Shirtless Joe: Take Him Out Of the Ballpark?

Fans lose their shirts at Wrigley Field, but at Nationals Park, it's
Fans lose their shirts at Wrigley Field, but at Nationals Park, it's "No shirt? You're out!" (2002 Photo by Sue Ogrocki - Reuters)
  Enlarge Photo    
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

There are men who take off their shirts wherever possible, and there are men who prefer to keep their shirts on, even at the beach. Each group finds the other faintly ridiculous. And each has taken sides in a contest as timeless as fourth-grade dodgeball.

That's right, fellas: It's Shirts against Skins.

You rarely hear much from either squad, but a few of the Skins were fuming recently when they attended a Nationals game and were told by ballpark employees that they needed to put on their shirts.

"We bought a few beers for $7.50 each, and kicked back to enjoy the game," wrote Benjamin Correia, who sounds like a very dedicated Skin in his letter to the editor published by The Washington Post. "Around the third inning, a ballpark employee informed me and a friend that we would have to put our shirts back on."

It turns out, this has been deemed a type of "indecent exposure" by Nationals management. "We pointed out the many other shirtless men," Correia continued, "and she assured us she was getting to them as well. We were dumbstruck."

Dumbstruck, were we? If Correia was actually so flabbergasted that he was unable to speak, he would surely be the first shirtless, beer-drinking sports fan in history so afflicted. But forget that improbability for a moment. Our goal today is not to pick sides -- that's already happened, after all. It's to explain the Shirts and Skins divide.

Let's start with the shirtless fans, part of the fleshy, lardy B-roll of summertime America at its most overexposed, a montage of film that also includes pale thighs, varicose veins and Technicolor sunburns, not to mention that 17-year-old in her far-too-short madras shorts. (Where is her father? you wonder, until you realize that this precocious tart is a tourist and her father is walking five feet ahead.)

The Skins cover up all winter long and then consider it nothing short of an inalienable American right to ditch the polo when they think it makes sense. They're not lawless creatures; all but the most fringe of their ilk will wear a shirt into a store or on the subway. But in a small way, they're getting in touch with the part of every guy that thought "Lord of the Flies" was kind of cool, until, you know, everyone on that island started stabbing one another. The Skins recognize boundaries, but they can't fathom why the off-limits mark should include a place as public and rowdy as a stadium.

They don't understand the fuss. Frankly, they're amazed that anyone is writing a story on this topic.

For them, a bit of history. There was a time when it would have been considered risque to attend a baseball game without a fedora. Then something happened, and maybe there is a guy with a collection of photos of Coney Island that could tell us when. What's certain is that for decades, men covered up on the beach, in those onesie bodysuits, and at some point -- the late '40s, the mid-'50s? -- they didn't. It probably took a while, but there came a day, no doubt before the Speedo went nationwide, that some fan in some sports arena decided it would be perfectly reasonable to remove his shirt.

The point is, the sense of license that every Skin assumes is his birthright is a relatively new phenomenon, and a mystery to Shirts to this very day. It's not just that the Shirts understand that, in many circumstances, especially at the intersection of sports fandom and beer, the male body is positively hideous to look upon. And it's not even that the average Shirt thinks his body is more grotesque than that of the average Skin. Whatever makes a man a Shirt has little to do with self-esteem. It's deeper than that.

The Shirts know that bad things can happen when you take off your shirt. If you doubt it, tune into any episode of "Cops," which might be the longest-running game of Shirts against Skins ever. (The score: Shirts 7,593, Skins 0.) Shirts will always feel a little vulnerable without a Beefy-T nearby. When they hit the snack bar at the water park, they're clothed.

The Shirts have practical questions for the Skins. Like, dude, ever heard of skin cancer? Shirt Man has and he performs a regular, ad hoc search of his body for bumps and splotches and whoa is this one new? It's brown and it's raised. Ew.

Another practical question, which a Shirt will ponder whenever he sees a Skin at a ballgame: Are you comfortable? Because it's hot and that's a plastic seat your back is resting on, which must get kind of slippery, right? You're baking in your own gravy.

Shirts have also heard from girlfriends and spouses who look at Skins and think: That's just unfair. A woman can't strip to her waist, not without breaking the law anyway. And even if a woman is willing to break the law, nobody would consider her shirtless. She'd be considered topless. There is no such thing as a shirtless woman, just like there's no such thing as a topless man.

So good luck, Nationals management, in this ancient battle. You have nothing to lose but your Skins.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company