In a sport often criticized for its lack of personality, Major League Baseball’s latest effort to inject some into the game has drawn mixed (and strong) reactions.
This weekend was what MLB calls “Players’ Weekend,” when players can choose a nickname for their jersey backs, and MLB tried to spice things up further by making the uniforms nearly monochromatic in black or white. The decision made the names difficult to see and received near-universal derision.
“Woof,” Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon told reporters of his squad’s all-whites. “I’d just like to know who said this was a good idea.”
Most echoed Maddon’s discontent. Cleveland Indians Manager Terry Francona thought the duds made everyone look “like morons.” One fan joked the diamond looked like a chessboard. Former pitcher Brandon McCarthy called for MLB to present the person who signed off on the jerseys to be held accountable “for the mess they’ve made.”
Some, mostly players, disagreed. Many were indifferent, but others, such as Indians infielder Jason Kipnis, liked the “sleek look” of the all-black uniform. New York Mets outfielder Jeff McNeil called them “fun,” and he put “Flying Squirrel” on the back of his jersey. His nickname was one of the best, along with the Milwaukee Brewers’ Eric “E.T.” Thames (“Phone Home”), the New York Yankees’ Zack Britton (“With a K”) and the Washington Nationals’ Sean Doolittle (“Obi-Sean”). Nine players, including the Nationals’ Patrick Corbin, paid tribute to friend and former Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, who died suddenly July 1. Corbin wore “Forty Five” — Skaggs’s number — as his nickname.
Those who didn’t like it made no secret of it. The Cubs went rogue by wearing their blue hats Friday against the Nationals. Maddon framed it as a player unity statement — Players’ Weekend caps meant different hats for pitchers (black) and position players (white) — but MLB let the Cubs know it did not like it. The Cubs wore the designated caps Saturday and Sunday.
For MLB’s effort to receive such divisive reviews within the sport dampened an effort that had an end goal capable of unanimous approval: Grow the game. These jerseys are one proposed antidote to a larger issue. They exemplify the increasing pressure baseball feels to remain relevant.
MLB needs to change to attract the younger audiences it’s struggling to gain traction with, yet it needs to maintain the nuance that made committed fans fall in love in the first place. Some of those who grew up with the game, and some of those who played it, have vocalized louder and louder frustration about allegedly juiced baseballs and the increasingly prevalent trend toward a three-true-outcomes (strikeout, walk or home run) style of play. MLB finds itself in a bind trying to stay true to itself while freshening up the game. Francona pointed out this Players’ Weekend twist was a natural extension of the marketing campaign for the 2018 playoffs: “Let the kids play.”
MLB needs these incremental tweaks because of what it lacks. While other leagues, such as the NBA, remain in the headlines because of outspoken and visible stars — including those players’ frenetic movement between teams — baseball is grappling with a broken free agency system that essentially disincentivizes players from using their own power and testing the market. Instead of a LeBron James-esque “Where will he go?” saga for fans, the media and MLB itself to follow, baseball’s foremost generational talent, Mike Trout, locked up a 12-year, $430 million deal in March, a year before he was due to force teams to bid on his Hall of Fame-level talents. With diminished organic suspense, MLB must manufacture some — and in this way, maybe the negative reactions aren’t such a bad thing.
Perhaps the biggest concern for MLB arrived six months ago, when Kyler Murray eschewed the Oakland Athletics and his $4.6 million signing bonus to play football. The A’s drafted Murray eighth overall the summer before, and the electric center fielder could have become one of baseball’s biggest young names. Yet he returned to Oklahoma to play quarterback for one season and won the Heisman Trophy, and MLB sensed football tugging on Murray. The A’s reportedly met with the young star in Dallas and raised the possibility of offering him a major league contract, unheard of for a player of his experience. The meeting also reportedly included MLB marketing executives, who presented information regarding his off-field earning potential. If you need to explain how stardom works in baseball, you’re already behind.
The real impact of Murray’s choice is for the kids nationwide who, in an increasingly specialized youth sports system, must make a choice. Baseball youth participation is on the rise — up nearly 3 million from 2013 to 2018, according to a new study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association — but what happens to the upper crust of elite athletes such as Murray is where baseball needs to start winning.
Players’ Weekend is a marginal part of this fight. Still, MLB is unwavering in its approach. Just look at this weekend’s series between the best teams in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees, who also have two of the most iconic jerseys in Dodger blue and Yankee pinstripes.
The Dodgers disliked the Players’ Weekend mandate so much that they asked MLB for permission to have both teams wear their traditional uniforms for at least one of the three games, according to Yahoo Sports. Yankees Manager Aaron Boone pointed out that, if there was an exception to be found for this rule, it was for the nationally televised game between the teams Sunday night. The weekend would be over by then anyway, as anyone who works at 9 a.m. Monday will tell you. Boone was even more diplomatic than his peers, simply saying the jerseys didn’t come on “necessarily the best weekend for us.”
Effectively, the Dodgers and Yankees were arguing to grow the game with the clout it already has. Still, MLB reportedly denied the request. On a weekend when MLB could have capitalized on an opportunity to make the game fun, the design, as well as the tension between the league and its teams, made it something less than that.
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