A Syracuse institution finally takes the field

The Syracuse Chiefs' evolution to the Devices isn't as quick and easy as you might think it is. Danny Tripodi/Syracuse Chiefs.

Lots of people have odd little hobbies or fixations, like your aunt who collects spoons or your friend who has a blog about Martin Van Buren. In my case, I'm particularly fond of -- OK, obsessed with -- the Brannock Device. If you don't know what that is, that's kind of the point. The Brannock Device is that metal gizmo they use to measure your foot size at the shoe store. Manufactured for nearly a century now in Syracuse, N.Y., and named after its inventor, the late Charles Brannock, it's a universal touchstone in our culture -- literally everyone's foot has been nestled in a Brannock at some point -- but almost nobody knows what it's called. It flies under the radar, hiding in plain sight.

As anyone familiar with my coverage of the uniform world knows, I often get geeked out about things that other people sometimes take for granted. The Brannock Device, with its combination of ubiquity and anonymity, has become my ultimate inconspicuous object, my North Star -- the perfect symbol of how I like to look at the world. It's also a nifty piece of industrial design. How much do I like it? So much that I got a tattoo of it 15 years ago. (Yes, really.)

So when I heard back in early March that the Syracuse Chiefs -- the Triple-A affiliate of MLB's Washington Nationals -- had added a Brannock Device Night to their 2018 promotional calendar, I knew I had to get in touch with their GM, Jason Smorol. By the time we were done talking, I'd convinced him that the team should go all-in by doing one of those one-game rebrandings that minor league theme nights sometimes entail, and he had invited me to come up and throw out the first pitch.

This is a story about how a minor league team goes through all the steps and approvals needed to do one of those one-game makeovers, from changing the team name to designing special uniforms. It's also a story about how local culture and local businesses intersect with minor league baseball. And yes, it's also a story about how my compulsive preoccupation with a metal foot-measuring gizmo led me to throw out the first pitch at a Triple-A ballgame.

Jason Smorol thought he was done with minor league baseball. He had worked for a variety of Single-A teams in the 1990s and early 2000s before leaving the industry so he could spend more time with his young children. He'd been working for a construction equipment company for about a decade when the Syracuse Chiefs came calling in 2014.

"The team had just lost a million dollars, the board of directors had fired the whole front office, and I'd been out of baseball for 10 years," says Smorol. "They were dumb enough to offer me the general manager's job, and I was dumb enough to take it."

Smorol, who's 49, decided to accept the Chiefs' offer for two reasons. For one thing, he's a Syracuse native, so he liked the idea of running his hometown team. Also, after a long time away to recharge his batteries, he found that he missed minor league baseball -- and he'd noticed how it had been evolving in precisely the kind of direction that appealed to him.

"When I came here, I wanted us to have fun," he says. "I wanted us to be about the wacky promotions, you know, everything that's made the minor leagues boom in recent years."

Of course, wacky promotions are nothing new in minor league baseball. If you live in a minor league market, you know the drill: Star Wars Night, Christmas in July Night, Hawaiian Shirt Night, Tuxedo Jersey Night. But the quantity of the various theme-based stunts has been increasing over the past seven or eight years, and most observers agree that the quality has increased as well, thanks in part to creative GMs like Smorol.

"We all go to the same promotional seminars, we all go to the same winter meetings, so we all share ideas -- and sometimes even steal ideas," he says. "But you want to be the one who came up with it first. Like Fresno became the Tacos before anyone else renamed themselves after a local food, so they get the credit for that."

Smorol is referring to the Fresno Grizzlies, who in 2015 saluted Fresno's annual Taco Truck Throwdown by rebranding themselves for one game as the Fresno Tacos, complete with taco-themed uniforms. It was a huge hit, and it ignited a trend of minor league teams doing one-game rebrandings based on locals foods -- the Lehigh Valley Cheesesteaks, the Jersey Shore Pork Rolls, the Coney Island Franks, and so on.

Smorol and the Chiefs tried this themselves last season, when they played one game as the Syracuse Salt Potatoes, a reference to a tasty specialty first popularized by Irish immigrants working in Syracuse's salt mines during the 1800s. "It's the most successful thing we've ever done," says Smorol. "We knew it would be fun, but we had no idea it would take off nationally, or even internationally, where we're shipping Salt Potatoes caps to other countries. People were coming in and saying, 'I have a brother who's from Syracuse, but he lives in Colorado now and he misses salt potatoes.'"

