Ask Me Anything
An occasional Uni Watch series.
Over on the Uni Watch blog, I’ve periodically run a feature called “Question Time,” where I invite readers to submit questions to me about uniforms, about sports, or just about me. I’ve done 11 of those blog entries over the years — you can see them here.
Going forward, I’ve decided that these Q&A sessions will take place here on Bulletin, and that they will have the more straightforward name “Ask Me Anything.” I solicited questions from you in my introductory Bulletin piece back in July, and today I’m finally getting around to addressing them. (Sorry for the delay!)
Without further ado, let’s get started:
Do you think a uniform design can have a tangible impact on a team’s performance? Are you aware of any examples of that happening? I refer here to design or aesthetic differences, rather than differences in fabrics or construction.
A few studies over the years have shown that teams wearing black are sometimes called for more penalties. Aside from that, I don’t think a uniform design matters one way or the other. People always say, “Look good, feel good,” and then “Feel good, play good” — all of which might be true, but nobody agrees about what looks good!
Even uni-related superstitions usually don’t hold up. People sometimes like to point to out, for example, that the Denver Broncos finally won a Super Bowl after radically changing their uniforms. But there are waaaaay more examples of teams not winning a championship after making a uni change. Meanwhile, teams like the Yankees and Patriots piled up titles over the past 25 years despite not making any uni changes.
In short: I care a lot about uniforms, but I don’t think a uni design has any impact on a team’s performance.
Do you pay attention to or enjoy uniform aesthetics in non-sports areas of pop culture, like Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.?
As a kid, I was completely obsessed with the uniforms on the original Star Trek. The different shirt colors, the badges, the gold braid on the sleeves, the cuffing of the pants, all of it. I was also intrigued by Patrick McGoohan’s white-trimmed jacket on the classic TV show The Prisoner. (I wrote a blog post about all of this back in 2007, although most of the photo links within the piece no longer work.) In addition, I paid a lot of attention to certain comic book superhero costumes.
I don’t really follow those sectors of pop culture anymore. But I still think the original Star Trek uniforms were the best — gorgeous designs.
In pictures you post of yourself, you are usually wearing either a plaid shirt or a vintage sports jersey of some sort. Do you have any band T-shirts? Which one is your favorite?
Although I’m very into music, I’ve never been that into band shirts. I do have a pretty excellent Cheap Trick tee, similar to this, that I got at one of their shows in 1988. It’s a little threadbare now, so I only break it out for special occasions. Still fits!
What was your favorite out-of-home-market sporting event to attend?
In 2009, I went to an LSU football game as part of an ESPN story I was working on. That was a really great scene — I enjoyed it a lot.
The Calgary Flames originally played in Atlanta, where they were also called the Flames. The name comes from Gen. Sherman and his march to the sea. Seems odd that a team name would celebrate the destruction of the city, don’t you think? I feel the same about the Chicago Fire.
I never thought about it that way before, but you’re right. I think part of it is that Sherman’s march and the Chicago fire are both long-ago historical events that have become part of their respective cities’ lore and mythology. A tragedy is, well, tragic, but overcoming a tragedy and bouncing back from it can be viewed as heroic. Still, you make an interesting point — I’d be curious to hear what any Atlanta and Chicago residents have to say about this.
I once heard/read that the professional sports fans in New York are divided into two categories: One group roots for the Yankees, Giants, and Rangers, and another roots for the Mets, Jets, and Islanders. Why is that?
First of all, that’s not entirely true. I myself, for example, root for the Mets, Giants, and Rangers. Why? Because that’s who my father and big brothers rooted for — we were a Mets/Giants/Rangers household.
However! Giants and Yankees fans had a commonality for many years because both teams played in Yankee Stadium. Similarly, the Mets and Jets both played at Shea Stadium, so those fan bases often overlapped. Also, since the Mets and Jets were the “new” teams (and also tended to be more Long Island–based, because Shea was easier to access from Long Island), their fans often gravitated toward the Islanders, while the Yankees, Giants, and Rangers were long-running franchises that often attracted more “establishment” fans.
Nowadays, the Jets and Giants both play in New Jersey, the Islanders have been nomads, and all of these teams are now old enough to be firmly established, so I’m not sure how much the old loyalty patterns hold up. But like I said, those patterns were never iron-clad to begin with.
If a random team were to redesign its entire uniform set, would you rather they go simplistic to the point of boredom, or try to do something completely new? As we have seen recently with the Falcons and Rams, trying something new doesn’t always turn out great.
I don’t think it’s as straightforward as “simple” vs. “new” (or “boring” vs. “innovative,” or whatever similar dialectic you might prefer), because there are ranges of good and bad design possibilities within each of those terms. In other words, a “simple” uni design can be really good or really bad, and same goes for a newfangled design.
