By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

Sometime between now and the end of the season -- maybe when the rosters expand in September, or maybe just when David Wells gets injured in his next bar fight -- the Red Sox probably will call up Abe Alvarez, a pitcher currently in Triple-A. And then a lot of people will discover what Uni Watch has been following for some time: Alvarez wears his cap seriously askew. If straight ahead is the equivalent of 12 o'clock, then Alvarez's chapeau registers roughly a quarter past 10.

There's nothing new about this -- Alvarez did it during his earlier minor-league stops in Portland and Lowell, and during his one-game cup of coffee with the BoSox last year. In fact, he has been doing it since Little League because he's legally blind in his left eye and turning his cap to one side gives him a slightly clearer view.

Alvarez, in other words, has a pretty good reason for the crooked-cap routine (plus, as reader Andrew Totten recently documented, he wears really great stirrups). The same can't be said, however, for all the other big-leaguers currently wearing their caps to the side -- think of them as Crew Askew. In roughly descending order of off-centeredness, they include C.C. Sabathia, Juan Pierre, Brandon Phillips, Luis Rivas, Derrick Turnbow, Matt Lawton, Torii Hunter, Ian Snell, Jesus Colome, Mike Cameron, and Dontrelle Willis (but not Coco Crisp, who used to go off-center but not anymore, or Shawn Chacon, who's the rare player to have turned his cap both to the right and to the left but got scared straight upon joining the Yankees last month).

It probably won't surprise you to learn that Uni Watch takes a dim view of this look. And some of you are no doubt preparing to launch all the obvious rejoinders, so let's get those out of the way: Hip-hop blah-blah younger generation blah it's a black thing blah-blah-blah lighten up already blah-blah personal expression blah.

Right. But the hip-hop thing is a red herring -- lots of ballplayers listen to heavy metal or country, but you don't see them wearing eyeliner or cowboy hats (not yet, anyway). More to the point, Uni Watch's opposition to Crew Askew has nothing to do with racial, generational or subcultural demographics. And contrary to what you might think, Uni Watch won't be tossing around phrases like "respect for the game" or "bad influence." No, Uni Watch is opposed to the off-center cap for one reason and one reason only: because it looks so totally stupid. That applies equally to hip-hoppers who imitate ballplayers, ballplayers who imitate hip-hoppers, white guys who imitate black guys, old-school white guys who imitate grouchy old cranks, dolls that imitate comic strip characters and pretty much everyone else.

There's no MLB-wide rule regarding cap alignment, although some teams have set their own standards. ESPN's Peter Gammons reported last year, for example, that the Blue Jays told Orlando Hudson to keep his cap centered (which perhaps explains why Hudson is also one of the rare players to wear a double-flap helmet). Other teams, however, take a more laissez-faire approach. "We have no club policy on it," says Indians equipment manager Jeff Sipos, whose team has featured a disproportionate number of Crew Askew members. "There have been a few letters complaining about it in the local paper, but I think the complaints only surface when the fans are dissatisfied with performance. A high batting average or lots of wins certainly negates any bad image in the fans' eyes."

Sipos might change his tune if he saw Uni Watch's mailbox, which has been overflowing recently with complaints about the off-center look. Many of the rants have concluded with, "Who started this trend, anyway?" This admirably obsessive site credits Sabathia, but Uni Watch thinks it was actually Pokey Reese, during his stint with the Reds.

In the larger scheme of things, however, players have been rotating their caps to varying degrees ever since early catchers figured out that their masks would fit more easily if they turned their caps backward. Look through old baseball photos and you'll even spot the occasional Crew Askew forefather, such as Max Carey, Rabbit Maranville (whose 3 o'clock cap was apparently something of a signature style), and Fred Clarke (whose cap swung both ways, and eventually was immortalized on his Hall of Fame plaque). More recently, Ken Griffey drew Buck Showalter's ire for turning his cap backward during batting practice. And then there's the whole rally cap phenomenon.

All of which leads to a potentially earthshaking line of inquiry: Why do ballplayers even wear caps anymore? The original reason for caps, back in the game's earliest days, was that no 19th-century man would ever be seen in public with an uncovered head, and the brim evolved as a sun visor. But most games today are played at night, so the cap's functional aspect is limited at best, and the days of men routinely wearing hats in public went out with JFK. Once you stop and think about it -- as Uni Watch does, frequently and at great length -- the cap's universal presence throughout the game starts to seem a little weird. Like, are caps really necessary on a sweltering August night? Or a cloudy day? Or in the dugout? Maybe they should even be made optional?