It's not clear whether Syracusans feel a similar connection to the Brannock Device (some admittedly unscientific polling suggests that many of the city's residents don't even realize the device is a local product), but Smorol wanted to honor it this season anyway. He had decided over the winter to run a series of promotions honoring the heritage and culture of Central New York, and the Brannock fit right in.

"The whole staff thought I was crazy," he says. "It was like, 'Brannock Device Night, what are you even talking about?' And I said, 'I don't know what it'll actually entail, but we'll figure it out.' Initially I thought of it as kind of a throwaway day, so we didn't talk to the Brannock company or anything, because it was just going to be a salute to this object. We had no plans to do anything on the field with our uniforms."

It was at this point that a certain ESPN.com writer and Brannock fan heard about the promotion, got in touch with Smorol, and urged him to do a one-game makeover. It wasn't a slam-dunk decision for Smorol -- specialty jerseys cost about $60 a pop, and caps are another $15 each. Add it all up for the entire team and the bill comes to about $2,650, which isn't chump change for a minor league team. (The jerseys are typically auctioned off, but the proceeds go to charity, not to the team.) Before Smorol could make that investment, he had to be sure that the promotion would be worth it.

Before that plan could be put into action, a lot of boxes had to be checked. "If you're just doing a salute to something, you can pretty much do it however you want," says Smorol. "But if you're going to change your name on the field, you have to go through all these approvals. First we had to talk to the team's ownership group and make sure they were on board. Once they said yes, we had to talk to the Brannock Device Company and get them on board. And then we explained the whole thing to Minor League Baseball, and they also gave their approval."

Well, they mostly gave their approval. The team wasn't permitted to play as the Syracuse Brannock Devices, because that's a commercial trademark and would violate MiLB's rules against advertising on a uniform. After considering a few options ("Syracuse Foot Measurers didn't have much of a ring to it," says Smorol), the team decided to go with the Syracuse Devices.

Once that was settled, Smorol's small in-house staff had to kick into action. The first task was to create a logo and mascot character -- something that could literally serve as the face of the promotion. That job fell to Danny Tripodi, the team's manager of social media and graphics (who, like almost everyone interviewed for this story, did not know the proper name for a Brannock Device until he began working on this project).

"Jason pretty much told me, 'Here's the Brannock Device -- make it into a mascot character,'" says Tripodi. "And I thought, how am I going to do that?" After working on some preliminary sketches, Tripodi eventually came up with a sort of grouchy-looking anthropomorphized Brannock Device and named him Chuck, after the device's inventor, Charles Brannock.

"The Brannock Device is such an old product, so I wanted him to be like an old man who's got this big mustache and maybe he's a little grumpy," says Tripodi. "My original inspiration was Mr. Potato Head -- you can see it in his shoes -- and the overall design is based on a Goomba from Super Mario Bros, because I'm a big video game guy."

It was decided that Chuck would appear on the Chiefs' -- er, the Devices' -- one-day caps. That was simple enough: The logo was sent to the team's headwear supplier, New Era, which slapped Chuck on the crown of a black cap. Voila! (Unfortunately, budget constraints did not allow for a live, costumed version of Chuck to be part of the promotion.)

Creating a custom jersey was more of an involved process. The Chiefs' regular jerseys are made by Russell Athletic. But like most minor league teams, they have their specialty or theme-based uniforms made by OT Sports, a North Carolina firm that offers quick turnarounds (30 to 45 days in most cases) and envelope-pushing designs. But the designs can't go too far -- MiLB rules require every jersey, even the ones for theme-based promotions, to include either the team's real name, its primary logo, or its city.

When the Chiefs are doing a specialty jersey, Katie Berger, the team's director of business operations and merchandise, contacts her sales rep at OT Sports. "I tell her, 'This is what we're thinking, this is what we have in mind,' and one of their designers will send us a few concepts," says Berger. "Sometimes they nail it on the first shot, and sometimes we have to go back and forth a few times to get it right."

OT's lead designer is Adam McCauley, who's been with the company for 11 years and estimates that he designs about 800 jerseys per season. "There's a lot of reinventing the wheel," he says. "I've done so many USA nights, patriotic nights, military nights -- every team does those just about every year, and they all want a different flag jersey than what the other teams are wearing."

