August 21, 2007

Paul Lukas is my hero; My obsession with sports uniforms

Paul Lukas writes a column, “Uni Watch”, for in which he tracks sports uniforms. He carries this study to his daily blog, He describes his blog as “a media project that deconstructs the finer points of sports uniforms in obsessive and excruciating detail.”

When St Louis Cardinals baseball players wear their pants high on their legs, revealing the navy-blue, red, and white stripes on the top of their socks, usually tucked into the bottom of their pants, Lukas documents it.

I tried for many months not to read his blog. I refused to read it. I had worked in sports uniforms for Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co. Personally, I was already obsessed with baseball uniforms. To read Paul’s column, let alone his blog, would have been way too self-indulgent for my own sense of self as a well-balanced mature adult.

This was a personal obsession, and such obsessions, I judged, were not to be encouraged, let alone indulged. It was sufficient that I had channeled it into my working life for four years at Mitchell & Ness.

It helped that my summer employer, PNC Bank, blocked access to the blog (along with personal email accounts) and other work-day distractions. But I am on vacation now and I am hooked. Paul Lukas is my hero – and not just because I am not alone – but he sees a part of the world that I also see, and he really appreciates it.

Paul writes in the “About” section of his blog that an inspiration for writing about uniforms was that “my girlfriend got tired of me pointing at the TV and saying, ‘Look, look at his socks!’ (or whatever) every time we watched a ballgame. ‘Y’know, Paul,’ she said, ‘maybe you need an outlet for this.’”

I can relate. Not having a television has spared my wife such moments - but I can relate.

Some friends think that my knowledge and obsession with game haberdashery is from working at Mitchell & Ness for three summers in high school and college, and then four years after completing my undergraduate degree.

The problem is that I came to Mitchell & Ness in 1993 already hooked.

I am and have been a Phillies fan since the first season I can remember, 1983. I started noticing things about their jerseys that no one else, I thought, seemed to care about, let alone see. I picked up on the fact that in 1987, they changed their jersey numbers in a very subtle way, thickening the letter from previous years.

Every March 17, St Patrick’s Day, the Phillies would wear green versions of their normal red and white game uniforms. The team had started doing this in the early 1980s and were one of the few teams to repeat the tradition every year. I would tape-record the 11 o’clock news just to see the 30 seconds of footage from the day’s game – which, it being March, was an early Spring Training game that was hardly news worthy – to see the uniforms.

I watched and video-taped the All-Star Game every July from 1987 to 1992. This was a chance to see all of the teams’ uniforms together. The best part was the player introductions before the game in which every player, and therefore every team, had a full shot at the camera.

I could go on, but you understand. I took baseball uniforms very seriously. Ok, I take uniforms seriously. I will use the present-tense.

To me, uniforms, and the colors and styles which a team chooses to wear, sets the tone and becomes the shorthand by which to identify a team.

An aspect I adore and respect in English soccer is that a team has a primary color which is their and for decades, has been their color. Manchester United is red; Newcastle is black and white; Aston Villa is maroon and light-blue. Chelsea is called the “Blues” because that is the color they wear.

The Arizona Diamondbacks came into the National League in 1998. It was the 1990s and they wore purple, teal, and black. I did not much care for their colors or their uniforms. And, these were their colors so I was disappointed when they changed their team color-scheme during this past off-season to a brick-red, black, khaki-tan combo. I like this color scheme better but it does them a disservice.

The Diamondbacks spent nine seasons plus the three years prior to their first-game building up a team identity. The power of a consistent color scheme and uniform is that one can glance at a television screen or photo and know the team.

A team’s colors, and by extension, its uniform, is like a country’s flag. It is a symbol. This symbol carries within it the collective memory of those who follow or support the body for which the flag represents.

The United States flag has a white star for each state; the horizontal stripes represent the original 13 colonies. The Phillies’ red pinstripes, and stylized word mark may not carry the history of the nation and its Enlightenment ideals of liberty.

The Phillies current uniform does connect one to all of the teams back to 1992, the first year they wore it. This includes the joys of the 1993 National League pennant winners and the collective sorrows of the 1997 last-place finishers.

