Welcome to Uni Watch's Friday Flashback, a new weekly feature devoted to uniforms from the past. Each Friday we'll look at a uniform or uni set that's no longer in use -- sometimes a sorely missed classic, sometimes a regrettable misstep but always something worth another look.
We're going to begin by going back to the future -- or, specifically, to 1999, when Major League Baseball got the bright idea of having teams wear "futuristic" uniforms (also known as TATC designs, short for "turn ahead the clock"). From late June through mid-September, 14 games involving 22 teams featured players wearing bizarre cap-sleeved jerseys with massively oversized logos and vertically lettered nameplates on the back. The visual effect was somewhere between jumbo beach blanket and Halloween costume.
The 1999 initiative was inspired by a one-game TATC promotion that the Mariners had done in 1998 (further info on that game is available here), which was deemed so successful that MLB decided to take the idea national in '99 -- a textbook case of how to turn something fun and charming into something overdone and programmatic.
The resulting uniforms supposedly represented the year 2021. Why that year? Because MLB's sponsoring partner for the TATC program was the real estate company Century 21 (whose future-leaning name was about to become obsolete with the coming of the new millennium, so they were eager for one last promotional hurrah to leverage their moniker). Crazy-looking uniforms with an undercurrent of corporate shenanigans -- what could possibly go wrong?
Response to the uniforms was almost, uh, uniformly negative. Some of the most prominent critics were the players, who didn't appreciate having to dress up like clowns. "It looks like Halloween came early," said Pirates pitcher Greg Hansell. Orel Hershiser, who had the misfortune of being the Mets' starting pitcher for their TATC game, went further: "We should have had a big top. If we can't sell the product the way it is, maybe we should give it a rest." (It's worth noting that the Mets took the TATC concept further than most other teams, dubbing themselves the "Mercury Mets," who were supposedly making "their only Earth appearance" for their TATC game against the futuristic Pirates. When the Mets lost, catcher Mike Piazza quipped, "We weren't beamed up to the proper coordinates.")
Despite all the blowback, the uniforms did include a few inspired touches. For example:
• Because the TATC games were supposedly being played in 2021, the Twins wore a 60th-anniversary patch.
• The Phillies, perhaps anticipating the revival of manifest destiny, were supposed to wear a 77-star American flag sleeve patch. The actual patch, however, had only 60 stars. (Patch production is apparently a fraught enterprise in the future.)
• The Diamondbacks' jersey featured a wraparound snake.
• The Brewers put their retro Barrel Man logo on their jersey, so they were sorta-kinda wearing a futuristic throwback!
• The vertically oriented nameplates presented problems for Mets pitcher Jason Isringhausen, whose surname wouldn't fit on his Mercury Mets jersey. So instead he wore "Izzy," making him one of the handful of MLB players who have worn nicknames on their jerseys. (As an aside, the Pirates upped the futuristic ante by going with vertically stacked numbers.)
Fun or no fun, eight teams thought the whole thing was beneath their dignity and declined to participate. Predictably, the holdouts included several of the older, more tradition-bound franchises, including the Cubs, Dodgers, Reds and, of course, the Yankees. The Rangers, Astros, Blue Jays and Expos also took a pass. When someone asked Yanks owner George Steinbrenner, "Don't you want fans to be able to see what the Yankees' uniform design will look like in 2021?," he reportedly replied, "We're already wearing it." We're now more than three-quarters the way toward "The Boss" being proved right.
Still, maybe Steinbrenner and everyone else who hated the TATC program (a group that, in the interest of full disclosure, included a certain uniform columnist) just needed to calm down and take a deep breath. With the benefit of 16 years' worth of hindsight, the TATC program feels less like an outrage and more like one of those entertaining chapters that make sports, and especially baseball, so much fun. Sure, the whole thing was probably a big mistake that should have been left on the drawing board, but wouldn't you rather live in a world where that kind of mistake can be made? I would.
We're six short years away from 2021. Wouldn't it be great if these uniforms made cameo appearances that season? It would be the best, most conceptually satisfying throwback promotion ever.
Would you like to suggest a uniform to be showcased in Uni Watch's Flashback Friday? Send your suggestions here.
Paul Lukas, a lifelong Mets fan, did a spit take when he first saw the Mercury Mets uniforms. 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.