A flag-based jersey is one thing. But for some of the wackier requests, how does McCauley draw the line between a design that's fun and a design that's just ridiculous? "That line doesn't really exist," he says. "I do feel bad for the players sometimes. I know they're grown men, and here they are wearing Yoda's head full-blown on a jersey. I'm working on something right now where the jersey will make the players look like they're wearing a bikini. I hope it doesn't screw up their batting average or anything."

The most challenging designs are when a team wants a jersey to include dozens or even hundreds of snapshots, an approach sometimes used for Selfie Night or Veterans Night. Every snapshot has to be resized to fit onto the jersey -- a painstaking process -- and even then, people are sometimes unhappy with the results.

"Sometimes people will win one of the jerseys at an auction," says McCauley, "and they'll look through all 300 photos and see that the photo of themselves, or their relative, or whatever, isn't on the jersey, or it's covered up by a logo or a number, or it's on the size 54 but not the size 44 because we didn't have as much space to work with. Then they get upset."

Some teams give McCauley a lot of guidance regarding what they want, but more often they just say something like, "This is our event -- can you whip up some cool designs?" For the Brannock promotion, the Chiefs emailed some details about the device and its history. "Aside from that," says McCauley, "they mostly just said, 'Create a jersey that looks like the device, or gives the feeling of the device.'"

McCauley responded by coming up with a design that mimics the shoe size markings on the device, along with some industrial-seeming lettering and Chuck serving as a sleeve patch. In short: your typically goofy minor league theme jersey. After a few minor tweaks, it was ready to go.

But before OT can put a jersey into production, the finalized design has to be approved by Minor League Baseball. The guy in charge of that is Andy Shultz, MiLB's assistant director of baseball business operations, who's on pace to review -- and, he hopes, approve -- more than 700 specialty jersey designs from MiLB's 160 teams this season.

"We're here to help our teams out, so my goal is always to say yes," says Shulz. "But it's a baseball uniform, not a costume, so we have some limits. We try to stick with the normal pants, for example. If a team has SpongeBob jerseys, we're not going to approve yellow pants to go with that. And if a team wants to use a city nickname -- the Iron City, or the Brotherly City, or whatever -- that's fine, but let's get your cap logo on the jersey somewhere, so people can still tell which team this is."

Shulz had no problem with the Brannock jersey. "We had some initial questions, of course, but it's not an ad, and the Brannock Device Company isn't paying the team to be on the uniform," says Shulz. "It's a tribute -- the company's in Syracuse, they've been around forever. We're fine with that."

The entire process, from when the team decided to go ahead with the one-day rebranding to getting the designs finalized and lining up all the approvals, took less than a month. Now it was up to New Era and OT Sports to manufacture the caps and jerseys in time for the event.

It's the afternoon of May 31 -- a few hours before the start of Brannock Device Night -- and Tim Follet is in his office at the Brannock Device Company just outside of Syracuse, less than two miles from the Chiefs' ballpark. Follet, who's 53, is the company's vice president and oversees the firm's day-to-day operations. Becoming the steward of the world's most iconic foot-measuring gizmo wasn't necessarily how he thought his life would turn out, but his father-in-law purchased the company in 1993, shortly after Charles Brannock's death, and Follett's career path fell into place from there.

"People ask me what I do, and I say, 'Well, I work for a small manufacturing company,'" he says. "And then it's, "Oh, what do you make?' And I say, 'Well, it's that metal thing that measures your shoe size,' and you can see their faces light up. Everyone knows it. But most people here in Syracuse don't seem to know it's a local product."

Follett prefers not to divulge sales figures but says the Brannock biz is generally fine. "If you asked how many places there are in the world where we've sold our product, it would probably be simpler to list the places where we haven't sold it," he says. Still, moving a durable good like the Brannock Device is always a challenge, because the product is built to last and has no planned obsolescence. And like so many businesses, Follet's has been impacted by the Internet.