The uniform is very similar to that worn by the club from 1950 to 1970. In this sense, it also connects us back to the 1950 National League pennant winners, the last years at old Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium in North Philadelphia, and even to the terrible 1961 team and the tragic 1964 team which lost the pennant at season’s end.

Like a nation, a team’s history is of both its joys and triumphs and lows and tragedies. It is the constant, carrying the collective energy of the team and the army of fans who give the team its life.

There is more to my obsession with sports uniforms. Paul refers to those who share his obsession as, “Those Who Get It”. They are to be distinguished from “people who Don’t Get It™.” [Yes, Paul uses the trademark symbol there].

There is The Simpson’s episode where Homer teaches a class on marriage at the local community college. Struggling to find what to say to the class, he picks up an orange, and peering into it lectures, “A marriage is like an orange…” Or, life is like riding a motorcycle or a pack of Camel cigarettes. Or, pick another metaphor or system and life is like this too.

Which is not to belittle Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintence or Tom Robbins' Still Life with Woodpecker, or even The Simpson’s (God forbid!). The close study of a system reveals patterns and systems. It reveals the relationship between us as humans and how we make sense of ourselves and the world in society.

Sports is one system that today stands at a center of our society. (In my ‘umble opinion, there are virtues and vices to this, but that is for another piece of writing).

We pour a tremendous amount of energy, time, and money into it all. Uniforms are the ways by which we delineate who is us, and who is other, or not us. This begins to explain my obsession with them.

Paul, I am hooked on your blog. I tried to resist. But like the Borg, resistance is futile! Now, just promise me you won't go writing about Phillies baseball cards.

August 14, 2007

Maybe the Philadelphia Phillies have some fight in them after all

I rode the subway home from Citizens Bank Park on Sunday night after the Philadelphia Phillies had defeated the Atlanta Braves. The Phillies played well in the game and took two of three from Atlanta in the series. The stadium was sold-out and the train was full heading back to Center City from the Sports Complex.

Pity the Braves fans on the car. One wore a white Atlanta jersey with number 10 on the back (for Braves third-baseman Chipper Jones) and Braves cap. He found himself next to an exuberant Phils fan who mocked the Braves and celebrated the Phillies’ assent in the National League, which he promised would land the team in the playoffs come October, and send the Braves home early.

After Sunday’s win over Atlanta, and tonight’s win over the Nationals in Washington, Phillies fans have reason to be excited with one and a half months left in the 2007 season. The two games highlight sources of optimism.

The return of pitchers Tom Gordon and Brett Myers to the bullpen from the disabled list has stabilized both the starting and the relief pitching.

On Sunday night, Phillies starting pitcher Jamie Moyer went into the seventh inning. He gave up two quick runs in the first. He settled down and threw 83 mile-per-hour fastballs and 70 mph changeups past the Braves All-Star lineup. I sat with a good friend behind the Phillies dugout. We played high-school baseball together and faced pitchers in southeast Pennsylvania’s Tri-County League who threw harder than Moyer was throwing.

Moyer had a four to two lead entering the seventh. He ran into trouble when Brian McCann opened with a single. Martin Prado followed with a no-outs double to cut the lead to 4 to 3. A sac-fly moved Prado to third.

There we were, one out in the seventh, the tying run 90-feet away, with the top of the Braves order coming up. Four of the Braves first five hitters are hitting over .300 for the season. The exception is Mark Teixeira who in his young career has averaged over 30 homeruns and 100 RBIs per-year.

This is usually the part in our program where I begin to think about how great the Phillies might be next year. Instead the rejuvenated bullpen saved the game.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel came out, pulled Moyer, and called for Antonio Alfonseca to face the Braves numbers one and two hitters. Alfonseca was signed to be the Phillies set-up man but was pressed to be the closer after both Gordon and his replacement, Myers, were injured.

I am fascinated by Alfonseca.

