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Let's say you're an official Major League Baseball equipment licensee. But due to the complexities of MLB's licensing arrangements, you're not allowed to put your logo on the gear the players are wearing. What a gyp, right? What's the point of being associated with MLB if you can't put your brand's graphic stamp on the game? Is there anything you can do?
Unfortunately for the rest of us, there is. And that story line is now playing out in at least two places during spring training.
Let's start with the batting helmets. As you may recall, a new helmet design, featuring side vents and reptilian-looking molded crown, was unveiled during last year's All-Star Game. At the time, a Rawlings marketing manager gave Uni Watch a simple reason for the new design: "MLB doesn't allow outside logos on headwear, so this gives us the opportunity to kinda put our mark on the helmet without actually using the Rawlings logo."
The new helmet model, called the CoolFlo, wasn't seen again last year. But all MLB teams were given the option to wear it this season, and 11 clubs have chosen to be early adopters. Seven of those teams are already wearing the CoolFlo in spring training: the Cubs, Angels, Diamondbacks, Devil Rays, Orioles, Dodgers and Mets. The other four CoolFlo teams -- the Twins, A's, Braves and Padres -- are wearing regular helmets for now but will switch to the new model when the regular season starts.
Uni Watch, striving mightily to maintain a modicum of composure, hereby offers a few thoughts, observations, and factoids:
• Ahem: WHAT IS THIS, TEE BALL?! Or maybe a video game? Seriously, Uni Watch doesn't mean to sound like the CEO of Curmudgeons 'R' Us, but c'mon, these helmets are totally bogus. Venting, shmenting -- if they really need ventilation, just use teeny little cloth-stitched grommets, like the ones on the caps. Besides, if we were meant to breathe through our heads, we'd have a blowhole, like whales and dolphins. Rawlings claims the new design is 13 percent lighter, but big deal -- even on the hottest day, you're never wearing the helmet for more than a few minutes at a time. And the molded crown will be perfect when MLB teams start drafting lizards and gila monsters.
• When the CoolFlo debuted at the All-Star Game last July, here's what Uni Watch wrote: "Before some GM gets any bright ideas, let's get a pre-emptive restraining order to make sure nobody uses the new shape as an excuse to do something like this." Alas, nobody filed the necessary legal briefs, and sure enough, the Mets (surprise!) are now using the CoolFlo's ridged design as the basis for an embarrassing new two-tone color scheme. Plus, they're using this color layout for their non-CoolFlo helmets, even though there are no ridges to separate the color fields. Ugh. Look, guys, it's simple. Your helmet should match your cap, simple as that. (Speaking of which, because the Mets have three separate caps, in recent years they've also had three separate helmets -- blue, black and black with blue brim. But the new two-tone design is the only design they've worn so far in spring training. MLB says it's not yet clear whether the Mets will wear this new design for all games. "The traditional helmets are still around," says a spokesman. But if they do, Uni Watch bids a misty-eyed adieu to the team's classic solid-blue lid, which deserved a better fate.)
• The Dodgers are also using the CoolFlo as the basis for a new color scheme, although their new blue-on-metallic blue design is a pretty subtle alteration.
• Players on CoolFlo-equipped teams still have the option to wear traditional, non-CoolFlo helmets. So far, this only appears to be happening with the Diamondbacks, several of whom are bucking the CoolFlo trend. But other CoolFlo teams may not have bothered to haul their old-style helmets down to spring training, so we may see more players on these clubs going back to traditional lids once the regular season starts.
• Uni Watch is pleased to see that the new helmet design hasn't interfered with Juan Pierre's signature style of wearing his cap under his helmet.
So that's what we're all going to have to deal with just because Rawlings felt the need to flex its corporate ego. As for the spring's other insidious branding imbroglio, you've probably guessed already that it comes our way from the smiling monsters at Nike. The Swooshkateers are the official MLB licensee for undersleeves, but they're not allowed to show their logo (only Majestic has that privilege), so they've been looking for ways to give the sleeves a unique look. Last season they did it by adding that annoying white stitching on the shoulders and underarms. But that seems positively quaint compared to this year's maneuver: They've put dot-matrix stripes on the sleeves, which looked pretty bad when they tested it out on the White Sox and Astros in last year's World Series, and looks even worse this spring (and as an aside, is that a wristband on the heel of Pedro Martinez's glove?).
The weather's pretty warm down in Florida and Arizona, so the long sleeves haven't been showing up too often in spring training games. But they've been plenty visible in the World Baseball Classic, where several teams are wearing them (including Mexico, whose green stripes look kinda like grass stains), and it's a safe bet we'll be seeing lots more of them once the MLB teams head north to start the regular season. Plus there's a short-sleeve version waiting on deck. O, most nefarious Nike! Villainy, wickedness, malevolence, turpitude, devilry, diabolism -- all these be thy name!