"With Zappos or Amazon Prime, you can order a pair of shoes and if they don't fit, you can send them back for free," he says. "Or you can order multiple sizes and keep the one that fits and send back the one that doesn't. That hurts us a bit." He's responded to that by branching out into new niche markets -- the company now makes custom Brannock Devices for bicycle shoes, ski boots, hockey skates, and so on. "Here," he says, "look at this," showing me the layout for an enormous Adidas-branded Brannock Device that goes up to size 25. It's intended for basketball players.

The company doesn't do much marketing outreach and has a confoundingly low public profile, even in its hometown (seriously, shouldn't there be a 12-foot-tall Brannock Device emblazoned with "Welcome to Syracuse" right at the city limits?), so it had never occurred to Follett to partner with the Chiefs on a promotion. But when the team approached him, he was open to it.

"I thought it was a unique idea, and I was impressed by how far they wanted to take it, with the special uniforms and all that," he says. As for Chuck -- the anthropomorphized Brannock mascot -- Follett is diplomatic: "He looks a bit grumpy, but that's OK. I have bigger things to worry about than whether our product looks too angry."

It's about 90 minutes before game time at NBT Bank Stadium, and Smorol -- the Chiefs' GM -- is very much in his element. He's running all over the ballpark, an earpiece installed in his right ear so he can communicate with his staff. One minute he's confirming the details for some of the Brannock-themed activities that will take place in between innings (the "Shoe Scramble," for example, will have fans measuring their feet and then running to get shoes strewn about the outfield), the next he's kibitzing with the umpires in their dressing room, and then he's introducing me to Chiefs hitting coach and former big leaguer Brian Daubach.

"This is Paul Lukas from ESPN," Smorol tells Daubach. "He's very excited about the Brannock Device." Daubach shakes my hand and blinks. For an instant I can sense him trying to come up with an appropriate response to Smorol's introduction. Then he gives up and just says, "Glad to meet ya."

Smorol is clearly loving all of this. The whole time he's being accompanied by a very earnest and attentive 10-year-old fan named Jack, who's serving as his "assistant GM" for the night. Every now and then Smorol will turn to Jack to impart some pearls of general managerial wisdom, much of which seems to involve mischievously closing doors ("Watch people get all uptight when they think you've locked them out," he tells Jack) and reminding people that it's a $1 hot dog night. It seems likely that Jack will go home at the end of the night, look at his father and think, "Dad isn't as cool as Jason Smorol."

While Smorol and Jack head off to another part of the ballpark, I talk to a few of the players, who are getting ready for the game. They all say they don't mind wearing theme-based jerseys, even the wackier ones. Outfielder Hunter Jones says he likes the promotions that draw upon local heritage, like the Brannock jerseys. "You tend to move around a lot in the minors, so learning about something with a local connection helps you feel more grounded," he says. "We have a few of the foot devices here in the clubhouse, and now I'm like, 'Wow, they're made right here in Syracuse.' That's cool."

Soon it's time for the pregame festivities, including the first pitch. Smorol is now down on the field and in full carnival barker mode, giving a lengthy spiel about the Brannock Device. (I later learn that he does some sort of on-field pregame presentation like this for every game.) He eventually introduces me. As the team's costumed mascot -- an orange blob named Scooch -- squats down behind home plate to receive my pitch, I hear a little voice in my head -- perhaps Charles Brannock's -- saying, "Don't screw it up, don't screw it up, don't screw it up."

Fortunately, I don't screw it up (that's Smorol on the right side of the frame, with Jack standing next to him):

Oh, and then they decide to have a baseball game. The Chiefs Devices go on to lose, 5-3, to the Toledo Mud Hens (the perfect minor league team name, because it sounds like they're always doing a wacky theme night), but nobody seems to mind too much. The between-innings activities are a hoot, especially the bit where fans have to smash water balloons with Brannock Devices. Smorol and his staff seem happy, Follett and the Brannock people seem happy, and everything feels like a win, even though the team lost. That's the minor leagues.

The next morning, I'm at the Syracuse airport so I can fly home. Inside my bag is a souvenir Brannock Device that I received during the game. As my bag goes through the security scanner, the TSA screener squints at her monitor and says, "Is that a foot-measurer you have in there?"

"Yes," I say. "It's called a Brannock Device. They make them right here in Syracuse, you know!"

"Really?" she says. "I had no idea."

Paul Lukas got his Brannock Device tattoo re-inked a few weeks before the game, just to freshen it up a bit. If you like this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.