From flip-ups to MaxSight lenses   

Updated: March 21, 2007, 1:46 PM ET

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Was it really wise for the Yankees to let a blind man pitch the other day?

Uni Watch
OK, so it wasn't really a vision-impaired pitcher on the hill that day -- it was the Yanks' latest Japanese import, Kei Igawa. Turns out he pitched almost all of his Japanese games in domes and had trouble with daylight glare during his first spring training start (further details here), so for his next start he donned a pair of shades. Pitchers with dark glasses aren't unprecedented (not even in the Yanks' own division), but they're still pretty rare, so Igawa looked a little weird out there, like an outfielder who got lost and somehow found himself on the mound.

Igawa's tinted turn on the mound is a good reminder of how big a role sunglasses play in baseball aesthetics these days. With a few exceptions, shades on the diamond used to begin and end with flip-ups with those big tabs on the side and the telltale strap around the back of the cap. These were once considered so cool that MLB marketed a kids' model in 1969, and you still see them occasionally, but they're far outnumbered these days by a rainbow of high-tech wraparound models (red, orange, blue, purple, mirrored). And while the flip-ups were worn only by infielders and outfielders, today's shades are worn by pretty much everyone, including batters, catchers, and one of the Brewers' racing sausages. Even umpires, who used to eschew wearing sunglasses because it just encouraged more "Hey, ump, are you blind?!" heckling, now routinely go tinted. Home plate umps even wear shades under their masks.

The most famous baseball shades of recent years are probably the Oakley Thumps, complete with built-in MP3 player and earphones, worn by Manny Ramirez during a game in 2005. While Manny (who, incidentally, has been up to some new tricks lately) is the only player to wear Thumps during an actual game, Uni Watch has spotted several other MLBers wearing them during warmups, including Ichiro, David Ortiz, and new Devil Rays infielder Akinori Iwamura (whose conventional shades look pretty slick). But that's nothing compared to the over-the-top design -- a now-discontinued model from Oakley -- that Billy Koch briefly wore during spring training when he was with the A's. Dude looked like he had a bra on his face! (And speaking of the A's, it's worth noting that up until this year, their batting practice caps featured the team's signature white elephant mascot wearing sunglasses.)

Today's players are so closely associated with their sunglasses that many of them have shades included in their bobblehead depictions, including Ichiro (who's had several signature models), Mark Kotsay, Omar Vizquel, and Brian Roberts. Note that the sunglasses on Roberts' bobblehead are worn above the brim. It's a true-to-life detail (Roberts even wears his sunglasses on his cap during press conferences), but it's also part of a trend of which Uni Watch is none too fond. This style not only obscures the cap logo, but c'mon, what good are the shades gonna do you up there? If there's a fly ball hit into the sun, are you really gonna grab the specs off of your brim and slap them onto your head (an even trickier logistical proposition for the growing number of players who now position their cap-mounted shades upside-down)? Look, if you're gonna wear 'em, then wear 'em, or else go with flip-ups.

Ironically, most early ballplayers never wore sunglasses, even though they played exclusively during daylight, because mass-produced shades hadn't yet been invented. But some players learned to improvise: Paul Hines of the Providence Grays (an early National League team) may have worn smoked or tinted lenses as early as 1882. And according to the Baseball Hall of Fame's "Dressed to the Nines" online exhibit, "In 1895, a number of ballplayers, including future Hall of Fame outfielder Jesse Burkett, experimented with baseball caps that had green-tinted, transparent bills. The idea was to allow the fielder a better range of view while protecting him from the glare of the sun, but apparently the see-through bills never caught on." Unfortunately, no photos of this design have survived, but every now and then you'll see a dead-ball era photo of a player wearing smoked lenses (the most famous one is probably this shot of a young Casey Stengel looking totally bad-ass in 1915), and it always looks sort of bizarre, because most players simply didn't have access to shades in those days.

A big breakthrough came in 1912, when Pittsburgh manager Fred Clarke devised a cap with snap-down lenses bolted right into the brim. This design was used for a while, but true sunglasses didn't catch on until Foster Grants hit the market in 1929 and polarized lenses became available in 1936. And even then, a shades-clad player still was considered something of a novelty for several more decades -- the back of Cubs outfielder Lee Walls' 1959 Topps card mentioned, "Lee's nickname is 'Captain Midnight,' because of the large dark glasses he wears," even though his specs were way tame by today's standards.