That sound you hear is Uni Watch's name being crossed off of New Era's Christmas card list. But they can relax, and so can everyone else -- Uni Watch was just pointing out some cultural anomalies, not advocating blasphemy. Without caps, after all, Gaylord Perry wouldn't have had any place to hide his Vaseline, Phil Rizzuto wouldn't have had any place to store his chewing gum, the 1960s Angels wouldn't have had any place for their super-cool halo and Uni Watch wouldn't have a subject for articles like this one (or this one or this one or this one). And hey, just imagine the implications for Oscar Gamble!

As for Crew Askew, Uni Watch can live with its members' antics, on the condition that they steer clear of another common hip-hop headwear maneuver: leaving the sticker on the brim. We've gotta draw the line somewhere.

Making Spectacles of Themselves
Interesting scene in Toronto on Aug. 5, as Gustavo Chacin started and was relieved by Brandon League, marking a rare instance of back-to-back bespectacled pitchers.

Chacin and League are members of a fairly elite fraternity. By Uni Watch's very unofficial count, there are only five other active MLB players who wear glasses or goggles on a full-time basis: Nate Robertson, Jason Phillips, Francisco Rodriguez, Brendan Donnelly and Juan Padilla (plus injured Ben Weber and Eric Gagne). In the likely event that Uni Watch is overlooking someone, please don't be shy about saying so.

Some sources say the first big-leaguers to wear glasses on the field were pitchers Lee Meadows and Carmen Hill -- both of whom were nicknamed "Specs" -- in 1915. But others point to pitcher Will White, who played for several teams 1877-86 and certainly was well-suited to the role of being an eyewear pioneer: According to a 1989 article (brought to Uni Watch's attention by Paul Wendt of the Society for American Baseball Research), "White studied opthalmics at Corning, N.Y., and settled in Buffalo, where he founded the Buffalo Optical Company." His brother Deacon, a bare-handed catcher who led the league in RBI in 1876 and '77, didn't wear glasses but later worked for his brother as a lens grinder.

It's generally agreed that the first position player to wear glasses was Cardinals infielder George Toporcer (yet another "Specs") in 1921. Three decades later, Clint Courtney became the first glasses-clad catcher. But the real breakthrough in ocular stylings came in 1956, when Frank Umont confirmed every fan's worst suspicions by becoming the first umpire to don corrective lenses.

Countless players have gone bespectacled since then. The ones who really incorporated their specs into their overall field persona, at least in Uni Watch's mind, are Chris Sabo, Ryne Duren and Kent Tekulve (whose shades were so integral to his look that he later was depicted like this on a T-shirt).

Glasses have also appeared on the hardcourt and the gridiron, but Uni Watch is coming up empty when searching the memory banks for hockey-related examples. Little help?

Uni News Ticker
Two days passed between Matt Lawton being traded to the Cubs and his first game in a Cubs uni -- enough time, you'd think, for Chicago's equipment staff to be ready for him. And you'd think wrong, because as numerous readers gleefully pointed out, Lawton's first Cubbie at-bat, on Aug. 2, found him wearing a logo-less helmet, plus several letters from his surname were literally falling off the back of his jersey. When Lawton batted again two innings later, both problems had been fixed. … In case you're wondering about the uni implications of adidas having acquired Reebok, ESPN.com's Darren Rovell reports that the Reebok logo still will appear on NFL jersey sleeves. … The Twins, who tried to break a June losing streak by wearing their batting practice jerseys, tried a similar move Aug. 3, breaking out the really ugly retro red caps (which also created some major cap/helmet coordination problems). … The Carolina Panthers are retiring No. 51, in honor of Sam Mills. The team will wear a "51" helmet sticker this season. … The Marlins recently tried a bit of team uni-ty by agreeing to have everyone cuff their pants up high (gotta love that Jack McKeon chose real stirrups instead of solid stockings, although you'd think an old-school guy like him would've been wearing stirrups all along, anyway). "I heard Paul Lo Duca started it, to give the team a spark," reports Marlins fan and Uni Watch reader Kevin Sorg. "Todd Jones won't wear it on the mound when he closes, but the second he gets the third out, he pulls up the pant legs to show the socks up. Having the entire team in high socks looks top-notch." Indeed, but unfortunately it was too good to last, as the team has now gone back to the miserable long-pants look. … In a related development, John Hittinger reports that the Tigers all wore high socks Aug. 7, with Pudge Rodriguez opting for real stirrups. … After wearing pink ribbons and wristbands on Mother's Day and blue ribbons and wristbands on Father's Day (to support breast cancer and prostate cancer research, respectively), MLB players wore yellow ribbons and wristbands on Aug. 7 to support pediatric cancer research, part of the Commissioner's Initiative for Kids program. The Braves and Nationals had done this already -- on July 28, when the commish was in attendance -- but both teams did it again for their Aug. 7 games. … Tireless reader Mark Mihalik (whose contributions are so indispensable that he might soon have a fully endowed Uni Watch research chair named in his honor) notes that Devil Rays closer Danys Baez apparently wears a cheapo elastic belt instead of the leather belts worn by his teammates and most other MLB players. … And speaking of belts: Last time around, Uni Watch noted that the Mets are supposed to wear blue undersleeves when wearing their blue caps yet some players improperly wear black undershirts instead. The blue caps also are supposed to be paired with blue belts, yet some players are wearing black belts instead. Granted, many Mets are now wearing such ridiculously bloused jerseys that the belt has become nearly invisible, but that's another problem for another day. For now, howzabout if equipment manager Charlie Samuels gets everyone to wear the properly colored accessories already. … Still more belt-related news: On Aug. 6, when the Tigers and Indians dressed up as the Negro Leagues' Detroit Stars and Cleveland Buckeyes, respectively, both teams' pants had belt loops at 12 o'clock, an old-school detail that throwback promotions usually overlook. … Getting back to undershirts for a sec, Mark Mihalik (who clearly isn't devoting enough time to his studies at Penn State) also notes that Trot Nixon of the Red Sox has worn a veritable color wheel of T-shirts this year, including black, gray, navy, red (which is the team's only officially sanctioned undercolor) and white. … Logo Creep Alert: Back in February, the officials working the Super Bowl sported the NFL logo on the front of their caps for the first time. Judging by the first round of preseason games, that change appears to be permanent. … Several readers got all excited about the shin stylings of St. Louis pitcher Anthony Reyes on Aug. 9. Look closely, though, and you'll see that these are one-piece socks with a bogus faux stirrup pattern woven in -- better than the low-cuffs look, for sure, but still a major step shy of genuine stirrup nirvana.