OK, enough of that. Here are a few other notes from spring training:
• The Mariners have changed their batting practice jerseys from this to this; the Twins have changed theirs from this to this; and the Nationals have changed theirs from this to this. Uni Watch counts all three of these as progress.
• The Rangers are continuing their unique spring training protocol of having the manager and coaches wear red caps while the players wear blue.
• When you're the manager of the World Series champs, apparently you don't have to bother to wear your belt on photo day. (With thanks to Uni Watch Lifetime Achievement Scholar Mark Mihalik.)
• Manny Ramirez still has the same tailor.
• No comment.
As for changes to this year's regular-season uniforms, we'll deal with those in a few weeks, just before Opening Day.
Another rite of spring is that many MLB teams will celebrate St. Patrick's Day by wearing green unis on March 17 (a promotion dreamed up in 1978 by the Reds, who in recent years have dishonored their own legacy by taking a lazier approach). But this year they'll have company, because the NBA has decided to kiss the Blarney Stone, too.
Obviously, this is a pretty straightforward merchandising maneuver. But Uni Watch gives the NBA credit for restricting the St. Paddy's program to the Knicks, Bulls and Celtics -- teams whose cities feature big Irish-American contingents. And let's face it, the gold-accented Boston design is way better than the black-trimmed alternate uniform the Celtics have been wearing this season. Uni Watch's suggestion: Make the St. Paddy's Day design the team's official alt uni.
Facing Front, Facing Facts, Etc.
Quite a few readers have inquired about the orientation of the American flag sleeve patch on the USA's World Baseball Classic uniform. "Why is it facing backward on the sleeve but forward on the cap?" they ask.
Actually, the sleeve patch isn't backward. When the American flag is worn on the right side of a garment or vehicle, it's customary to position the blue field toward the front, so the flag looks like it's waving in the breeze as the person or vehicle moves forward. This applies to sleeve patches, helmet decals, Army uniforms, the space shuttle, Air Force One and so on. OK? OK.
Other WBC Tidbits:
• Cool raised appliqué on Korea's helmets, too.
• Less admirable: the advertising patches on Japan's helmets and sleeves.
• Anyone else think it's a bit strange for Ichiro to be wearing a personalized turtleneck?
• Kinda cool to see Vinny Castilla wearing a captain's designation.
• Reader Mike Kolecki notes that the uni numbers on Miguel Tejada's jersey and batting helmet don't match. And therein lies a tale, which comes our way from a source who prefers to remain anonymous: "Tejada was originally given 10, but he wanted 4. Well, Willy Taveras was wearing 4, so Taveras had to switch to 1. The original numbers had already been stitched onto the uniforms, so everything had to be changed. I learned about this when I walked in and found a bunch of frustrated guys talking about how they had to strip the numbers off the Dominican jerseys. I told them to give me a ripper and helped remove the numbers. But guess what: There was already too much promotional stuff with 10 for Tejada, so they had to strip off the 4 and put the 10 back on! Meanwhile, if you look closely at Taveras' jersey, you can still see the outline of the 4, especially on the white jersey."
• And finally, baseball historian Mark Lamster offers this piquant analysis: "Could Korea's cap with the giant gothic K be baseball's first intentionally ironic design? And how long until someone on the Nationals hangs one in [Alfonso] Soriano's locker?"
