LONDON -- Have you ever felt like we're surrounded? Like there is something out there following us, wherever we go in the world? Something inescapable?
Well, there is. It's the New York Yankees hat.
I first realized this a few years ago. I was in Pazardzhik, which is a small town in rural Bulgaria. How rural? There were horses pulling carriages through parts of the village. Most of the buildings were blocks of concrete built in Soviet times. All the signs were written in Cyrillic. It is among the least American places I have ever visited.
And yet, as I stumbled around, looking for a spot to buy a bottled water, there it was, an oasis of familiarity in the traveler's desert of confusion, perched upon the head of a man reading a newspaper at a bus stop.
The interlocking N-Y.
The man and I met eyes. I said, "Yankees?" to him, and he looked confused. I went closer, gesturing toward his navy blue cap this time. He smiled. "USA!" he said. I suddenly felt at home.
Turns out, they are everywhere. I stumbled off a red-eye flight to Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia, only to be picked up by a cab driver wearing one. In Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, it was the guy behind the counter at the gym. In Kazakhstan, I saw one on a young lady selling SIM cards in a street market. In Albania, it was the security guard in front of the soccer stadium. In London, where the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox in the two-game London Series this weekend, they're pretty much anywhere you look.
At the risk of sounding like Dr. Seuss, let me put it this way:
I have seen them worn in Russia and I've seen them in Dubai.
I have seen them in Korea on both ladies and on guys.
I'm also not the only one who has noticed this phenomenon. In conversations with friends and other travelers, stories came gushing in of sightings at the Sydney Opera House and the seaport in Senegal. Geneva, sure, but also Guinea. My friend Kevin told me he recently started counting Yankees hats while visiting Shanghai Disney Resort in China but stopped after he got to more than two dozen in the first 20 minutes. In fact, nearly everyone I spoke to who has done any kind of international traveling seems to have a story about the strangest place they encountered a Yankees hat, including the president of the New York Yankees.
Randy Levine, who has been with the team since 2000, said his weirdest moment came shortly after he arrived in Beijing on a business trip more than a decade ago. Racked by jet lag, he went to visit Tiananmen Square at 1 a.m. when he promptly came across a group of three young Chinese men and one woman wearing Yankees hats.
With his interpreter in tow, Levine walked up to the group and asked excitedly, "Do you like the Yankees?"
One of the men replied quickly, and the interpreter turned to Levine with a tinge of regret. "We don't know what the Yankees are," the interpreter whispered, "... but we like the hats.'"
That kind of reply is actually more common than you might think. While most team logos are almost inextricably linked to the team itself -- it's hard to imagine anyone outside the United States looking at, say, the Orioles' cartoonish bird logo and immediately thinking of Baltimore -- the Yankees hat is appealing to many simply because it smacks of New York.
Add in its long-running presence in films, television shows and music videos -- Jay-Z alone has made the Yankees hat a pop-culture fashion classic -- and even Major League Baseball officials are quick to admit that a large percentage of the people wearing Yankees hats abroad have little idea they're supporting anything other than New York City.
"Some of the research we've seen is that the Yankee logo is a sign of quality," said Jim Small, MLB's senior vice president for international. "There's a certain brand equity that the Yankees have ... that while maybe people don't know it's connected to a baseball team, they know that it is about quality. And that's powerful."
Part of that, obviously, comes from success -- winning 27 World Series titles doesn't hurt. But the Yankees have purposely worked to cultivate their brand internationally, too, signing a partnership agreement with the Chinese national baseball federation in 2007, even before MLB had a leaguewide one. They also did marketing deals with big-name global sports teams such as the Yomiuri Giants in Tokyo, and Manchester United (first) and Manchester City (more recently) in England.
In recent years, more and more major league clubs have worked to grow their brand internationally, including the Boston Red Sox, who are led by an ownership group that also runs European soccer champions Liverpool.
Still, the Yankees remain the standard, if for no reason other than sheer tonnage. The next time you go to Cameroon or Cambodia, Swaziland or Switzerland, take a walk through a public park or city square and look around.
It almost surely won't be long before you realize what many already know:
Wherever you are, a Yankees hat is never that far away.