August 21, 2007

Paul Lukas is my hero; My obsession with sports uniforms

Paul Lukas writes a column, “Uni Watch”, for ESPN.com in which he tracks sports uniforms. He carries this study to his daily blog, www.uniwatchblog.com. 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.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Bill Henderson said...

Morris, I heartily agree with your observations on teams' casually changing identities. The Astros and Padres have worn probably 25 different jersey styles EACH (counting up all the home, road and alternates) over the past 20 years. Changes to details are one thing, but changing logos, and most of all, changing colors is just a shame... mostly disappointing, really.

A sports team is not like a can of soup or a pack of cigarettes that might have its wrapper changed without care in an attempt to sell a few more units. No, team uniforms are the symbol that tie together the teams of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s with the teams of today. I admire the Tigers, Dodgers, and even the Yankees (yes, I too am a Phillies fan... admitting I admire the Yankees truly hurts somewhere deep inside) for keeping their colors and image so consistent for so long.

I enjoy your blog and read it always, though this is the first time I have been moved to comment.

Regards, Bill

9:06 AM  
Blogger iksir said...

IKSIR,
uniform is a symbol that can not be changed just like that. because the uniform is a symbol that indicates the identity of a team, which is a different thing from the others, to provide different characteristics of a team. so I do not agree with the change in uniform who did not consider the meaning of the uniform themselves.

8:14 AM  
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