Uni Watch isn't usually in the habit of making preseason predictions, but let's just come out and say it: Jose Cruz Jr. for MVP.
So begins Uni Watch's ninth annual baseball season preview column. Naturally, the rest of this year's uni-related news items can't quite compete with Cruz's case study in hosiery perfection (which, incidentally, is apparently a tribute to his father), but protocol demands that we cover them anyway. So with the season slated to begin on Sunday night, here's what to look for:
Most of the headwear discussion over the past month has concerned those embarrassing new batting practice caps. But all MLB teams have new game caps this season too, because New Era's basic 5950 model has been re-engineered. The fabric has been changed from wool to a performance-grade polyester that's supposedly more breathable and moisture-wicking, although Uni Watch views those claims with a healthy dose of skepticism (to see why, scroll down to the "No Guarantee of Drier Caps" section on this page).
Visually speaking, the new cap design is virtually indistinguishable from the previous one, with two exceptions: The MLB logo on the back of the cap is now raised and more textured, and underbrims, which for most teams had previously been gray, are now black (a color previously used only by the Angels, Mariners and some of the Rangers). Unfortunately, this latter change probably spells doom for one of Uni Watch's favorite uniform details, the underbrim inscription (a phenomenon addressed in full detail here).
One other thing about the new caps: Since they're made of synthetic fibers, they don't shrink. That could cause problems for Eric Gagné, who prefers a cap that's slightly too big and then lets it shrink to create a snug fit around his glasses (for full details, check out the "Dirty Laundry" section of this page). That's why his cap has traditionally been all sweat-stained -- once he's got one that's shrunk just right, he doesn't want the hassle of breaking in a new one. No surprise, then, that during spring training he's been wearing one of the old wool caps (note the telltale gray underbrim) instead of the newfangled polyester batting practice caps. Uni Watch is curious to see what he does once the regular season starts -- assuming he doesn't, you know, blow out his arm this weekend.
Meanwhile, the Clandestine Council of Color Consultants, which secretly decides which colors are in and out of fashion each year (this is only a slight exaggeration of how the process actually works), has apparently decreed that red is in -- like, really in. The first evidence of that is in Arizona, where the Diamondbacks have traded in their purple/teal color scheme for a new design based on a desert red.
Uni Watch, of course, is all in favor of anything that results in a net decrease in purple, but the home, road, alternate and second alternate uniforms (with rear views available here, here and here) all feel like designs that probably looked great on someone's computer screen but don't look so hot on actual fabric. Plus the mix of upper and lowercase typography is a disaster, the sleeve patch is a dirty joke waiting to happen and the "D-backs" insignia is a dirty joke that's already happened. Also, might've been nice if one of those color consultants had realized that this, this, this and this look an awful lot like this, this, this and this. Overall: The new unis are an improvement over what they had before, but not nearly as good as they could have been.
Fans will also be seeing red in Pittsburgh, where the Pirates have unveiled a new alternate red vest. While the Buccos' red threads are the clear winner of this year's "What Were They Thinking?" award (and looked particularly odd on Dick Vitale when he threw out the first pitch for a recent Grapefruit League game), this is not the first time an MLB team has worn a sleeveless red jersey. Can you name the only other team to have gone red-vested? Hint: The other team wore the red vest for only one game. Answer to follow at the end of the column.
The reddest team of all, of course, is the Reds. Or at least they should be -- but in recent years they've been wearing a distressing amount of black, especially on the road. But their new uniforms are, thankfully, much more crimsoncentric (home, road, alternate). The new design is far from perfect, mind you -- the black drop shadows add needless clutter, especially on the back, where the player names are hard to read. But Cincy gets big Uni Watch bonus points for bringing back the sorely missed Mr. Redlegs as a patch on the left sleeve.
And the last stop on the red-light tour is in Anaheim, where the Angels have a new red alternate jersey. Toss in the new red alts being worn by the Diamondbacks, Pirates and Reds, plus the ones already worn by the Braves, Red Sox, Astros and Nationals and you've suddenly got eight teams with scarlet jerseys in their wardrobes -- that's tied with blue and black for the most popular alternate jersey color.
Meanwhile, in other developments:
• The Blue Jays have a new alternate cap. This should be their chance to finally add some blue to their color scheme, right? Wrong. Bonus stupid points for coming up with a "T" logo that looks like a flying seagull.
• Lots of small changes for the Dodgers: Player names, which had been missing from jerseys the past two seasons, have been restored (although they could use a refresher course on how to avoid loose threads); the blue piping and white outlining that used to be on the road jersey have been eliminated; the white outlining on the road jersey's uniform numbers is gone, too; the "Dodgers" patch on the road jersey's left sleeve is now an "LA" patch; and the gray outlining on the home jersey's "LA" patch has been eliminated.
