Pitchers and catchers will be reporting to spring training camps over the next week or so, and at least one of the uniform changes on display may generate a bit of controversy: The Cardinals will be wearing an "OT" memorial patch for outfielder Oscar Taveras, who died in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic last October at the age of 22.
At first glance, this seems routine -- a team mourning one of its own. But the Taveras situation is more complex because toxicology tests showed that his blood alcohol level at the time of his death was five times the legal limit. Moreover, Taveras' 18-year-old girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, also was killed in the crash.
This has led to a robust debate on social media. While some fans have supported the Cardinals' decision to wear a patch, others think the patch amounts to an endorsement of Taveras' actions, with some going so far as to chide the Cardinals for honoring "a murderer." As many of the patch's critics have pointed out, there's also an eerie sense of déjà vu surrounding this situation because the Cardinals had previously worn a "32" memorial patch for pitcher Josh Hancock, who died in his own drunk driving accident in 2007. (Hancock's crash, however, claimed no other victims besides himself.)
This discussion raises a number of interesting questions. Should a person's character have any bearing on whether he's memorialized with a patch? Does the fact that Taveras was only 22 at the time of his death make a difference in this case? Is a memorial patch an endorsement of a person's entire life or a gesture of mourning?
Before we address those questions, it's worth noting that there was no such thing as an MLB memorial patch until the early 1970s. Prior to that time, uniform memorials usually consisted of a black armband -- a simple, dignified symbol, although a less personal one. That began to change in 1973, when the Pirates wore a "21" patch for Roberto Clemente, who had died during the previous offseason, and the era of the personalized memorial patch was born. (There's an interesting backstory to that Clemente patch, incidentally. If you're curious, look here.)
In the four decades since then, patches have become more and more common, and black armbands have mostly disappeared. It's not hard to see why. Digital design processes make it very easy these days to produce a custom-designed patch in very little time. And a patch feels less generic, more specific to the person. This has created a de facto hierarchy of mourning: "Oh, you're only wearing an armband? What, he wasn't good enough to deserve a patch?" (There's an additional hierarchy, at least in some fans' minds, based on where the patch is worn. The Phillies, for example, wore their memorial patch for broadcaster Harry Kalas over the heart. Now they're stuck with that patch placement because a sleeve patch would prompt the inevitable comments of "Oh, so this guy wasn't good enough to have the heart patch?")
In addition, the bar for being uni-memorialized seems to have gotten much lower. Memorial patches used to be reserved for former players and major figures related to the team. Nowadays, for better or worse (as with most things, it's probably a bit of both), we see memorials for the owner's wife, the minority stakeholder who nobody even realized was connected to the team, the assistant trainer's brother-in-law, and so on. According to a breakdown on the Baseball Hall of Fame's website, there have been 49 uniform memorials over the past five seasons. To put that in perspective, that's more than the total that appeared in the five decades from 1931 to 1981. Moreover, players on some MLB teams have even worn other teams' memorial patches.
In other words, it's a bit of a memorial patch free-for-all out there these days. And as fans have become more uni-aware and social media has increased the level of uni-related discussion, memorial patches have become something of a flash point because unlike most other uniform elements, they're not part of any pre-planned schedule or agenda -- they're largely spontaneous responses to events, and many fans like to play along, sometimes to the point of getting a bit unseemly. When former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith died last weekend, for example, the news was barely an hour old when I started receiving emails from people asking what sort of patch I thought UNC would wear. Some people sent in their own proposed patch designs and asked what I thought. I appreciate the level of uni-related interest, but come on -- when someone dies, it would be nice if we could show a bit of respect and dignity before thinking about reducing the person's life to a patch.
All of which brings us back to the Cardinals and Oscar Taveras. On the one hand, this might have been a case in which a black armband would have gone down more easily. That would have been an organizational gesture of mourning that I suspect most people would be fine with. But wearing a patch with Taveras' initials seems like more of a personal endorsement, and that's what some folks are taking issue with.
Still, the feeling here is that it's hard to second-guess the Cardinals on this one. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding Taveras' death, many people throughout the Cardinals organization knew him, liked him and miss him. The fact that he died due to an irresponsible act -- an act that also killed his girlfriend -- doesn't make those people's sense of loss and grief any less real or legitimate. That's the real point of a memorial patch: It's not for the deceased -- it's for those who are left behind.
And speaking of spring training ...
Most teams wear their batting practice jerseys and caps throughout spring training. MLB tends to impose a new design template for all of the BP jerseys and caps on staggered three- or four-year cycles, and this is one of those years when neither the jerseys nor the caps are getting a makeover. But two teams have tweaked their BP cap designs within the existing template. Oddly, both of the designs involve mascots with giant baseball heads:
• The Reds' BP cap now features Mr. Redlegs' head, not his full body.
• Mr. Met's full body is still shown on the Mets' BP cap, but the cap's crown has been changed from solid-blue to multicolored, and the brim and squatchee (that's the little button on the top) have changed from orange to blue.
Of course, many teams also have changes to their regular game uniforms this season. We'll have a complete Uni Watch rundown in late March, shortly before Opening Day.
Paul Lukas wishes people would wait at least a day or two after someone dies before asking about the decedent's memorial patch. 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.