The man has six fingers on each hand (and foot). This led The Onion to report on October 6, 2005, “Antonio Alfonseca Once Again Leads Major-League Relievers In Fingers.” (See

More so, the man has a body the shape of the Phillie Phanatic. lists him as standing 6’5”. He stands tall even next to other ballplayers, few of whom are what we consider short. He has broad shoulders and a normal chest. It is the man’s belly which juts out like a thick couch throw-pillow, pressing squarely against his jersey. Like the Phanatic, Alfonseca’s belly continues down below his waist into his hips, and then juts back in above his knees. It has to be fake - it has to be! But there he is throwing 90 mph fastballs.

Performing the role for which he was originally signed, Alfonseca struck out both Yunel Escobar and Matt Diaz. Brett Myers might have recorded the official save for the game, but Alfonseca did it right there. Upon nailing Diaz for the third-out, Alfonseca pumped his fist and twirled his body off the mound in celebration. The Inquirer called it a "dance" in yesterday's paper. After he bailed out the team with these two outs, he could have done anything. The fans went nuts.

Phillies relievers worked the rest of the game like clockwork. JC Romero secured the first two outs of the eighth. Tom Gordon, now the set-up man, retired the third. Brett Myers was perfect in the ninth to close the win.

Tonight, Kyle Lohse pitched into the seventh inning for the Phillies. He gave up two runs. Alfonseca entered for the third out. Gordon pitched a scoreless eighth and Myers struck-out the side in the ninth for the save. Again.

Phillies beat-writer Todd Zolecki wrote of the bullpen’s improvement today in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Since July 17, the Phillies’ bullpen has an ERA of 2.30, the fourth lowest in the major leagues in this period.

Even Jose Mesa has re-emerged for the Phillies as a strength in the bullpen. Mesa returned to Philadelphia this summer after posting an ERA of over 12.00 for the Detroit Tigers. I was at Mesa’s first-game back in June when the Phillies hosted the Tigers at Citizens Bank Park. The Phils were losing bad and we booed Mesa. But he has done good and has a 2.52 ERA for the Phils this season.

The strong bullpen is a plus in itself.

It also takes pressure off the starting pitchers. Manuel need not leave tiring pitchers in the game in the seventh or eighth innings for fear of a bullpen, that was until recently, comprised of too many pitchers who should have still been at AAA Ottawa if not for the injuries.

Moyer, Lohse, and Kyle Kendrick are all good pitchers and they are not aces like Cole Hamels. These three can give a solid six or seven innings. This is great when there is a strong bullpen to back them up which is what the Phils now have.

The Phillies hitting is fine. All-Star second-baseman Chase Utley is on the disabled list along with young outfielders Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn. The Phillies miss them and they are not struggling at the plate.

What I really liked seeing on Sunday night was the Phillies’ aggressive-play.

In the bottom of the first, down two to zero, the Phillies had the bases loaded with two outs and Jayson Werth at-bat. Werth drove a single into right-field which scored Jimmy Rollins from third easily. Phillies third-base coach Steve Smith sent Pat Burrell home. The throw from Braves right-fielder Jeff Francouer was a strike to catcher Brian McCann. It was not close, Burrell was out, and the inning was over.

In the fourth inning, Phillies third-baseman Abraham Nunez came to bat with one out and runners on first and second. Pitcher Jamie Moyer, a career .147 hitter with a .197 on-base-percentage, was due up. Nunez singled to right.

What would you do? Would you send Werth, who has decent speed, home to score and try and tie the game? Do you hold Werth at third to bring up Moyer with the bases loaded and a potential double-play? Smith sent Werth and again Francouer hit McCann with a perfect strike. Werth was gone for out number two.

Fans sitting around me cursed Smith for seemingly throwing away not only two outs, but two runners who would have been at third-base.

I disagree. It took two strong and accurate throws from Francouer to nail Burrell and Werth. Had the throws been a couple feet off, Burrell scores easily and Werth likely makes it. They had to be dead on target and Francouer did it. In a close game like that, I like Smith taking those chances and forcing the Braves to make the play.

Smith’s gamble paid off in the seventh.

