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Tuesday, February 1, 2005
Memories live in flannel

By Jim Caple
Page 2

PHILADELPHIA -- The ultimate test of a true sports fan is whether your suit cost less than your replica jersey. And it just may if you shop for your formal wear needs here at the Mitchell and Ness Nostalgia Company, where a Harold Carmichael 1973 throwback Eagles jersey will set you back $320.

Granted, that sounds a little steep, but the jersey is so large that if you get tired wearing it as a shirt, you can always lend it to your girlfriend for the spring formal.

Besides, can you really place a price on true love? Of course not. One look at the faces of the customers here will tell you that. To paraphrase James Earl Jones in "Field of Dreams": Fans will pass over the money without even thinking about it. For it is money they have and peace and a Ron Jaworski jersey with authentic hand-sewn lettering and reinforced stitching that they lack.

"A customer named Phil Behr came into the store in 1989 and saw a Ted Williams baseball jersey from 1951," Mitchell and Ness owner Peter Capolino says. "Now, Phil is normally a cool customer and a tough businessman, but when he saw that jersey he started to cry. I asked him what was wrong and he reached into his wallet and pulled out a piece of paper with Ted's signature on it that he'd been carrying around since he was a kid. The jersey probably cost $210 or something back then but he didn't even hesitate to buy it.

"People have a real love affair with sports, a love that's deeper in American society than most men want to admit to. When you tug at the heartstrings with something that is very dear to them, the money doesn't matter."

Your spouse, of course, may have a different view.

When replica jerseys are so ubiquitous that I swear the priest was wearing Donovan McNabb's No. 5 at mass Sunday, it's hard to remember there was a time not so long ago when the only way to get an authentic team jersey was to weigh 260 pounds, run a 4.8 forty, memorize a playbook and shove a tackling dummy around a sun-baked field during blistering August two-a-days. Mitchell and Ness didn't create the market all by itself but it carved out a considerable flannel niche.

THE LIBERTY TOUR
Jim Caple has taken to the streets of Philadelphia as the Eagles and their fans get ready for the Super Bowl:

  • Day 1: When is Philly gonna fly?
  • Mitchell and Ness opened here in 1904 and for its first eight decades it was a traditional sporting goods store that did a healthy business selling tennis racquets, golf clubs, shoes and the like. And then came the early '80s when the big chains almost forced the company out of business.

    "I was going bankrupt in 1983 and I had to make some money because I was getting married and my wife has very expensive tastes," Capolino says. "The sporting goods industry had changed and I couldn't compete with Foot Locker and the other big chains. This was born of desperation."

    Things didn't change overnight but as the years passed, the nostalgia jersey market grew steadily. From the verge of bankruptcy, his company has grown to 60 employees, roughly $25 million in annual sales and such cultural popularity that his jerseys are seen on MTV and BET -- Eminem recently bought a Billy Sims 1983 Lions jersey -- even more often than they are on ESPN and Fox. In one of sports most stunning comebacks that did not involve John Elway, Capolino has gone from having 50 cents in his pocket to having Fifty Cent wearing his shirt.

    "To this day," Capolino says of his success, "I'm completely befuddled by it all."

    While Mitchell and Ness products are available through its Web site and other retailers across the country, the company's only store remains in downtown Philly (at least for now -- stores in other cities are being considered). It's located inside a typical downtown storefront that doesn't look that impressive until you walk through the door and see carousels upon carousels of throwback jerseys and coats filling the store. A Deacon Jones 1969 Rams jersey ($285). A Bob Griese 1972 Dolphins jersey. A Ron Jaworski 1983 Eagles jersey. A chocolate brown Tony Gwynn 1982 Padres jersey ($375). And on and on. It's not only like being in the world's biggest clubhouse, it must be the feeling women get when they walk into the shoe department at Nordstrom.

    It's as if all the Halls of Fame got together and held a going out of business sale. Although the term "sale" might be a stretch. As one woman muttered to another while passing the store Monday afternoon, "They charge $300 for a jersey in there."

    "We get that question all the time -- why are the jerseys so expensive," marketing director Marlice Johnson says. "We have to explain that a lot of research goes into making these absolutely authentic. You can't just go to a local outlet store and find the right fabric. One jersey could be manufactured in three different countries. The flannel may come from one country, the lettering from another and the patch from another.

    "A lot of the jerseys, we're still researching. If it's not authentic, we won't do it. It's always in the development stage until we find that missing player number or special fabric."

    Indeed, Mitchell and Ness jerseys are so attentive to detail you can almost smell the Ben-Gay in the wool.

    Jim Caple
    Jim Caple models the 1960 Chuck Bednarik throwback evening gown.
    Still, the prices are steep enough -- $500 for a '76ers warmup top? -- that it seems the only people who can afford the jerseys are the actual athletes who wore them. And those athletes are a good chunk of the customer base. Allen Iverson has been known to drop $10,000 in a single visit -- he must be the Imelda Marcos of throwback jerseys -- and when teams come into town to play the local teams, many make a pilgrimage to Mitchell and Ness. Virtually the entire Vikings offensive line dropped by before Minnesota's playoff game against the Eagles a couple weeks ago.

    Excuse me, do you have anything in a XXXXXXXXXXXXXL?

    "It's interesting," salesman Art Bowser says. "Running backs will always get Jim Brown, Barry Sanders or Walter Payton. Linebackers will get LT. Defensive linemen will get Deacon Jones. And defensive backs will always get Ronnie Lott. Randy Moss got a Ronnie Lott jersey. That tells you how great Ronnie Lott was; he was a defensive back but a receiver like Randy Moss wanted his jersey."

    Indiana Pacers forward Michael Curry dropped by Monday afternoon before a game against the Sixers. Curry has played for six teams over a dozen years in the NBA and scored just under 3,000 points but he has never been awarded the only honor greater than receiving his own bobblehead doll. "I don't have a throwback jersey," he said with a hint of sadness as he browsed.

    I don't blame him. It must be quite a feeling to know that decades after you play your final game, fans and athletes alike will still turn back the clock to those glory years simply by pulling on your jersey.

    "It's like you're selling history," Bowser says. "When I started here I was amazed that we had this small store with all these people coming in looking for a piece of history. People live through their heroes. If you're a middle-aged guy and Willie Mays was your hero, you may never have gotten to meet him. But you can buy the jersey and feel like you're part of that."

    True, some might see spending $320 for a Harold Carmichael as impractical, but those also are the exact same women who will justify buying another pair of $320 black pumps when they already have 30 pairs of shoes in their closet. And frankly, it's a bargain compared to the prices of tickets. A ticket to this Sunday's Super Bowl will cost you far more than that. Heck, a couple of beers will almost cost as much. And what do you have left at the end of the game? A lousy ticket stub and a hangover.

    Mitchell and Ness gives you something tangible that will last forever, a jersey you can slip it into it any time, allowing you to remember the happiest times of your life, bring your favorite player a little closer and feel more happy and secure than you have since your parents threw away your security blanket.

    And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to find a way to hide a 1960 Chuck Bednarik Eagles jersey on my expense report.

    Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.