Follow-Ups
• Uni Watch has devoted significant space in recent months to the subject of catchers' headwear, including backward caps, backward helmets, frontward helmets and nothing at all. But here's something we haven't yet covered: the brimless helmet, often seen in the 1970s, as modeled here by Duke Sims and Ron Hodges. What happened to this style of backstop helmet? It seems appealingly simple and low-maintenance, but it disappeared from sight after a short period of use. Anyone know why?

• Uni Watch's ongoing investigation into ballplayers who remove the little button from the top of their cap inspired a bit of retail-oriented uni-watching from loyal reader Matt Gerke, who writes, "Look at this baseball-style cap sold at Old Navy. I saw my two young nephews wearing these caps over the weekend and became very excited when I saw that the hat is sold sans button, creating much confusion and concern in my family. It turns out that all baby hats at Old Navy come without the button, to keep them from having the unnecessary object pushed into their heads." Uni Watch isn't sure what would qualify as a necessary object being pushed into a baby's head (or why anyone would want to turn their kids into shills for Old Navy), but Gerke's observation is interesting nonetheless.

• Uni Watch noted last time around that the Nationals issued uni No. 30 to recently acquired Mike Stanton, seemingly resolving the question of whether the team would honor the Expos' retired numbers. But as several readers have pointed out, the team's Web site actually lists all the 'spos retired numbers -- including No. 30, which had been worn by Tim Raines -- as being out of circulation. Apparently the equipment manager didn't get the memo on that one.

• On the subject of Manny Ramirez wearing Oakley Thumps, which have a built-in MP3 player, for one inning: As you might recall, BoSox skipper Terry Francona claimed it was no big deal because Manny's Thumps didn't have batteries. But Brent Moberg writes, "I have a pair of Oakley Thumps right here in my hands, fresh off the UPS truck, and I think Terry Francona might want to know that they don't run on batteries. They do run six to seven hours on a single charge, however. I bet if we check the tape, Manny's head was bobbin' at some point in that inning."

• Last column's mention of Chief Justice William Rehnquist becoming a Nike billboard inspired a brilliant response from Mike Styczen, who writes: "The most surprising thing is that the Nike cap would seem to run contrary to Rehnquist's long-standing adidas endorsement on his robes." Sharp-eyed readers will note that Rehnquist actually wears four stripes on his sleeves, not three, but Styczen's analysis is so trenchant that Uni Watch is willing to overlook this minor inconsistency.

• Finally, the topic of wearing cabbage leaves to beat the heat is so persistent that Uni Watch is thinking about opening up a produce stand outside every stadium. The latest installment: this news item, which reports that umpire Ed Montague wore iced cabbage leaves, supplied by then-Cards catcher Tony Peņa, under his cap during a particularly hot game 15 years ago. No word on whether Montague's cap, or the cabbage, was cocked to the side.

Paul Lukas wears his cap like a white guy imitating an even whiter guy. Archives of his early "Uni Watch" columns are available here, here and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Contact him here.



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