• The Cardinals will celebrate their championship reign with a commemorative sleeve patch. Plus on Opening Day, they'll wear a cap patch and don special gold-accented jerseys (similar to the ones the Red Sox wore two years ago for their World Series ring ceremony).
• Speaking of patches, look for new sleevewear this season from the Giants (this year's All-Star Game hosts), Mariners (30th anniversary), Devil Rays (10th anniversary -- a dubious milestone, but it's a really gorgeous patch), Marlins (10th anniversary of the 1997 championship team) and Brewers (25th anniversary of winning the 1982 pennant).
• Three deaths are being memorialized: The Phillies are wearing a "VUK" patch for coach Jon Vukovich; the Yankees have a black armband in remembrance of Cory Lidle; and the Red Sox will honor Red Auerbach by wearing green uniforms (usually reserved for St. Paddy's Day) on April 12.
• A little birdie tells Uni Watch that the Mets will be wearing less black this year, although it's not yet clear how much less. Black's loss will apparently be blue's gain: The team's home page masthead banner and pocket schedule are more blue-intensive than they've been in years, and Mets catchers have been wearing blue gear in spring training, instead of black. Hopefully this will mean more of this and a lot less of this.
• Equipment note: You know those play-calling wristbands that quarterbacks wear? Jason Varitek's been wearing one for certain games this spring. Why? So he can communicate with his newest battery mate.
• Dice-K, incidentally, has an equipment-related quirk of his own: He wears a big, gold-tone belt buckle -- much flashier than the plain models worn by everyone else. Incredibly enough, there's a precedent for this: Dodgers reliever Takashi Saito wore this same belt buckle design last season. Turns out it's a Mizuno belt that's very popular in Asia, as you can see in these photos from last year's World Baseball Classic (including this shot of Dice-K himself).
• The second-subtlest uni revision of the year belongs to the Padres, who've changed -- get this -- the color of the drop shadow on the little swoosh beneath their jersey script. The swoosh used to be navy on navy, but now it's navy on tan (a change that looks so much better and seems so intuitively obvious, you've gotta wonder why they didn't design it that way in the first place).
• And the subtlest change of all? That would be in Kansas City, where the MLB logo on the back of the Royals' cap has changed from blue and silver to blue and gold. Uni Watch can only imagine how many high-level executive conferences were required to execute that one.
Answer to the red vest quiz: The Blue Jays usually wear a special uni design for Canada Day (July 1), and in 1997 it was a red vest worn over a blue T-shirt. Thankfully, this was just a one-day aberration. Too bad we won't be able to say the same about the one being worn by the Pirates.
Remember last week's brouhaha about Craig Biggio wearing a cap pin to support the Sunshine Kids, the kids-with-cancer charity he's long been affiliated with? Couple of follow-up points:
• If the MLB honchos don't want Biggio wearing his Sunshine Kids pin during meaningless spring training games, then why do they let Johnny Estrada wear that "No Drugs" logo on his chest protector collar and backplate all season long?
• As several readers noted, Uni Watch's rundown of players, coaches, and managers who'd previously worn stick pins (Billy Martin, Bucky Dent, Manny Ramirez, and Reggie Jackson) had an oversight: Joey Cora, who wore two little flag pins on his cap in 1994 and '95.
• If you scroll down to the last item on this page, you'll see that the controversy actually appears to have helped the Sunshine Kids. Good for them.
MORE SHADY CHARACTERS
Uni Watch's recent dissertation on sunglasses brought in loads of great responses. Among the highlights:
• Although Uni Watch couldn't think of any shades-clad football players, readers had no trouble coming up with three of them: Mark Clayton (who wore sunglasses with the Dolphins and Packers), Derrick Mayes and Vai Sikahema. In addition, this article mentions that Raymond Berry "invented sun goggles, wrist bands and other gimmicks," although Uni Watch couldn't find any eyewear-inclusive photos of him -- a subject for further research.
• Tom Greenaway cites a similar example from the world of cricket: "Thanks to the horrible logo creep of sponsors -- which has actually moved the cricket association's crests to the side of the cap, to make way for a big sponsor's plug up front -- more and more players wear their specs backwards, to alleviate concerns that we might not be able to read any of the 30 sponsor patches on the uniform."
Paul Lukas' Cy Young pick is, of course, Jamie Moyer (who really gilds the lily by displaying the Liberty Bell on his stirrups). His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and archives of his 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.