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Wednesday, June 1, 2005
Updated: August 19, 4:45 PM ET
Stir-ring up sockwear

By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

It's gotta be the shoes, you say? Nuh-uh – it's the socks.

Uni Watch is referring, of course, to the modest but undeniable renaissance of stirrups appearing on Major League Baseball diamonds. The movement is being spearheaded in Boston, where Kevin Millar, Trot Nixon, Bill Mueller and Mark Bellhorn have all been stirrup-clad in recent weeks. Other current stirrup stalwarts include Juan Pierre, Reed Johnson, Johnny Estrada, Ruben Gotay, Alex Cintron (dig the ankle-level D-Backs logo!), Jose Cruz Jr. (ditto!), Jamie Moyer, Heath Bell, Mark Prior (get better soon, big guy!) and Brandon McCarthy (but not, alas, Barry Zito, who used to wear stirrups but is wearing solid green stockings this year – no doubt the source of his sub-par mound performance).

While Uni Watch is pleased – nay, thrilled – to see stirrups coming back into vogue, the mere fact that these meager pickings are noteworthy is a measure of how far baseball leg wear has fallen. Moreover, all the above-named players are wearing low-cut stirrups, which barely allow any white undersock to show through, rather than the far preferable and more graphically pleasing medium-cut style. And seeing all those Red Sox players in stirrups is a bittersweet reminder that Boston's sock drawer no longer includes the ultra-cool striped hose of yore.

Why does Uni Watch get so worked up about stirrups? Because they're unique to baseball. Because if you wore them in Little League, you remember how cool it felt to put them on. Because the way you wear them – or don't wear them – speaks volumes about you as a ballplayer.

Ad Nauseum
NBA commish David Stern recently hinted that NBA teams could one day wear advertising patches on their jerseys.

Needless to say, Paul Lukas has something to say about the idea. And if you think ad patches have merit, Uni Watch is here to rip apart all your arguments.

And when you think about it – as Uni Watch does, constantly – it's amazing that the MLB honchos allow such a dizzying array of shin-level stylings. First there's the pajama brigade, which includes players who wear their pants down to their shoes, over their shoes, under their shoes, tucked into their shoes, and tethered to their their shoes with an elastic strap (a style pioneered by Barry Bonds and later banned, although Uni Watch has spotted Livan Hernandez using it this season). There's also the handful of players who wear their pants at their ankles, exposing either a modicum of solid-colored sock or an ineffectual sliver of stirrup.

The problem with all these styles – besides looking like crap – is that they dishonor baseball's hosiery heritage. Socks are a way of showing your team's colors. That's why we have teams called the White Sox, Red Sox, and Reds (and why former Devil Rays manager and honorary Uni Watch trustee Hal McRae briefly required that all his players cuff their pants a minimum of four inches above their ankles in 2002). Fortunately, a few players still understand this simple logic. In addition to the current stirrup-clad crew, there are the players wearing solid stockings, as well as the occasional Cardinals player wearing faux one-piece stirrups (which are better than nothing but are not the genuine article, as can be seen here, here, and here). Most of these players wear their pants just below the knee, although Jim Thome cuffs his a smidge farther down (and don't overlook his ankle-level Liberty Bell – a nice touch that has sadly fallen into disuse among his teammates). And then there's Greg Maddux, among the last to wear the pants at mid-shin, as well as the last to wear the totally bogus socks with the sewn-in stripe.

How did we arrive at this muddled state of affairs? Here's the heavily abridged version: Teams wore knickers and colored stockings in the early 1900s, but textile dyes weren't colorfast in those days, so players who got spiked in the shin could get blood poisoning if dye from the torn stocking entered the wound. The solution, devised around 1910, was a white undersock, which would provide a sanitary layer of protection (hence the colloquialism "sani"). But the extra sock made players' shoes too snug, so someone came up with the idea of giving the colored outer stocking a bottom loop opening, instead of a closed foot design, and stirrups were born.

Since stirrups were meant to mimic stockings, the foot openings were extremely narrow, so that only a teeny bit of the sani would show through. Some teams dealt with this issue by making their stirrups white toward the bottom – sometimes just at the ankle, sometimes about halfway up the shin, and sometimes even higher – so that the lower stirrup would blend with and essentially disguise the exposed bit of white sani.

Over the course of the 1920s and '30s, stirrup openings slowly got larger, exposing a bit more of the underlying sani. By the late '40s and '50s, the white sani was no longer something to hide – it had become graphic element in its own right, providing contrast against the colored stirrup and creating the game's unique visual signature. And in the early '60s, baseball leg wear entered what Uni Watch considers its Golden Age, with most players sporting a Platonic ideal of stirrup, sani, and pant length, all harmonizing in perfect proportion.