Uni Watch News Ticker
And so it has come to this: Kobe Bryant wearing purple tights. ... Other new members of the Men in Tights brigade: Allen Iverson and Ken Griffey Jr.. ... Tim Cottrell reports that we may also have to start a new tights category for boys, at least judging by what he saw at an Alabama youth league game. ... Really disturbing Logo Creep Alert (courtesy of Scott Mason): Check out the fullback in this photo. ... It's official: The NHL will not have new form-fitting uniforms next season. ... J. D. Hutchinson notes that Florida's recent throwback unis had faux belt loops. ... The Dodgers will be restoring player names to their jerseys in 2007. But they'll still be nameless this year, and John Cornell points out that this will extend Nomar Garciaparra's streak of never having worn his name on a home jersey (following his stints with the nameless-at-home Red Sox and Cubs). ... When the Knicks introduced newly acquired Steve Francis, they had him pose with a No. 8 jersey. But in actual games he's been wearing No. 1. ... An Australian rugby team wanted to do away with uniform numbers and have the players wear their initials instead, but the league put the kibosh on that idea (with thanks to Caleb Borchers). ... Remember last year when Uni Watch looked at baseball players who wear their national flags on their shoe tongues? Sam Mitchell notes that Mark Nichols of the Canadian Olympic curling team appeared to be doing the same thing (he's second from the left in this photo). ... As several readers have gleefully noted, Nike's Swift hockey uniforms didn't fare too well at the Olympics. The gold medal went to the non-Swift, classically styled Swedes, and classic unis kicked the Swifties' butts in direct competition, going 7-3-2 in head-to-head matchups. ... Weird scene in Liverpool on March 1, as Peter Crouch of England wore No. 21 on his jersey front and shorts, but the back of his jersey had No. 12. "Great kit management there," writes Liam Roche, "seeing as the kit had just been unveiled two days earlier." ... Kudos to the Reds, who require all players in their minor-league system to wear their pants hiked up to their knees (details in the "Showing the socks" section of this article, courtesy of Eric Schwartz). ... A similar tip of the cap to the Texas A&M baseball team, whose players all wear stirrups. As John Grego notes, "This creates a great effect when the whole team is lined up in the dugout." True enough -- but it would look even better if they were still using the striped stirrups they wore a few years ago. ... Longtime Uni Watch supporter Tom Shieber, curator of the Baseball Hall of Fame's excellent "Dressed to the Nines" uniform exhibit, just tipped Uni Watch wise to this book, which chronicles the history of Japanese baseball uniforms. "Of course, the whole thing is in Japanese," writes Shieber. "But you can decipher teams and years quite simply, so it's quite functional as an image reference." Uni Watch has already ordered a copy, which should arrive by the end of this month -- full report to follow. ... The Sabres retired Pat LaFontaine's number on March 3. The team wore No. 16 throwbacks during warm-ups and then wore a "16" chest patch on their regular jerseys for the game itself. ... The Bulls signed Luke Schenscher to a 10-day contract on March 5, but apparently they couldn't get his jersey lettered up in time for that night's game, so he had to play in a nameless jersey (nice catch by Doug Erwin).
Last column's primer on the concept of vertically arched lettering brought lots of typography geeks out of the closet, many of whom alertly pointed out that the Uni Watch logo could use a bit of vertical arching. Two enterprising souls -- Gerry van Blokland and Chris Murphy -- even decided to do something about this, as you can see here and here, respectively.
A few readers also complained that the tutorial on how to execute vertical arching (taken from Bill Henderson's invaluable "Double-Knit Era Collector's Reference") was too small to read, so here's a larger version.
In other follow-up news:
• Last time around, Uni Watch had wondered why the Canadian speedskating unis were kinda wrinkly -- a stark contrast to the sleek, skin-tight look of the other skaters. Reader David Arnott checks in with the explanation: "Just as a golf ball with dimples will go faster and farther than a perfectly smooth ball, speedskaters are helped by uneven surfaces. During the Nagano Olympics, some skaters started wearing strips of fabric attached to their suits to provide that same effect." (For further details, look here.)
• In more Olympics-related news, Uni Watch had noted that some players on the Czech hockey team wore blue gloves, while others wore red. Marc Draper is one of several readers who figured out the story behind that inconsistency: "In that photo, the players in question are Robert Lang (No. 20), and Tomas Kaberle (No. 15). Lang plays for the Red Wings and wears red gloves, and Kaberle plays for the Maple Leafs, wearing blue gloves."
• And speaking of hockey gloves, Uni Watch had noted that Teppo Numminen wore white gloves while the rest of the Finns wore blue or blue trimmed with white. The explanation for that comes from Rob Castaldo: "If you look closely, you can see that Numminen's gloves are made by Montreal Sports, the equipment company he co-owns with his brother, started by his father."
• Last column's mention of the Yeshiva University women's basketball team, whose players wear sleeves and skirts for religious reasons, prompted this note from Michael Morse: "There's a Georgia girls high school basketball team that wears warm-up pants and headdresses during all of their games. The school is W.D. Mohammed, and the girls team does this for religious reasons."
The first-ever Uni Watch Athletics Aesthetics Party is scheduled for this Sunday, March 12, at Southpaw in Brooklyn. Doors open at 3 p.m. ET. At about 5:30 ET we'll have our star-studded Q&A panel, featuring uniform designer Todd Radom, sports brand designer Tom O'Grady (chief creative officer of Gameplan), former Stall & Dean design director Scott Turner (who's also contributed a nifty T-shirt design for the event) and Society for Sports Uniforms Research prexy Donovan Moore. And after that, Uni Watch will personally raffle off a copy of the 2001 Major League Baseball Style Guide, some NFL helmet decals and possibly some other goodies.
Admission is free, and we should have free pizza on hand, too, so there's really no excuse for NYC readers not to attend. Uni Watch is looking forward to meeting many of you, so don't be shy about saying hello -- just look for the guy wearing this.
Paul Lukas, a lifelong Mets fan, thinks there's no truth to the rumor that this will be the team's next batting helmet design. Probably. His answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and archives of his "Uni Watch" columns are available here, here and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted? Contact him here.