Keeping things simple is certainly the safer approach. Going newfangled can work, but I think designs that try to use new or different elements just for the sake of being new or different — which I’d say is definitely a problem with both the Rams’ and Falcons’ current sets — tend not to work out so well. It’s not enough for a newfangled element to be new. It has to make sense.
A lot of this also comes down to which team we’re talking about. The St. Louis Cardinals, for example, are never going to be a team that breaks the mold and pushes the design envelope — that’s just not in their DNA, and it wouldn’t make sense if they tried it. On the other end of the spectrum, I think the Houston Astros’ current set is a total missed opportunity. It’s a traditional design, but who wants to see the Astros looking traditional? That’s not who they are! I wish they’d liven things up a bit.
Have you ever been approached or thought about writing for Defector, even if it was just a single article? I have seen you mentioned on their site a couple times.
I have a lot of respect for what they do (and for how they’ve built a new platform from the ashes of the original Deadspin), but I haven’t had any discussions about writing for them. If they approached me, I’d certainly consider it. I have more than enough work these days to keep me busy, though!
If a team offered to hire you to design their new uniforms, would you do it?
I’m not a designer, so I’m not the right hire for that. I’ve been approached a few times to be a consultant for a team’s new uni project, but I’ve always declined because it would be a conflict of interest. If any similar offers come my way after I eventually retire (don’t worry, that’s not happening anytime soon), I’ll consider them.
Uni Watch challenges me to consider whether a work of design has merit or is chasing trends to generate sales. This goes beyond sports uniforms into the worlds of music, film, industrial design, product packaging, etc. It’s made me realize how much I enjoy criticism as an art unto itself. Who are some of your favorite critics? What do you think distinguishes good criticism from run-of-the-mill criticism?
First and foremost: It means a lot to hear that Uni Watch has helped you appreciate the wider world of cultural criticism. Thanks so much for telling me that!
Now then: As is the case with a lot of geeky guys, the first art I was passionate about was rock and roll, and thus the first cultural criticism I cared about was rock criticism. Robert Christgau was a huge influence on me — not just in terms of his tastes (not all of which I agree with), but in terms of how he constructed and communicated a paradigm for his criticism and a taxonomy for that paradigm. In short, he had a fairly consistent worldview underpinned by certain aesthetic foundations, applied that worldview to the music he was assessing, and explained how he was doing it while he was doing it. That had a big effect on how I look at the world.
Lots of other critics covering all sorts of fields (music, movies, food, books, general culture, etc.) have made their own impacts on me over the years — too many to name. Last winter there was a lot of fuss being made about a book critic named Lauren Oyler (she’s a famously tough critic and had just published her first novel, so the literary world was licking its chops about the tables being turned on her). I wasn’t familiar with her, so I looked up some of her stuff — she’s good.
As for what distinguishes good criticism from bad, I’d say it starts with understanding the difference between criticism and a review. A review is simple: “That new Thai restaurant around the corner is good. You should try it!” There you go, that’s a review. Criticism goes deeper, explaining how the thing being assessed fits into the larger context of the discipline in which the thing lives (music, food, uniforms, or whatever), and then connecting cultural dots to help explain how that context matters in terms of the larger world around us. In short: Good criticism makes you think, regardless of whether you agree with it. It applies intellectual rigor in a way that makes you want to apply your own intellectual rigor.
I wrote a bit more about all of this in this 2014 blog post.
You’ve described yourself as a uniform “classicist.” In that regard, your views mirror much of your demographic and readership: middle-aged, straight White men. My question: Have the social changes of the past year led you to question any of your opinions regarding the way sports should look?
Oh, I assure you that I’ve been questioning my opinions and their origins — particularly regarding race — for a long time, way prior to the social upheaval of the past year. It’s an ongoing dialogue/interrogation I have with myself (and that any critic should routinely be having, frankly). I wrote about that very issue in 2012, reprised that piece in 2015, and touched upon many of the same issues earlier this year.
On the one hand, my tastes are my tastes, and they’re pretty hard-wired into me. I can’t suddenly love purple, hate stirrups, love the Falcons’ uniforms, hate the Canadiens’ uniforms, and so on. On the other hand, I can (and should!) ask myself where some of that hardwiring comes from, what sort of cultural assumptions and biases helped to shape it, and how certain things might look from perspectives other than my own. Even my self-descriptor that you mentioned, classicist, is an establishmentarian term, and of course I’m aware of that. It’s much easier to embrace what’s considered “classic” when you come from a place of cultural privilege, a place where the underpinnings of your “classic” taste have been socially sanctioned, or even largely unquestioned, for generations.