But by the late 1960s, some players were pulling their stirrup openings so high that they were wearing little more than a tapered vertical stripe of color against a white background (or, thanks to the advent of the colored sani, a gold, yellow, blue, ochre, or orange background), which unfortunately marked the beginning of the end for the sublime striped stirrup style. In "Ball Four," written in 1969, Jim Bouton reported that some players were actually slicing the bottoms of their stirrups and sewing in some extra material so they could be stretched even higher, exposing as much white as possible. That way, wrote Bouton, "your legs look long and cool instead of dumpy and hot."

This stirrup-lengthening trend continued through the 1970s, with two primary exceptions: the Reds, whose low-rider hose always looked kinda pathetic, and the late-'70s White Sox, who wore one-piece striped socks and thus became the first team in more than half a century go stirrup-less.

By the '80s, this trend had given birth to the heinous ribbon stirrup, and from there it was a short jump to the genuinely evil socks with the interwoven stripe (whose stripes don't even go down all the way into the shoes!). This development brought the game's hosiery evolution full-circle: Stirrups had been created to mimic stockings, and now we had stockings mimicking stirrups.

With lower-leg color reduced to barely a whisp of a stripe, it's no wonder players felt little reason to keep their pants cuffed high. And that's how we've ended up with the chaotic mess we face today. It's downright embarrassing that the only people who know the right way to cuff athletic trousers are NFL officials, and that the only team who knows the right way to wear stirrups is the U.S. Olympic softball team. Clearly, major reforms are needed. But for some reason Bud Selig thinks coming up with a steroid policy is more important than adjudicating this crucial leg-wear impasse, so Uni Watch will have to do it for him. Without further ado:

1. All pants must be cuffed somewhere between the knee and mid-shin. And please, people, tuck the elastic underneath – that's not a rule, it's just common sense.

2. All players must wear either low or medium-cut stirrups over solid-color sanitaries. (Exception: No low-cuts for players wearing high-top shoes or ankle braces.) No ribbon-style, no high-cuts that reduce the stirrup to a stripe, no single-piece faux stirrups or solid-color stockings. Show some color and show some sani – simple as that. Stiff fines for violators.

3. Teams are encouraged but not required to incorporate stripes and/or the team's insignia into their stirrup designs. But on no occasion will any stirrups include a manufacturer's logo.

4. All stirrups, regardless of cut or graphics, will be worn with the smaller opening facing forward, and the larger opening at the back.

5. All teams will make stirrups available for purchase via their pro shops and Web sites.

6. Since the identity of the stirrup's originator has been lost to the mists of time (a shameful gap in the historical record, akin to physicists not knowing who set down the laws of motion and gravity), all fines for stirrup non-compliance will be used to finance a Tomb of the Unknown Stirrup Designer, which will be erected in Cooperstown, with miniature replicas available for purchase at all stadium gift shops.

That ought to do it – for now. Uni Watch readers are encouraged to help the cause by wearing stirrups in their baseball and softball leagues (or even, y'know, around the house). Can't find real stirrups? Look here, here, or here, or bug your sporting goods store to order you some of these totally boss custom styles.

And just wait until we cover football socks.

Uni News Ticker
Please join Uni Watch in donning a black armband to note the recent passing of Charlie Muse, the man who invented the batting helmet. ... In a move that was classy but sort of weird, the San Francisco Giants recently paid tribute to Hall of Famer Juan Marichal by playing two games in Spanish-language jerseys. The big question is whether other teams will follow – quick, what's Spanish for "Devil Rays"? Or "Mets"? And will the Padres turn the idea on its head by playing as the Priests? ... Too Much Information Dept.: Mets shortstop Jose Reyes reportedly does not wear a rather crucial piece of equipment. ... Speaking of the Mets, Pedro Martinez recently took the mound wearing one long undersleeve and one short. After Marlins skipper Jack McKeon complained to the umps (Rulebook section 1.11(c)(1) mandates that "the sleeves of each individual player shall be approximately the same length"), Martinez switched to matching long sleeves. ... Logo Creep Alert: Uni Watch hadn't noticed until now that when the Angels wear their vest jerseys this season, they're also wearing Majestic-branded undersleeves. What, the Majestic logo on the vest shoulder wasn't enough? Most other teams are wearing Nike undersleeves, whose logo is thankfully positioned out of sight. ... Speaking of logos, several Reds fans have written in to point out that the "REDS" lettering on the team's chest insignia, which usually looks like this, is smaller and less blocky on Randy Keisler's jersey. Keisler, who joined the team less than two weeks ago, probably got a hurriedly prepared jersey that wasn't quite up to spec. ... MLB broke out the American flag caps last Monday, in honor of Memorial Day. But the Yankees didn't play on Monday (and, let's face it, they never met a jingoistic opportunity they didn't like), so they wore the flag-adorned caps on Saturday and Sunday instead. ... Interestingly, Red Sox closer Keith Foulke also wore the flag on Saturday and Sunday, even though his teammates did not – an echo of last season, when he butted heads with Bud Selig over flag caps. ... Even weirder: The day after Memorial Day, Orioles pitcher Daniel Cabrera appeared to have a residual glue splotch on his cap where the flag patch had been. Anyone know if Cabrera is one of those superstitious types who insists on wearing the same cap all season long? (A tip of the glue-free cap to reader Patrick Roche for spotting this one.) ... More Bosox news: David Wells, who waited his entire career to wear No. 3 in honor of Babe Ruth, has abandoned that experiment and is now wearing No. 16 after having swapped uni numbers with Edgar Renteria. The results are threefold: (1) Renteria's "3"-imprinted shin guard – a holdover from his days with the Cardinals – now matches his jersey once again. (2) Wells has already had three uni numbers in his brief Boston tenure, if you count his signing press conference. (3) The number switcheroo lets Josh Towers reclaim his status as the only current MLB pitcher wearing a single-digit uni number. ... Total miscarriage of justice this week in Kansas City, where Bob Schaefer got booted from the manager's office in favor of Buddy Bell – just look at their respective shin stylings (that's Bell on the right). No wonder this team is in last place.

