By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

Ah, spring training – is there anything better? After that long winter dry spell, all our favorite baseball rites return like old friends: the crack of the bat, the smack of horsehide on leather, the parade of spoiled, selfish egos. (How spoiled, you ask? This spoiled.)

Uni Watch has been keeping an eye on spring training, looking for new uniform developments and personal stylistic quirks. Jim Thome, for example, has been wearing his pants uncharacteristically low this spring. And Sammy Sosa's elasticized sleeve cuffs, which he began wearing in 2003 with the Cubs, have traveled with him to the Orioles.

Spring training is known for its high uni numbers, but David Wells is going in the other direction. Wells, now with the Red Sox, is fulfilling a long-held dream by wearing No. 3, in honor of Babe Ruth. Assuming he avoids the police blotter long enough to make Boston's regular-season roster, Wells will become only the 13th pitcher since 1960 to wear a single-digit number, and will join Toronto's Josh Towers as MLB's only single-digitized pitchers.

Although the party line is that spring training is all about bunting practice, cutoff drills and hazing the rookies, the real point is much simpler: getting the players to pose for yearbook and media guide photos, often under less-than-glamorous conditions. Since these photos usually show the players only from the waist up, it doesn't matter if the jersey and pants don't match – or if there are no pants at all.

Back in the day, teams wore their regular uniforms for Grapefruit and Cactus League games. A few teams still do this, but most now wear their batting practice jerseys and caps. By now everyone knows this is just a merchandising scam, one that Uni Watch usually prefers not to dignify with further discussion. But since they're essentially functioning as game attire this month, here's a quick rundown of this season's new designs:

  • The Expos-turned-Nationals have a nice enough practice jersey and cap. But the uniform numbers, which are supposed to appear three-dimensional, instead look like they've got these weird, talon-like serifs. Chalk it up to growing pains.

  • Sales of sunglasses in Port St. Lucie have no doubt plummeted now that the Mets have replaced their neon orange practice jerseys with a more subdued black-on-blue design. In keeping with that color scheme, they've also changed the bill of their practice cap from blue to black.

  • In this confusing and contentious world, it's nice to know there are a few universal truths we should all be able to agree upon. For example: No team could possibly need two practice jersey designs. Until this spring, only the Reds, Dodgers, Tigers and Phillies failed to grasp this premise, but now we add the Rangers to the list. The relative simplicity of their old jersey has been replaced by this and this (note the "26" memorial patch for Johnny Oates). Think of this as subtraction by addition.

  • The Astros have ditched their old practice cap in favor of a Texas-centric design. As we all know, anything related to geography or maps is totally cool (it's another one of those universal truisms, kinda like "Stirrups rule," or "Purple uniforms are completely lame-o"), so Uni Watch heartily applauds this change. While we're at it, how come the only other MLB teams currently wearing state-based imagery are the Brewers and Twins? Uni Watch hereby goes on record in support of a greater cartographic presence on uniforms.

  • The Padres have changed their practice jersey's drop shadow from light blue to sand, a truly revolutionary development that has surely led three fans to buy a new jersey. (Are you one of them? If so, Uni Watch wants to hear from you.)

    In keeping with modern custom, many teams will temporarily shelve their practice uniforms next Thursday and don St. Paddy's Day outifts, a harmless enough gimmick pioneered by the Reds in 1978 (although in more recent years they've taken a lazier approach). Uni Watch's advice: Skip the green beer and get yourself a Shamrock Shake, another one of spring's great rituals.

    Court Reporting
    Uni Watch reader Richard Polk is walking a little prouder these days, and with good reason. He's the rare fan who can say he's had a direct effect on a player's uniform.

    To explain: Polk recently pointed out to Uni Watch that while most of the Indiana Pacers wear the team's "P" logo at the base of their road shorts, Stephen Jackson's shorts had been logo-free all season long, and Ron Artest was wearing logo-less shorts prior to his suspension.

    Uni Watch passed the query along to NBA senior apparel director Christopher Arena. "Just when I thought I had seen everything," he e-mailed back. "That's a great catch. You have Reebok [the NBA's uniform manufacturer] turning the factory upside-down trying to figure this out, it's great."

    After some investigation, here's what Arena now thinks took place: The factory that had been making the Pacers' uniforms closed last year, so Reebok moved the team's account to another factory. A set of logo-less prototype uniforms was sent to the new factory, as a sizing guide, and some of those prototypes may have gotten mixed in with the finished uniforms that were shipped to the team. None of which explains why nobody involved with the Pacers noticed the mistake, but not everyone can be as detail-attentive as your average Uni Watch reader.

    Anyway, here's the beauty part: When the Pacers played the Nuggets on March 3 – two days after Uni Watch first contacted Arena – lo and behold, Stephen Jackson suddenly had a "P" on his shorts. All because of Richard Polk. "Hey, we listen to you," says Arena, filling Uni Watch with a flush of squishy pride.

    More NBA hijinks: Rodney Rogers probably didn't mind being traded from the last-place Hornets to the 76ers. But he wasn't too thrilled to arrive for his first game and find his name had been misspelled on his jersey. After he raised a stink, the team quickly procured a patch to cover up the typo.

    "It's unreal, this happens twice a year," says Arena. "The other time this season was Raptors spelled 'Rpptors,' I think on Jalen Rose's jersey. Carmelo Anthony had his shorts on backwards a few weeks ago and changed on the court, and Chris Andersen's name was spelled wrong on his jersey for the slam dunk contest last year. No matter what you do, it happens twice a year. You can set your clock by it."

    Of course, the NBA is hardly unique in this regard. Major League Baseball, for one, has had its share of uni-related typos and mix-and-match snafus, and you can expect to see more glitches as the number of alternate, throwback and special-occasion unis continues to multiply.

    Son of the Mask
    Thanks to some truly intrepid help from reader Dana Bierce, we've finally filled the most glaring vacancy in our rogue's gallery of masked baseball players. That would be Dave Parker, who wore the extra protection after breaking his cheekbone in a 1978 collision with Mets catcher John Stearns. Astute readers will note that Parker's mask (quickly identified by Helmet Hut facemask guru Curtis Worrell as a Dungard 210) made his batting helmet so heavy that he actually needed a chinstrap to keep it in place.

    As for the rumors of Parker's having worn a hockey goalie-style mask for one plate appearance before switching to the football facemask, photographic proof is supposedly on its way to Uni Watch in the mail at this very moment – stay tuned.

    Paul Lukas has had his name misspelled as "Lucas" on business cards, paychecks, utility bills, memos and e-mails, but never on a jersey. Archives of his pre-Page 2 "Uni Watch" columns are available here and here. Got a question or comment for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Contact him here.


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