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Wednesday, July 5, 2006
Updated: July 7, 12:24 PM ET
What's under your bill?

By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

After Kirby Puckett's death, several MLB players saluted him at the beginning of the 2006 season by inscribing his initials or uni number on their caps. But the MLB office quickly put the kibosh on that, telling players they couldn't write extracurricular messages on their headwear.

But there's one part of the cap where graffiti has always been permitted, and many players are continuing to write things there: underneath the visor.

Underbills, as they're known in the trade, are among the most subtle of uni elements, because they generally can't be seen unless the photographer has an unusual camera angle. And even then, many of the things written on them are illegible to the casual observer. This combination of obscurity and inscrutability makes the underbill message one of Uni Watch's favorite uniform details -- an excellent way to personalize your look without being all "look at me!" about it.

Most underbills are adorned with some sort of notation, although it's usually just a uni number (occasionally rendered in particularly large numerals). That strikes Uni Watch as a serious failure of imagination. Fortunately, a few players are a bit more creative with their Sharpie scribblings. Here's a partial rundown of current MLBers and their messages from down under:

Dontrelle Willis: The D-Train is probably the game's most prolific underbill scribe, usually writing "Have Fun" and "Joyce" (his mother's name), and sometimes more.

Curtis Granderson: Willis isn't the only who believes in having fun -- Granderson does too, plus he takes the extra step of identifying it as a non-cerebral pursuit. (Scott Eyre of the Cubs is reportedly another member of the "Have Fun" brigade, although photographic confirmation has proven elusive.)

Barry Zito: The A's southpaw writes "Fitz" under his brim, which stands for "Fearless in the zone" -- a reminder to attack hitters, trust his stuff, and not be afraid to pitch inside.

Chad Cordero: Cordero's brim is often noted for its Bonneville Salt Flats-like flatness. Less well known is that he often writes "Chief" -- a nickname given to him in college -- on the underbill.

Ian Snell: Uni Watch was intrigued by Snell's underbill after seeing this photo. But what did he have written under there? According to Pirates spokesman Dan Hart, "It's a Christian cross and the word 'Rize,' which is a reference to a movie. It's a motivation to rise above."

Nate Robertson: Robertson's eyeglasses are so distinctive, it's easy to overlook his "Persevere" message.

Ramon Ortiz: The Washington right-hander recently removed his cap during a game, revealing his "Dios Mio" notation, which translates to "My God."

As you may have noticed, almost all these players are pitchers. Part of that is because pitchers' underbills are easier to photograph, but pitchers also seem more inclined to write underbill notes to themselves, apparently to help themselves focus. Steve Olin of the Indians, for example, used to draw an arrow from the back of his underbill toward the front, as a reminder to throw straight toward the plate. As Richard Riccardi notes, the arrow became such a signature symbol that after Olin and teammate Tim Crews died in a 1993 boating accident, the arrow lived on as part of the memorial sleeve patch that the Indians wore that season.

Other players have gotten a bit more elaborate. Jose Lima once used his brim to send a shout-out to his wife and son. And then there's Willie McGee, who had all sorts of chicken scratch on his underbill in this photo, taken during spring training of 1985. Patrick Mondout, who brought the photo to Uni Watch's attention, turned the image upside-down, enlarged it and came up with this. "It appears to have McGee's goals for the upcoming season," Mondout writes. "A .320 batting average, 100 runs, 50 SBs, 15 HRs and 80 RBI [along with McGee's uni number, 51]. McGee actually won the MVP that year with even better numbers."

Mondout also tells Uni Watch of a story related to him by Lou Sauritch, a former Fleer baseball card photographer. In 1986, Sauritch took a photo of Juan Berenguer, who was pitching for the Giants at the time. Later on, as Sauritch looked through the slides, he noticed a certain posterior-related anatomical reference written on Berenguer's underbill. The next time he saw Berenguer, he asked him about it. To which Berenguer replied, "Oh, when Roger Craig come take me out of the game, and I no like, I flip my hat up!" Alas, Uni Watch has been unable to find visual evidence of this brilliant bit of uni-driven insubordination.

Reader Bryan Redemske tells a similar story of a clandestine profanity lurking on an underbill. Redemske works at the Omaha World-Herald, where the sports section was recently preparing to run this photo of two University of Nebraska pitchers. But just as the paper was going to press, someone got curious about all that underbill writing. So they took a closer look, revealing a message that wasn't appropriate for a mainstream newspaper. "The photo almost ran like that," says Redemske, "but we Photoshopped it out at the last minute."

Historically speaking, underbill messages are a fairly recent phenomenon, in part because for several decades underbills were green, which isn't a particularly annotation-friendly color. In the 1970s, the Reds became the first team to switch to light gray, after government studies showed that gray was easier on the eyes and kept military members more alert. Yes, really. Soon all MLB teams had gone to gray (the current shade of which has been standardized as Pantone 429). One unexpected consequence of this lighter color has been the rise of the handwritten underbill message.

But in recent years a threat to the cap-borne message has arisen -- call it the Dark (Under)Side. It began in 1998, when Angels GM Bill Bavasi switched the team's underbills to black, because he thought it was better for reducing glare, much like eye black. The Angels still use black today, while Bavasi has moved on to become GM of the Mariners -- and now they've gone over to the Dark (Under)Side too. Black is also worn by some members of the Rangers (but not all of them), a trend that may reflect the influence of recently departed pitching coach Orel Hershiser, who wore a custom-ordered black underbill throughout his career (as you can see here, here, here, and here), because it helped him focus.

The problem with a black underbill, of course, is that you need a white or silver marker to write on it, and most players aren't going to bother with that. In fact, Uni Watch's extensive photo research has turned up only one example of anything written on a black underbill.

Uni Watch's plea to Mariners ownership, then, is this: Don't ever fire Bill Bavasi. If he moves on to other teams, taking his Dark (Under)Side philosophy with him, the art of the underbill inscription might soon become extinct. And we can't allow that.

Flag Desecration
Baseball diamonds were full of patriotic displays on Independence Day, from the jerseys of the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings to the American flag patches on MLB caps. But some players experienced major technical difficulties, continuing an ongoing trend of flag snafus. For further details on this and other weighty matters, look here.

Pocket Watch Revisited
Last column's treatise on baseball pants pockets prompted some good responses, many of them chiding Uni Watch for not mentioning that having an inside-out pocket is often referred to as "leaving your blinker on." And David Conley adds that having both pockets turned out is often called "having your hazards on."

In other pocket-related feedback:

• From Elena Elms: "I always liked the story of Lance Berkman getting packs of Twinkies thrown at him by the bleacher bums in Wrigley, and stuffing them in his back pocket." Details of this great moment in baseball history are available here, including Berkman's classic explanation that he ate one of the Twinkies because they were still wrapped and therefore "should have been OK."

• From Marc Ohringer: "When Cecil Fielder played for the Yankees, there was an instance when he was going for a fly ball and you could see loose change falling out of his pocket." A great story, if it's true, but Uni Watch has been unable to confirm it. Little help?

• Bonus points to Robert Eden for noting that pockets play a key role in the TV series "Prison Break"; the character T-Bag turns his pocket inside-out and has the latest object of his affection hold onto it, sort of like a dog on a leash (there's even a fan site called Hold My Pocket). "I'm dying to see just one MLB player holding another's pocket in the same way," Eden says. Uni Watch heartily endorses this idea, which would surely set a fine example of camaraderie and teamwork on the diamond. Now all we need is a pair of players to inaugurate the ritual. These guys appear to be likely candidates for the job, don't you think?

Paul Lukas wrote "P. Lukas" on the underbill of his first Little League cap. 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.