Follow-Ups
Contrary to Uni Watch's analysis two weeks ago, not every catcher who wears the hockey-style mask also wears a backwards cap beneath it. As readers Steve Foster, Jason Turner, Ryan Goeb, and Chris Boerma point out, catchers who go cap-less – and who are therefore shamefully bare-headed when they remove their masks – include Brad Ausmus, David Ross, Miguel Olivo (demoted to Triple-A on Monday, presumably for remedial headwear instruction), and Brandon Inge (now reassigned to third base, and aren't we all the better for it). Uni Watch urges all backstops to get with the noggin-coverage program and start wearing caps (after donning a fresh pair of stirrups, natch).

The subject of teams' wearing batting practice jerseys in regular-season games had several readers combing through their cobwebbed memory banks for the following hazily recollected examples:

• From Ron Cook: "The St. Louis Cardinals wore their BP jerseys for one game, at least two years ago. It was part of the 'shirts off our back' promotion, when all in attendance could buy a $1 scratch-off ticket, with the benefits going to charity. Approximately 42 winners won the actual game-worn jerseys from that day." Cook may be referring to Labor Day, 1999. According to Bill Henderson's completely amazing "Double Knit Era Collector's Reference" (heartily recommended to everyone reading this – look here), the Cards wore and raffled off a set of red jerseys that day, but they were solid-fabric alternate unis, not mesh like the team's BP attire.

• From Nick Wilwert: "I couldn't find the exact date, but sometime during the Cubs' season-opening losing streak in 1997, in an unsuccessful attempt to break the streak, they wore blue batting practice jerseys." Uni Watch has seen visual evidence suggesting that this was probably on April 10, when the Cubs had already lost their first seven. They lost again that day, 1-0 to the Marlins, and went on to lose five more in a row after that.

• From Jeff Miller: "Couldn't tell you the year, but sometime in the late '90s or early 2000s, the Phillies wore BP jerseys in a July game at San Diego."

• From Rich Loup: "I don't have visual proof, but I seem to remember the Expos wearing their blue BP jerseys on July 4, 2002, at Philadelphia. I'm guessing it was because of the heat from the old Veterans Stadium turf. I think the Expos had BP jerseys with breathing holes in them at the time."

• And from David Pagano: "I remember the Padres wearing BP jerseys along with the BP caps in a game in Arizona in 1999. I distinctly remember that it had to be 1999, since Reggie Sanders was playing in the game. I have a distinct memory of his hauling in a drive in left to end an inning."

Meanwhile, on the topic of 49ers coach Mike Nolan's not being allowed to wear a suit and tie on the sidelines, and speculation as to what a Reebok-designed suit might look like, David Mundt points out that there's some precedent for team-imprinted business attire: Hank Stram's old Kansas City Chiefs blazer (which was certainly preferable to some of his other wardrobe choices).

And when signing off last column by pondering the notion of a football coach's wearing a bow tie, Uni Watch forgot that there's a precedent for that too: former Chargers coach Sid Gillman, who became so inextricably linked with his signature neckwear that it was even immortalized on his Hall of Fame bust.

The Last Word
Reader Mark Mihalik has come up with what may be the ultimate detail-obsessive observation: "Nomar Garciaparra was wearing Adidas cleats during his final few years with the Red Sox, but I noticed that the cleats had a tongue flap that wasn't part of the stock Adidas shoes and instead resembled a Reebok tongue. It turns out he actually had a Reebok tongue attached to his Adidas shoes, which must have been some kind of superstition. He's got to be the first player in history to wear a hybrid-branded cleat."

Ladies and gentlemen, Uni Watch is, for once, speechless.

Paul Lukas wears navy blue stirrups, and no advertising, when he plays softball every Sunday 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.