Jimmy Rollins tripled to lead off the inning. Iguchi grounded to third which kept Rollins at the bag. The next batter, Burrell, hit a fly ball to right. Francouer caught it and Smith sent Rollins. Francouer gunned the ball way over McCann’s head and Rollins scored to give the Phils an extra-run to cushion the lead. The Phils forced the Braves to make a mistake, they did, and made the Phillies’ pitcher’s job one run easier.

This is the way a good team wins.

There may not be a lot of baseball left for my fantasy baseball team, mired in ninth place in a 16-team league, but there sure is for the Phillies. The New York Mets still lead the National League East, three games ahead of Philadelphia. The San Diego Padres are ahead of the Phils in the National League Wildcard race. But the Phillies are right there.

I have been following the English Premiership football league off and on for the past ten years. I had never really followed one team, not knowing enough about individual players or organisations to root for one.

My good friend Gene is a diehard Tottenham fan. His brother played for Tottenham and he grew up in London. He was excited for the season which opened this past weekend. Gene assured me that Tottenham was ready to challenge the big four, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal, for the top of the league.

I picked Tottenham. I signed up for news feeds for the club and today followed the action for Tottenham’s match against Everton on Yahoo! Sports UK. Tottenham lost 3 to 1 - which is not as close in English football as it is in say, major league baseball.

If the Phillies keep playing like they have been in July and August, I may not need to find myself a winner across the Atlantic in north London.

The Mets won the division last year. The Braves had won the division every year since realignment in 1995. I was with that Braves fan on the subway on Sunday night, the Phillies have not won anything yet. But these days, they sure are playing like winners.

August 07, 2007

Jason Giambi leads Commissioner Selig through the darkness of Barry Bonds

Neifi Perez, reserve infielder for the Detroit Tigers, was suspended on Friday for 80 games for testing positive for a banned substance by Major League Baseball. The positive test and suspension came as Perez was serving a 25-game suspension for the same violation.

If Perez’s legacy was in question before Friday, it most certainly is open for debate after the second violation. He had one homerun this season for the Tigers and had two last year for the Chicago Cubs. He has 64 career homeruns going back to his rookie year in 1996, long before MLB began testing for controlled substances in 2002. Maybe we should put an asterisk next to his 64 in the Baseball Encyclopedia as well as next to his .267 career batting-average.

If there is such a feeling within Major League Baseball or among its fans to censure Perez, it is certainly no louder than a whisper. News of Perez’s latest positive-test registered and died on the news-wires. It is now a single line on Perez’s player profile. That is the sound of baseball crickets, chirping in the silence of indifference.

Meanwhile, in San Diego this past weekend, there was plenty of talk of asterisks and homeruns where the San Francisco Giants were playing the Padres. On Saturday, August 4, Bonds hit homerun number 755 to tie Hank Aaron for Major League Baseball’s career homerun record. San Diego fans met Bonds with more asterisk signs and boos.

We do not care about Neifi Perez; we care about Bonds who, according to Bonds himself, is misunderstood; to Giants fans, a hero; to non-Giants baseball fans, a cheater; and to this writer, a piece in a much larger puzzle.

Reporting for the Associated Press on August 7, Tim Dahlberg wrote that fans at Petco Park in San Diego “booed Bonds when he returned to left field and booed him every time he came up to bat. It was mildly amusing afterward when Bonds thanked San Diego fans for being so good to him. Maybe he missed the giant asterisk hung on a high-rise condo balcony overlooking right field or maybe he was just happy no one threw a fake syringe at him like last year.”

When we look at a player like Perez, or Jason Grimsley, or now even Jason Giambi all of whom have either tested positive for or admitted to using performance enhancing drugs, we do not shout for the expungment of career records or statistics. Which is strange if you think about how baseball games play. A critical hit or homerun by a Neifi Perez can change a game as significantly as a hit by a perennial All-Star like Bonds. The same is true for a pitcher.

As I wrote about last week, we have recreated the current-player Barry Bonds as a totem of our juiced up ambivalence about the proliferation of steroids in the game for so long. Perhaps we might also consider the responsibility of Commissioner Bud Selig in this steroids mess. Granted, it is hard to boo a pro-sports commissioner when he never steps up to bat or jogs out to the field. More so, we do not vote for commissioner so there is no public referendum.

