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Thursday, March 1, 2007
It's time to spring forward

By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

Spring training isn't just for the players, ya know. Uni-watching instincts can atrophy over the winter, just like any other skill. In July, you'd notice a slightly longer sleeve or a mismatched pair of batting gloves without breaking a sweat, but such subtleties tend to fly under the radar this time of year.

Uni Watch
So with Grapefruit and Cactus League games just under way, here are Uni Watch's 10 favorite uni-centric rites of spring, which should help your brain handle the transition into baseball mode in the weeks and months to come.

1. The Popeye Factor
Every year, Don Zimmer increases his uniform number by one, to match the number of years he's worked in the game. It isn't possible to reconstruct Zim's full numerological history because there aren't many rear-view shots of him floating around out there (photographers can't seem to tear themselves away from his cuddly facial visage), but you can see that he wore No. 53 in 2001, 54 in 2002, 56 in 2004, and 58 last year. His uni number hasn't yet been visible down in Devil Rays camp, but a team source assures Uni Watch that there's a 59 lurking underneath that windbreaker.

2. Shamrock Shake
On March 17, 1978, the Reds debuted the first St. Patrick's Day uniforms, a trend that has since caught on with other teams (although the Reds themselves have gotten lazy about it). Yeah, it looks a little weird, but there's something nice about that one-day sea of green -- Uni Watch thinks every team should do it. But since the A's and Rays already wear green, each of their players should have to wear one of these.

3. The Tools of Ignorance
Catchers often change equipment sponsors in the offseason, so your favorite backstop may have a new look. The big news this year is that Reebok and adidas have started outfitting MLB catchers. Other changes that have caught Uni Watch's eye: Jose Molina has switched from All-Star (with his uni number on the collar) to Nike (with his name on the collar); Ramon Castro has switched from TPX to Rawlings; and Brad Ausmus has switched from Rawlings to Mizuno (although he still appears to be wearing Rawlings shin guards). A few personalization revisions, too: Brian Schneider, whose chest protector collar used to feature his uni number, now has his name, and Vance Wilson, whose collar used to be blank, is now wearing his number. And spring training is probably the only time you'll ever see the "paddle," a really thin, shallow glove used for blocking drills.

4. Personal Quirks
Is Sammy Sosa still wearing elasticized sleeve cuffs, like he did with the Cubs and Orioles? Yup. Is Shin-Soo Choo still wearing a double-flapped batting helmet? Double-yup. Is Nomar still wearing mismatched sweatbands, and is Robert Fick still going with real stirrups? Check and double-check. Has Doug Mientkiewicz gunked up his helmet with pine tar yet? Nope, but Uni Watch is willing to bet that helmet won't stay clean for long. And speaking of things that won't last, what's this -- Juan Pierre wearing long pants? And Jim Thome, too? Look for them to go back to their usual high-cuffed look when the games count.

5. Equipment Routines
Players choose new gloves and clubhouse guys clean the team's spikes all season long, but this is the only time of year you'll see these behind-the-scenes rituals brought to light, because everything seems exciting and fun in spring training -- even the old lady who does all the uniform sewing for the teams training in Tucson. There are some short video clips available this spring, too: Here's Curtis Granderson picking out a new glove, and here's the Orioles clubhouse staff cleaning the team's spikes (click on the "Clubhouse Attendants" link). Can the uniform laundry video be far behind?

6. You Can't Tell the Players without a Scorecard
Don Zimmer isn't the only one with a new uni number. Others include Austin Kearns (switching from 28 to 25), Manny Delcarmen (57 to 17), Jon Lester (62 to 31), Robinson Cano (22 to 24, supposedly to make room for the Rocket), and Kaz Matsui (16 to 7). Then there's Scott Schoeneweis, who's always worn No. 60 while playing with the Angels, White Sox, Blue Jays and Reds. The Mets thought they'd do him a favor this year by giving him a more suitable number, but he had a mild conniption, so he's now wearing 60 again. And while most fringe players on the bubble are assigned high uniform numbers, Tony Womack -- a non-roster invitee with the Nationals -- is going in the opposite direction by wearing double-zero.

7. Hosiery by the Numbers
Speaking of uni numbers, a player wears his number on his jersey, natch, and usually has it written on his bats, and maybe on his glove, batting helmet and other assorted gear. But did you know that most players' socks are also uni-numbered? The only time you get to see this is during spring training, because everyone's running around in shorts. Sometimes the number is handwritten on a little white strip, and sometimes it's sewn right into the sock. And here's the rarest sight of all: a player who's changed uni numbers and is stuck wearing last year's socks.

8. Those Great New Batting Practice Caps
Actually, the new BP caps are a joke, and nobody likes them (for further details, look at the "Hats Off" section here). So the fun has been in noticing who's not wearing them. The Angels, for example, appear to be wearing last year's BP cap, which doesn't have the stupid little stripe panels on the side. And look how far Jeff Kent will go to avoid wearing the new lids: He wore a regular game cap when he first showed up in camp, but someone must have read him the riot act, so now he's apparently using a gray marker to draw side panels onto his game cap (compare his amateur version to the real thing).

9. Those Great New Batting Practice Jerseys
Come to think of it, the new BP jerseys aren't any good either, thanks to that embarrassing side piping. Like, do the Yankees really need to look like this? Does any team need to look like this? Or this? And what's with the pit-stain motif? Ugh. Plus the pullover style doesn't leave much to the imagination. The lone bright spot: The typography on the old Red Sox BP jersey design didn't match the lettering on the regular gamer (compare the two R's, for example), but this problem has been fixed on the new design. One small step for BP jerseys, one giant leap for -- actually, it's just a small step, period.

10. The World's Most Overtaxed Belt
Oops, there goes the Slim-Fast deal. Definitely won't see a sight like that outside of spring training. Or at least Uni Watch hopes not.

LACE IN THE HOLE
Lots of good responses to last column's shoelace manifesto. Among the highlights:

• "Regarding NHL laces, you might want to watch these guys," writes Andy Kerrigan. "They got started in snowboard boots but partnered with CCM for the first time this year. I'm guessing a few players will be wearing them on the ice next season." The company he's referring to, Boa Technology Inc., manufactures a proprietary system that allows the user to dial the laces to a desired tightness. Gimmicky, but interesting. You can download their catalog here.

Keith Brough points out that Uni Watch was remiss in not mentioning that Roger Clemens famously wore Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle shoelaces during Game 4 of the 1990 ALCS (the same game in which he wore eye black and was ejected for arguing balls and strikes). No photos, though. Little help?

• From Jordan Knott: "Lacrosse players generally use hockey laces to create the 'whip' in their sticks, which determines how the ball releases from the pocket." Here's another view. According to Thomas Langan, the first players to do this were Paul and Gary Gait, who are Canadian, which may explain the hockey connection.

• Uni Watch's mention of the white laces worn by USC and Alabama prompted this note from Chris Dorsett: "My brother is an equipment manager at Alabama. According to him, USC and Alabama are the only Nike schools that wear the white shoelaces with black shoes. Since they are the only two, Nike doesn't specially make white-laced shoes for them, so they have to remove the black laces and replace them with white laces every year before the season. As you can imagine, it takes quite awhile."

• And in the latest confirmation of Uni Watch's utter cluelessness when it comes to all things soccer-related, a few jillion fans wrote in to note that soccer cleat design usually provides a smooth kicking surface via super-lengthy shoelace covers, off-center laces, or eliminating laces altogether.

Paul Lukas is 42 years old and left-handed, which means he should be getting an invitation to Mets camp any day now. 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.