The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

MLB players love our caps. The people who make them for us deserve fair wages.

Why players are taking a stand on the long supply chain to the baseball diamond.

Gayle Zabana attaches the button on the top of a New York Mets cap at the New Era Cap factory in Derby, N.Y., in 2017. The company is closing the factory. (MARK MULVILLE/Buffalo News)

To baseball players, our caps are sacred. We integrate our caps into our strange routines and superstitions, removing and replacing them on our heads with ritual precision so they sit just so. Spectators get in on the action, too: Just ask the fan in the stands whose tattered, slightly odorous lucky cap is the same one they’ve worn since childhood, or the kids who flip theirs inside-out and upside-down to spark a rally in hope of a dramatic comeback. Whether it’s a bench coach giving base-running signs from the dugout, a player tugging on his brim to get the fit just right or a manager objecting to an umpire’s call by throwing his cap in the dirt in disgust, caps are a big part of the ways we try to capture, keep and recapture that inexplicable and evasive baseball phenomenon known as mojo.

 The routines we build around them take on particular importance during moments of heightened pressure in the game. For me, as a late-inning relief pitcher for the Washington Nationals, my routines are almost as important to my pitching performance as are the complicated, contorting mechanics that make the ball come out of my hand in just the right way to throw hitters off balance. 

When I step onto the mound for the first time in a game, I remove my cap and look under the brim to read a message I write to myself with a Sharpie each season. It’s a private reminder to stop and reflect on how lucky I am to play professional baseball. If I find myself in trouble, I pause to remove my cap and look down at the message to recenter myself. As I walk off the mound, I push my cap up off my forehead: I no longer need the message to remind me to stay grateful. I am grateful; I had the opportunity to wear a major league cap for one more game. 

Which is why I found one offseason development in the baseball business world particularly distressing.

For almost 60 years, workers at New Era’s factory in Derby, N.Y., have been making the caps that players wear during games. And since 1993, that factory near Buffalo has been the sole manufacturer of on-field caps for Major League Baseball. But the company announced in November that it would close the plant as part of a corporate shift away from manufacturing, transferring most of its work to overseas contractors and production for MLB to a nonunion facility in Florida. That means all 750 union-organized professional baseball players who will take the field on Opening Day this season will be wearing caps made by people who don’t enjoy the same labor protections and safeguards that we do — and fans will be buying caps made overseas at lower wages than U.S. workers earn. Our union helps ensure that we earn fair pay and benefits. It’s unfortunate that isn’t the case for the people who make something as integral to our game as the caps we wear.

Baseball caps are symbols of a game enshrined in our cultural memory as our national pastime. We remove them to show respect. We tip them to thank the fans. When a young up-and-coming player named Ken Griffey Jr. flipped his cap backward for batting practice 25 years ago, he drew national attention. Traditionalists believed that this simple act — a habit Griffey had carried with him since childhood as a tribute to his father, Ken Griffey Sr. — was an outright show of disrespect for baseball’s mysterious unwritten rules. The hordes of young fans who began turning their own caps around, too, silenced them. In the batting cages and sandlots of South Jersey, I was one of them, hoping my backward cap would grant me the magical power to play like “The Kid.”  

When Latino sluggers flip their bats, it’s called disrespectful. It’s also a double standard.

 Our caps graft us into a tradition dating back to the 1860 Brooklyn Excelsiors, who first thought to replace wide-brimmed straw hats with sportier, more streamlined, fitted front-billed caps with a rounded crown, topped with a small button. Soon these caps were officially adopted into baseball’s official uniform. Since then, logos and names have changed, but the cap’s signature style hasn’t evolved much. 

Caps connect us to the fans who wear ones just like ours. The logos make us unofficial city representatives. They connect us to our teammates; our matching caps connote the sort of mutual pride that comes only from shared tribal affiliation.

They connect us to the people who make our game possible, too. From February through October, thousands of people work behind the scenes to allow us to play in front of millions of fans. From transportation workers bringing fans to games, to clubhouse workers ensuring that players’ needs are met, to the stadium concessions and security staff — and the skilled workers manufacturing our caps. 

Until November, that meant the 200 employees at New Era’s plant in Derby. Their handiwork is on display in Cooperstown, N.Y., at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as well as in our communal memories of the game’s greatest moments of triumph and heartbreak. For Derby, the capmaking business was a point of local pride. Workers there rooted for teams based on which hats sold more — because that ramped up production. They would tell their loved ones how they helped make the cap worn by the closer who shut down the side in this year’s All-Star Game, or the player who hit a clutch home run in the World Series. 

Baseball players are famous for cliches. Here are the ones they actually use.

I’m proud to be connected to their work. Every MLB player is a member of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), a union that protects our job security in a complicated 30-team league. We have an obligation to stand with those workers whose jobs are now being eliminated.

The replica caps fans buy this year will be made in factories throughout New Era’s global supply chain, mostly in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Haiti. And because New Era’s agreement with MLB stipulates that players’ on-field caps must be produced in the United States, our official caps will be made by nonunion workers in Florida.

(Contacted by The Washington Post, a New Era spokesman said only a handful of people will work on making MLB on-field caps at its Florida location, since that work involves only a small amount of production. “For more than 30 years, New Era Cap has supported a unionized workforce at its U.S. plants,” spokesman Paul Gallagher said. “But now, we are getting away from owning and operating manufacturing plants. It is a difficult decision, but one the company feels it needs to make to focus on things like e-commerce and digital marketing, which will drive future growth and sustain the 350 jobs at our headquarters in downtown Buffalo.”)

Union membership is not the sole guarantor of job security and a living wage, but nonunion factory workers do not enjoy the same protections as union workers. They’re subject to exploitation, underpayment and lower standards of workplace safety — which is also often the case for manufacturing workers outside the United States. That’s why so many local unions and activists in New York have objected to the New Era factory closing; their protests got the MLBPA involved, and the players union put out a formal statement opposing New Era’s decision. Of course, it’s not that nonunion workers are less deserving of jobs, or less skilled or dedicated. It’s that those of us who are fortunate enough to be paid to play baseball can’t sit by quietly when the corporations that make money off our labor cut costs by harming our less-well-paid brothers and sisters. 

MLB players are members of one of the country’s most prominent labor unions, and we want our caps to reflect our commitment to fairness for all workers. Baseball is both a game and an enormously lucrative industry. When we think about changes to its many long traditions, we should remember to stand in solidarity with one another — and with the people whose off-field labor allows us to play 162 games a year. They are as much a part of our national pastime as the players are. 

The Derby workers’ skill and dedication are evident in every stitch. It’s a privilege for me to wear their caps as part of my uniform. Now that I’ve learned so much about the people who make our caps and their fight to save their jobs, I won’t need to write any notes under the brim to remind myself to remain grateful; the cap itself will be reminder enough. That these workers craft our caps in an intricate 22-step process has helped cement baseball as a cultural institution whose roots are as deep as they are wide.

My fellow players and I are honored to serve as the latest representatives of that institution. I’m proud to join the thousands who have come before me and grateful for the thousands more whose hard work has enabled me to continue baseball’s tradition today and into the future. 

Opening Day is just a month off now. As we prepare to play ball again this year, I wish New Era would reconsider its decision to leave Derby. The caps made there have been a part of the game for longer than I’ve been old enough to hold a baseball. I want them to be around long after I hang up my cap for the last time.

Twitter: @whatwouldDOOdo