Kate Zernike wrote in the New York Times how president George W. Bush has been likening himself to former president Harry Truman. Trumas was “an unpopular president when he left office, but one applauded by history.” On the 2008 Presidential campaign trail, while Republic candidates contort themselves to be Reaganesque, Democratic hopefuls also look to Truman.

If only Commissioner Selig would look as well to the former president. Truman had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office which read, “The Buck Stops Here”.

Commissioner Selig would have himself be a distant observer in the Bonds homerun record chase, casting a disapproving eye on the whole spectacle. This was indeed his body language in San Diego on Saturday night. As Bonds circled the bases, Selig stood in his place with his arms folded across his chest, his face locked in a frown.

He issued the following statement of, well, congratulations but very shadowed congratulations, after number 755,

"Congratulations to Barry Bonds as he ties Major League Baseball's home run record. No matter what anybody thinks of the controversy surrounding this event, Mr. Bonds' achievement is noteworthy and remarkable.

"As I said previously, out of respect for the tradition of the game, the magnitude of the record and the fact that all citizens in this country are innocent until proven guilty, either I or a representative of my office will attend the next few games and make every attempt to observe the breaking of the all-time home run record."

Uh, hello? “No matter what anybody thinks”?! “All citizens in this country are innocent until proven guilty”?! Commissioner Selig might have just stated, “We all know that Bonds did steroids, I don’t like this one bit, but he is breaking the record and there ain’t nothing I can do about it.”

Bonds has not helped Selig out either, continuing to deny having used steroids.

One steroids-era slugger who has come clean is the New York Yankees’ first baseman Jason Giambi. Playing for the Oakland Athletics, Giambi hit 33 homeruns in 1999, 43 in 2000, and 38 in 2001. Giambi became a free-agent at the end of 2001 season. He signed with the Yankees and increased his annual salary from $4.1 million in 2001 to $10.4 in 2002 (according to It pays to use the ‘roids.

In May, Giambi was quoted by USA Today saying, “I was wrong for doing that stuff. What we should have done a long time ago was stand up — players, ownership, everybody — and said, ‘We made a mistake.’”

Finally, a ballplayer had the courage to put words to the truth that we all knew. It was gravy that he took some degree of responsibility.

Commissioner Selig responded to Giambi’s truth-telling by threatening to suspend Giambi unless Giambi spoke to former-Senator George Mitchell’s Commissioner-sponsored steroids investigation.

Basically, Giambi tells the truth and is threatened with suspension. Bonds continues to deny and nothing happens. The message that the Commissioner sends to other players who used or are using steroids is very clear. Commissioner Selig is telling these players not to speak about their steroid use. This is the message we learn from Bonds and Giambi.

As Commissioner Selig glares at Bonds and offers him the most uncongratulatory of congratulations messages, and threatens Giambi with suspension, he remains one individual who himself has not come clean with the public.

Maybe Commissioner Selig does not read Sports Illustrated. He might not although the very first issue of the magazine featured Milwaukee Braves third-baseman Eddie Mathews playing at County Stadium in the Commissioner’s hometown. SI out Lyle Alzado on its cover on July 8, 1991 with the headline, “I Lied”. Alzado detailed his use of steroids and his own cover-up. This was 1991. On April 14, 1997, the magazine’s cover story was on the proliferation of steroids in sports and how athletes were going undetected.

I am picking on Commissioner Selig because he is the head of the organization, the CEO of Major League Baseball. It is his job to be proactive in pursuing questions like the use of performance enhancing drugs. He is a busy man and he can also surround himself with individuals who will call such things to his attention.

Selig has been commissioner of Major League Baseball since 1992. From 1992 to 1998, he held the title of “Acting Commissioner” and has been “Commissioner Selig” since 1998.

A leader at the top of an organization sets the tone and priorities for a major business like a professional sports league. I am waiting for Commissioner Selig to say, “The buck stops here!” and to take responsibility onto his own shoulders about his own failure to pursue

Steroids grew in baseball on Commissioner Selig’s watch. Let the Commissioner follow Giambi’s lead and say, “I made a mistake.”