The New York Mets are going through another miserable season, but they lead the league -- and probably the world -- in one unusual uniform-related category: player names rendered in lowercase lettering.
It began with catcher Travis d'Arnaud, who made his MLB debut last August. Mets equipment manager Kevin Kierst decided to give him a lowercase "d" on the back of his jersey. Or at least that's what it looked like -- MLB's uniform supplier, Majestic, didn't offer lowercase letters at the time, so Kierst improvised by using an upside-down capital "P." (The Pirates had done the same thing for d'Arnaud's brother, infielder Chase d'Arnaud, when he briefly played for them in 2011 and '12.)
Kierst knew the Mets had two other prospects in the pipeline who would present similar issues: outfielder Matt den Dekker and pitcher Jacob deGrom. So he worked with Majestic to arrange for lowercase letters to be available this season.
You can't really tell the difference between last year's ersatz "d" and this year's real thing on d'Arnaud's jersey -- the two letterforms are essentially identical. But the new lettering became very apparent when deGrom was called up from the minors and made his big league debut earlier this month. The name on his jersey featured what may have been an MLB first: two lowercase letters.
If deGrom's jersey did indeed set an MLB record for lowercase lettering, it didn't stand for long because the final piece of the Mets' lowercase puzzle fell into place earlier this week, when den Dekker was called up and made his season debut on Memorial Day. Sure enough, his name was rendered with three lowercase letters -- another probable record. (Interestingly, den Dekker briefly appeared with the Mets last season and had his name written in all caps, while his minor league jersey only had a lowercase "d." So his name has appeared in three different formats in less than a year, which may be yet another record.)
The Mets' lowercase lettering has occasioned lots of chatter this season amongst typography geeks and uni-philes (two groups with a fairly large overlap). Three primary schools of thought have emerged from these discussions: one that believes player names on jerseys should always be all caps, period; one that loves the lowercase letters; and a compromise position that advocates for the use of small caps instead of lowercase letters.
The unusual thing about the Mets' troika isn't so much that their names include lowercase letters. It's that all three of their names begin with lowercase letters, which is a fairly rare phenomenon. But other unusual surnames, like MacDonald, LoDuca and DiPoto, have given equipment managers fits for decades. Consider, for example, the case of journeyman infielder Mark DeRosa, who retired last year after suiting up for eight different teams over a 16-year career. How would you style his name on his jersey -- DEROSA? DeRosa? DeROSA? DE ROSA? Something else?
When DeRosa broke in with the Braves in the late 1990s, they simply put his name in all caps. But when he moved on to the Rangers, they rendered the "E" as a small cap. DeRosa then signed with the Cubs, where he initially wore all caps but was then given a small-cap "E." He retained that format while playing for the Indians, Cardinals, Giants, Nationals and Blue Jays. (Of course, DeRosa could have avoided all of this if he'd simply played for the Yankees, who don't put their players' names on their jerseys.)
It's surprising that the Cardinals gave DeRosa a small-cap "E," because for years their protocol has been to style names like his in all caps with a space, as you can see in these photos of Mark McGwire and Tony La Russa. Interestingly, when McGwire and La Russa were both with the A's, McGwire wore a small, raised "c" and La Russa -- well, rearview photos from his time in Oakland are hard to come by, but one supposedly game-used jersey shows all caps while another shows a small-cap "A," and at one point his dugout jacket had caps with a space. All of which goes to show how confusing things can get if your name isn't Smith or Jones.
Baseball isn't the only sport that wrestles with these issues, of course. At least one hockey player -- Ab DeMarco Jr. of the Edmonton Oilers -- wore a lowercase "e" in the late 1970s. And other teams in other sports have varying protocols, which are sometimes inconsistent within a given team.
All of which brings us back to the Mets and their three lowercase-inclusive jerseys. It turns out they could have had a fourth one this season because the first pitch on Opening Day at Citi Field was thrown by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio -- seemingly a prime candidate for the lowercase treatment. But for some reason the Mets gave him a jersey with all capital letters.
That's the Mets for ya: Even when they're coming up with a new innovation, they can't be consistent about it.
Paul Lukas would prefer to see the Mets use small caps instead of lowercase letters. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.