Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 8, 2019

Growing The Game Isn’t Always Black And White

The third edition of MLB’s Players Weekend is coming, and it seems that Tyler Kepner of the New York Times has mixed feelings about the event. Kepner has written about the Great Game literally since he was a childhood fan of the Philadelphia Phillies and has become one of the most astute observers of the sport. But he sounded a little cranky on Wednesday, when he used his allotted space in the Times to complain about MLB’s just announced decision to have the uniforms for Players Weekend be monochromatic, either white or black in their entirety, meaning white (or black) numbers, logos and names on an equally white (or black) jersey and cap, with matching pants.

With his press pass Kepner goes to the ballpark not just to enjoy the game but also to share his observations with readers. Thus his first complaint is that the all black or all white styles of the weekend’s uniforms will make it difficult to identify the men on the field as, in his words, “the whole sport will look almost indistinguishable, with logos, numerals and lettering all but impossible to see.” But Kepner’s bigger beef is that the entire weekend, in which players on all thirty teams doff their usual uniforms for a different look that they are free to accessorize with socks, cleats, batting gloves, compression sleeves and so on in as many colors or patterns as they like, while also being encouraged to replace the traditional last name on their jersey’s back with a (hopefully) clever nickname, is really nothing more than a marketing opportunity disguised – this year in black and white – as an effort to attract younger fans.

It should be noted that for both the inaugural edition in 2017 and again last year, the Players Weekend uniforms were multi-hued, most in bright colors that had major league rosters looking like the starting lineups for a weekend slow-pitch softball league. Perhaps because here at On Sports and Life our first allegiance is to the Yankees, with their long tradition of understated home pinstripes and road grays, with nary a name across anyone’s shoulders, the first thought on learning of this week’s announcement was that the monochromatic look would be a decided improvement. Also, given the freedom each player is granted to be as individualistic as he likes with other elements, scribes and for that matter fans should still be able to tell who’s who once they figure out which of their heroes is sporting the plaid socks.

But while the softball look may not have been fully appreciated here, we’d readily acknowledge that members of a younger generation probably found the brightly colored jerseys more to their liking. Which of course is the whole idea of Players Weekend – give professional ballplayers a chance to let their inner Little Leaguer out for a couple days, and by doing so hopefully build some connections to a new generation of fans.

Given the often-expressed concern from both many sportswriters and a significant part of baseball’s fan base that in this internet age the Great Game is too slow and too staid, such efforts ought to be applauded and encouraged. Players Weekend is harmless, and considerably less radical than moving the pitching rubber back two feet or starting extra innings with a runner on second base, to pick a couple other ideas that would purportedly modernize the sport.  Besides, after two years of clown uniforms, maybe it’s time for something different.

Is it also commercial? Of course, and why not? Like every other one of our major sports, baseball looks for ways to have fans at every stadium leave with a bagful of souvenirs. If a young Washington Nationals fan already has a Max Scherzer jersey, he’s probably wouldn’t get another one until he outgrows the first. But an all black shirt with the same number and “Brown Eye” on the back (a reminder that Scherzer has one brown and one blue eye)? What fledgling ballplayer in the D.C. area wouldn’t want one of those?

There are certainly ways in which MLB goes beyond typical marketing efforts and seems to be trying too hard. As Kepner correctly notes, the annual ritual of caps for every special day between the home opener and the World Series is the best, or perhaps more accurately the worst, example. Pink for Mother’s Day, blue for Father’s Day, camo for Memorial Day and so on through the calendar. The long list of distinctive headgear for days that have no inherent meaning to the sport is naked marketing madness, without even a fig leaf of disguise.

But with its connection to the Great Game as first played in an organized way by children and, yes, years later by their middle-aged selves on a Saturday afternoon, Players Weekend really does seem to be more about outreach than jersey sales. It’s of a piece with this season’s two-game series between the Yankees and Red Sox in London, or the recent addition of annual contests in Omaha and Williamsport, the homes of the College and Little League World Series. In the same vein, news of the monochromatic uniforms was quickly overtaken by the announcement that next year the Yankees and White Sox will meet at a new 8,000 seat ballpark to be built in the cornfield on the Iowa farm where “Field of Dreams” was filmed. It will be the first major league game played in the Hawkeye State, and it’s a safe bet that the contest will be a sellout mere minutes after tickets go on sale.

All these efforts may be imperfect, but it seems unfair to carp that the Great Game needs to reach out to new fans and then harp on the supposed flaws of attempts to do so. Whether it’s Players Weekend, the London Series, or a game in a famous cornfield, at least MLB is trying. To paraphrase that voice in the movie, if you build it, maybe they will come.

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