Uni Watch hasn't yet seen a player wear sunglasses at night, although you'd think Brewers outfielder Corey Hart would be the first to do so, for obvious reasons. One non-player who wears shades during night games, however, is Tony La Russa, who thinks the dark lenses make it harder for the opposing team to read his managerial moves. And he's not the only one who's used sunglasses for baseball subterfuge: Former MLB pitcher and current Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow has complained that the modern wraparound styles make it easier for batters to peek back at catchers' signals without being caught. And of course shades are always useful for a manager looking to go incognito.

Sunglasses figure prominently in plenty of other outdoor sports, including cycling, skiing, speed skating, beach volleyball, and rowing (where you can get your sunglasses fitted with a nifty little rear-view mirror). But sunglasses also pop up in places where you might not expect them. Here's a selective rundown of shady characters in other sports:

Basketball: After suffering an eye injury, Antoine Carr wore sunglass goggles throughout the late 1990s. More recently, the NBA's big shades-related news has been David Stern's off-court dress code, which bans the wearing of sunglasses indoors (a prohibition that apparently sent Juwan Howard over the edge). And in the NCAA, Michigan State's Maurice Joseph, who usually wears clear specs, switched to a tinted model (just barely visible here) during the Spartans' season-ending loss to UNC last Saturday.

Football: Uni Watch isn't aware of any NFL players who've worn true sunglasses on the field, although several players wear those tinted visors, and no doubt more would do so if they were allowed to (for more info on the NFL's restrictions on tinted visors, and other visor-related info, look here). Over on the sidelines, former 49ers and Panthers coach George Seifert usually went tinted, even during night games (which, according to the seventh item on this list, once led Dennis Miller to do a Corey Hart impression). And one off-the-field item of note: Joey Porter bad-mouthed Dubya prior to the Steelers' post-Super Bowl visit to the White House last year, which explains why he ended up wearing sunglasses in the back of the room. No word on whether Porter will be wearing sunglasses for his perp walk.

Soccer: Dutchman Edgar Davids has glaucoma, so he's received permission from FIFA to wear tinted specs.

Golf: For years golfers avoided wearing shades because they thought it affected how they read the greens, but now you see more and more sunglassed players on the links. The most notable one is probably David Duval, who has light-sensitivity issues, so he usually dons the dark glasses (although on overcast days he sometimes like to pretend he's a baseball player). Then there's Jarmo Sandelin, who wore the over-the-top design in 2001 and 2002. More recently, he's been wearing more conventional sunglasses, presumably to avoid the glare coming off his own shirt.

Bowling: Ostensibly due to the bright TV lights -- or maybe just because he's a jerk -- Pete Weber wears sunglasses during televised finals.

But sunglasses' days may be numbered, thanks to Nike's MaxSight tinted contact lenses, which look really creepy. Already worn by several MLB players, including Mike Timlin, A.J. Pierzynski, Matt Kemp, and Brian Roberts (no wonder he leaves his sunglasses above his brim), as well as by athletes in several other sports, they could eventually render sunglasses moot.

Interestingly, the latest MaxSighted player is Kei Igawa's countryman and fellow MLB rookie Daisuke Matsuzaka. Uni Watch suspects Igawa soon will try the tinted lenses, too. In fact, Nike would be smart to sign all of MLB's Japanese players to MaxSight endorsement contracts. Japan, after all, is the Land of the Rising Sun, and the amber lenses look like they were taken straight off the Japanese flag. Nike marketers, feel free to use this idea, but Uni Watch expects full credit for this one when you roll out the ad campaign.

(Big thanks to Brandon Davis, Patrick Keenan, Jim Vail, Scott M.X. Turner, Rodney Johnson, Dan Mullen, Frank Vaccaro, Tom Shieber, Brian Johnson, Brian Temke, Jeremy Brahm, the Baseball as America exhibit, and Uni Watch intern Vince Grzegorek for their invaluable research assistance.)

Paul Lukas plans to order one of those Kent Tekulve T-shirts from these guys. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and archives of his columns are available here, here, and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted? Contact him here.


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