Ultimately, I can only be true to my own tastes. I mean, it wouldn’t make any sense for me to lie about what I like and dislike, right? But I try to be aware of where those tastes come from, and I’d be the first to agree that the uni-verse could use more writers who come from different backgrounds than mine.
Since the Mets will inevitably have a City Connect uniform, what would you like to see as its inspiration, and would you consider colors other than blue and orange?
Blue and orange, aside from being the Mets’ colors, are also the official New York City colors, so I’d hate to see them go away from that. And especially not black!
As for the design inspiration, the best option would be for them to choose a “storytelling” theme that’s baseball-related. But so much of New York’s baseball history is tied up in the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants, and of course it wouldn’t make sense to reference any of those teams on a Mets uniform. Maybe an NYC-based Negro Leagues team? Something stickball-related? Hmmmm.
Failing that, I wouldn’t mind seeing them lean into the “Metropolitans” name with something skyscraper-themed. That could make for a fun chest insignia!
You wear glasses. Have you ever worn or considered wearing contact lenses?
I am totally wigged out by the thought of anything touching my eyeball (even using eyedrops is challenging for me), so contacts are out of the question. Also, I kinda like wearing glasses — it’s like getting to put on a new identity.
Is there one sport you wish you were really good at?
I’ll always be disappointed that I wasn’t a better baseball player. I mean, I didn’t suck — I made my Little League All-Star team, for example — but I wish I’d been really good, because I truly love baseball.
Why do you spell the word grey with an e, instead of gray?
It’s true that gray is the American spelling, while grey is the Canadian/British spelling. But to me, grey feels, well, greyer. Something about that spelling feels more overcast, more “blah,” more dull — it fits the color, at least for me. Your mileage may vary!
As a writer, do you have any favorite words? Ones that flow really well, or always bring a smile to your face?
So many! I really love the word autumnal, for example, because I like how the silent n in autumn suddenly gains a voice — that’s nice.
I also like nouns where the singular ends in is and the plural just changes the i to an e. For example, analysis and analyses. Also thesis/theses, synopsis/synopses, crisis/crises, and many more.
Which numbers look best on a uniform? Does it very from sport to sport?
I think there are lots of factors that can play into this, including the sport, the position that the player plays, and even the player’s body size and shape.
Over on the blog, we once had a good guestwritten post about numbers that look fast or slow, so that’s a good place to start. Also, some names on the back of the jersey look better than others (same goes for some name/number combos), and we’ve explored that topic as well. Hope that helps!
Visually, I think baseball bats look best when they’re not painted — just the natural wood grain. Not a fan of black bats, or any other color. What about you?
Given how persnickety I can be about so many things, it’s maybe a bit surprising that I’m not such a hard-ass when it comes to bats. I agree that natural wood grain usually looks the best, but I don’t mind if the bat is brown, black, or whatever. I’d even be okay with taking some of the custom-painted bats they’ve used in the Home Run Derby and using them for regular games. I mean, I’d never have a custom-painted bat myself, but it doesn’t bother me to see a player using one.
I also think that in this area, as in so many others, context matters. If you don’t wear batting gloves, for example (something very rare among today’s big leaguers), then you should probably have a plain, unadorned bat, because that fits well with the old-school bare-handed hitting style. If you wear flashy batting gloves, a C-Flap, and a bunch of pads, then maybe a black bat makes more sense. And so on.
Not color-related but still pertaining to bat aesthetics: One thing I do like is Mets utility man Jeff McNeil’s knobless bat handle (additional views here), just because it’s a little different. A great little equipment detail.
Non-US sports — especially soccer, rugby, and cricket — tend to paint on-field graphics “in perspective,” so they’ll have the illusion of appearing square on TV. But major US sports usually paint graphics as if they are meant to be seen from above. Why do you think that more North American sports haven’t adopted the perspective-driven approach?
Some North American leagues have tinkered with this approach. Back in 2011, for example, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors had their logo painted along the baseline in a way that created the illusion of a three-dimensional sandwich board:
I feel like at least one other NBA team has tried something similar, although I can’t recall the details and haven’t been able to find evidence to back up my vague memory. (Anyone..?)
In any case: Most of the examples you’re referring to in European sports involve paid ads on the field/pitch/etc., so advertisers may have lobbied the teams for the perspective-driven approach in order to get more bang for their marketing buck. In fact, according to this article, the Raptors’ illusory logo was the idea of then-GM Bryan Colangelo, “who imported the idea from his scouting trips to Europe, where he was enraptured by how arenas overseas were using 3D paint to shill [for advertisers].”
