucking on a crystal, or recharging his chakras in-between starts (or whether he still believes in the Tooth Fairy).

The manufacturer estimates that the necklaces are now being worn by about 200 MLB players, which just goes to show that P.T. Barnum's most famous statement is still valid. And besides, wearing a necklace on the field seems like a bad idea to begin with – anyone looked at Jeff Weaver lately? If you really want a performance-enhancing necklace, Uni Watch suggests this kind.

Uni News Ticker
MLB's annual Father's Day promotion, in which players raised awareness of prostate cancer by wearing blue jersey ribbons, blue wristbands, and "eye blue," was taken to a new level by Royals pitcher Brian Anderson, who wore a blue ribbon temporary tattoo (with thanks to reader Lee Leslie). … That '70s look: The Cardinals recently set several readers' hearts all aflutter by breaking out the powder blue throwbacks. Look for Uni Watch to present an exhaustive overview of the powder blue phenomenon in the near future. … An even cooler throwback game took place June 25, when the Padres and Mariners wore 1930s Pacific Coast League unis, complete with era-appropriate caps – which in San Diego's case meant blank caps (which is what the minor-league Padres actually wore back in the '30s). ... Speaking of the minor leagues, Matt Cook reports that the Las Vegas 51s -- the Dodgers' triple-A affiliate -- wore gonzo Hawaiian-style jerseys on June 18 … And speaking of gonzo, the Korea Baseball Organization recently faced an interesting situation when Doosan Bears pitcher Park Myung-hwan's cap fell off, revealing a frozen cabbage leaf that had been on his head – really! "I'm sensitive to the heat and my wife recommended I put frozen cabbage leaves under my cap to cool my head," Park said. The league, unmoved by this creative exercise in thermodynamics, promptly banned the practice (with big thanks to Jeremy Segall).

Kudos to Uni Watch research fellow and Brooklyn Cyclones devotee Chris Herles, who points out that the Yankees, who have more retired numbers than any other team, have also retired those same numbers throughout their minor-league system, presumably as a way of giving their prospects an early indoctrination into the much-vaunted Yankee mystique. Anyone know if other organizations have done this? … On June 23 and 24, the Twins became the latest team to wear their batting practice jerseys for regular-season action – first at home against the Tigers (at pitcher Carlos Silva's suggestion) and then on the road against the Brewers. Although the BP duds are very similar to the team's navy alt unis, there's one key difference: Minnesota is among the handful of teams that doesn't put player names on the back of its BP shirts, so the visual effect is kinda old-school. … Eagle-eyed Gary Wong earns Uni Watch bonus points for noticing that Pistons coach Larry Brown was wearing different eyeglass frames at home and on the road during the NBA Finals. … Meanwhile, reader Joe Hilseberg was going nuts during Game 7 of the Finals, because Tim Duncan's front jersey number was a bit crooked. Hilseberg, who used to work for the shop that made jerseys for the Baltimore Orioles, steadfastly maintains, "That jersey Duncan was wearing would have never made it off of my heat press!"

Follow-Ups
The subject of catchers' headwear refuses to die, as readers Tom Preston and Sean Ballon report that Jason Phillips and Kevin Cash aren't the only backstops to wear their helmets with the brim facing forward: Oakland's Adam Melhuse also favors this counterintuitive style. Is this a trend in the making? Is a new generation of catchers being taught to wear the helmet visor-forward?

Speaking of helmets, last column's examination of how the Cubs use a felt appliqué as their helmet logo, instead of the simple decal that other teams use, prompted this reminiscence from reader Christopher Dickson:

"I learned about the felt helmet logo in 1984, at age 14, when I got a dream opportunity to be a Cubs batboy for a day. The game was in September, against the Mets, who the Cubs were battling for the NL East crown. Unfortunately, my helmet's logo lost its stickiness and fell off two innings into the game. I tried to stick it back on, but it kept falling off, so I became a generic batboy. Understandably, nobody had much time or patience for a novice replacement batboy and his uniform malfunctions. So I carried on, looking out of place and not like a real part of the team (which I wasn't anyway), as the Cubs went on to win."

And as Bob Timmermann and John Teti Jr. point out, the Cubs have a counterpart in Japan: the Yomiuri Giants, who've been wearing a fuzzy, raised helmet logo at least since the 1970s. …

On the ever-active hosiery front, Brandon Davis reports that Oakland's Joe Blanton doesn't just wear real stirrups – he wears his pants so high that you can see his stirrups' little uni number laundry tag!

Regarding the situation in Houston, where Jason Lane will presumably have to give up his uni No. 24, which is being retired in honor of Jimmy Wynn, reader Garrett Malcolm checks in with the following: "When 'Butterbean' Bob Love's No. 10 was retired by the Chicago Bulls, B.J. Armstrong was wearing No. 10. Maybe it was because Love gave permission, or maybe because Love wasn't the caliber of a Bill Russell or Julius Erving, but they let B.J. wear the number for the rest of his tenure with the Bulls."

In a similar situation, Guy Serumgard reports that when the Tigers retired No. 23 five years ago in honor of Willie Horton, Hideo Nomo was allowed to keep wearing that number for the rest of the season. "What's almost as interesting," adds Serumgard, "is that Kirk Gibson wore that number for much of his career with the Tigers and is arguably a better-known 23 than Willie Horton. Gibson's currently the Tigers' bench coach, wearing No. 22."

And Jeff Hildebrand recalls that the Phillies faced a similar problem in 1979, when they had announced plans to retire Richie Ashburn's No. 1, which was being worn by Jose Cardenal. But the crisis was averted when they traded Cardenal to the Mets (between games of a Mets/Phils doubleheader, as Uni Watch remembers it) three weeks before the number-retirement ceremony. …

Meanwhile, Bob Beau informs Uni Watch that although Detroit's Jason Johnson last year became the first and so far only diabetic player to wear an insulin pump clipped to his belt, he's not the first man in uniform to do so: Former Red Sox coach Mike Cubbage wore the pump at least as early as 2003.

Finally, Majestic Athletic merchandising VP Matt Hoffman called to explain why the Devil Rays wore their batting practice jerseys, instead of their very similar green alternate jerseys, on June 11 against the Pirates. "The BP jersey is made from a moisture-wicking performance fabric," he explained. "So they can choose to wear that one on particularly hot, muggy days, especially since the two jerseys are both green." Fair enough, except the box score says the gametime conditions were 75 degrees and overcast. The poor Devil Rays, they can't even get their weather reports straight. Would anyone be surprised – or even notice – if they showed up for a game wearing this green jersey?

Paul Lukas wears cutoffs and a T-shirt – but no Livestrong bracelet or titanium necklace – for his daily bike ride in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Archives of his pre-Page 2 "Uni Watch" columns are available here and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Contact him here.



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