On-field ads are pretty rare in American sports, so that may explain why the graphics that do exist (usually team and league logos) are painted the “normal” way. And I’m fine with that — optical illusions are fun, but I’d rather see sports graphics as they truly exist.
Have you ever restrained yourself from reporting or mentioning a uni quirk because you were afraid of the ramifications of doing so?
It’s true that my reporting has sometimes resulted in on-field changes. In 2014, for example, I wrote an ESPN column about MLB teams with logo inconsistencies. One of the examples was that the Braves’ helmet logo didn’t really match their cap logo:
I contacted the Braves as part of my reporting for that column. And then, about two weeks after that column appeared, the team suddenly changed their helmet logo to match the cap logo. They wouldn’t come out and admit that it was because of my column, but I’m about 99% sure that it was.
It’s nice that the team now has consistent headwear branding. But the logo mismatch was a fun little quirk, an enjoyable little glitch in the matrix, so to speak, and now it’s gone. So you could say I ruined it by reporting on it.
Did I think the Braves would make an on-field change in response to what I wrote? Honestly, that hadn’t even occurred to me — they’d had the same helmet logo design for so long, I figured there was no way they’d ever change it. If I had thought they might change it in response to my article, would I have written about it anyway? Yeah, probably — it was too interesting a quirk to keep to myself!
Anyway, in response to your question (finally): Yes, there have been a couple of occasions when I’ve noticed something and kept it to myself because I didn’t want to ruin it. The most notable example came earlier this year, when I noticed that Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola didn’t have the New Era maker’s mark on the side of his red cap. I knew that if I wrote about it, someone would get him a new cap and that would be the end of it. So I decided to wait and see how long he’d keep wearing the cap without the logo — which turned out to be a pretty long time! Once he switched to a logo-clad cap, I went ahead and wrote about it (and there was a bit of an epilogue).
Like you, I love vertically arched lettering for player names. Why do you think so few teams utilize it today? I can’t think of any pro teams other than the Rangers and Red Wings in the NHL. With computers able to print and cut letters these days, this should be a no-brainer.
For those who don’t know, vertically arched lettering is a typography style that creates a custom angle for each letter in a word (or, in this case, for a player’s name). Here’s a side-by-side comparison of vertical arching and the much more common radial arching:
As noted in the question, only two pro sports teams, both in the NHL, currently use vertical arching: the Red Wings and Rangers. But lots of MLB teams used to use it, including the Braves (shown above), Cubs, Royals, Twins, Pirates, Phillies, Padres, Orioles, and Giants. Lots of NBA, ABA, and NHL teams used it, too. But except for the Red Wings and Rangers, they’ve all switched to radial arching, which I find much less visually pleasing. (It’s also worth noting that some teams use vertical arching on the front of their jerseys, like the Bulls and Rockets.)
As the questioner notes, it’s much easier to produce vertically arched lettering today, when all the typography can be set digitally, than it was back when teams were actually using it. So why has it fallen out of favor? I thought ace baseball jersey restoration expert Bill Henderson might be a good person to ask about this, since he actually cuts his own vertically arched letters in his shop:
So I asked Bill why MLB teams don’t go the vertically arched route anymore. Here’s his response:
I’ve wondered the same thing. It is super-easy to do now with computers. All I can assume is that the teams don’t want to use it.
The other thing that occurs to me is that without vertical arching, you can make hundreds of letters and put them in a bin, then pull them all out and stick them on a nameplate or jersey. You can’t do that with vertical arching, because every letter in every name is different, so you have to custom-design and -cut the lettering.
But again, it’s so much easier now with computers than it was when more teams used vertical arching. I just have to figure that the teams don’t specify it, and it’s not important to anybody except us. I personally love the look and wish they would bring it back.
What is the official shade of Uni Watch green?
Officially, it’s Pantone 349C. In reality, though, it’s all over the map. For example, when I was getting Uni Watch caps made by Ebbets Field Flannels, I couldn’t demand an exact shade of green for the cap fabric or the embroidery thread — I had to use the shades of green they had available. Same goes for lots of other products I’ve sold over the years. The variation in merchandise colors has occasionally cross-pollinated its way back to the digital side of things. And don’t even ask about how our logo looks on stationery produced by my shitty ink-jet printer!
From a strict branding perspective, it’s a bit of a mess. But I’ve accepted it as the nature of the beast.
That’s enough for now. Again, you can see my previous Q&A sessions here. And if you'd like to submit a question for a future “Ask Me Anything” segment — just one question per reader, please — email it here. (Please note that this is not the usual Uni Watch email address.) I look forward to seeing your queries!
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Paul Lukas has been writing about uniforms for over 20 years. If you like his Bulletin articles, you’ll probably like his daily Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.