By Tom Goldman
Uniforms of the New York Yankees will be among those getting a personality infusion during Major League Baseball’s Players Weekend later this month.
Bryce Harper is getting his wish.
At least for one weekend this month.
In March 2016, Harper, the Washington Nationals’ superstar outfielder, said in an ESPN interview that baseball is “tired.”
“It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself,” the then-23-year-old said.
This week, Major League Baseball and the players union jointly announced a new event called Players Weekend. It’ll take place Aug. 25–27, and it will, according to a statement, give major leaguers a chance to “let their personalities and passions shine.”
Flair, personality and merchandise
One can only imagine the visual feast as a traditionally conservative sport busts loose — players will get the chance to wear “uniquely colored and designed spikes, batting gloves, wristbands, compression sleeves, catcher’s masks, and bats.”
There will be nontraditional uniforms, including buttonless pullovers rather than buttoned jerseys — in other words, Little League style. And the players have the opportunity to put their nicknames on the backs of those jerseys. Imagine the jolt when you train your binoculars on home plate and see “Herrm the Worm” up to bat. Or “Nightmare,” “The Doof” or “Dat Dude.”
“It adds flair, it adds personality and I assure you, it’ll sell merchandise,” says sports marketing expert Marc Ganis.
Indeed, jersey-maker Majestic Athletic and baseball cap designer New Era are mentioned in the first few paragraphs of the joint MLB/MLBPA statement on Players Weekend. Jerseys are expected go for around $200 each.
But Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., says there’s more involved than just a cash grab.
“It was brought up because players genuinely wanted to show individuality,” he says.
Baseball officials agree. Players have been aware of how in other sports, particularly the NBA, athletes’ shoes have a big impact on fans and help create a connection. Baseball players have been itching to express themselves in a similar fashion because of the sport’s strict uniform regulations. Players and owners talked about it during last year’s contract talks, and the plans for Players Weekend started coming together a few months ago.
What about the Yankees?
The New York Yankees will make the biggest departure by sporting all this gear. The Yanks are a tradition-bound franchise — the only major league team that never has had names on the backs of uniforms, let alone nicknames.
And Tyler Norton loves the change.
“Baseball is a game; it should be fun,” says Norton, a 25-year-old editor for the Yankees-themed website pinstripealley.com. “Having this showcase for players is a good way to promote that. And maybe the Yankees can take a look and say, ‘Yeah, y’know what? This is a little bit of fun. We can approach this in a different way.’ “
Norton, who roots for and writes about the Yankees from his home in Albany, N.Y., hopes Players Weekend shows the Yanks it’s time to revisit some of their stricter traditions for hair length and facial hair.
“I think there are opportunities the Yankees could take and run with,” Norton says. “They could’ve gotten on board with marketing opportunities, sort of like what the [New York] Mets are doing with Noah Syndergaard [whose nickname is “Thor”] and the wigs going around [the Mets’ home stadium] Citi Field.”
Rest assured, though, there are many Bronx Bomber fans who are saying, “Pump the brakes.”
Manhattan resident June Murakami is a lifelong Yankees fan. She organizes get-togethers for fellow fans around the city. She says when the news hit this week about jerseys and nicknames, Facebook was “blowing up.”
“Some saying, ‘Oh come on, lighten up’; some saying, ‘It’s breaking tradition’ and that George Steinbrenner [the former Yankees owner who instituted team grooming rules in the 1970s] is spinning in his grave.”
Murakami falls more on the side of keeping things the same.
“It’s breaking that long-standing tradition we have,” she says. “I’m very old-fashioned in those things. I like the tradition to go on. I don’t want them doing it once a year. If this really is a one-time-only thing and doesn’t become a habit, who cares? I mean, let them have fun.”
Reaching for a young generation
Beyond a rainbow of color and individuality, baseball of course hopes Players Weekend is a bridge to a younger audience. The game has been losing that demographic in a sped-up world.
“Baseball’s pace is the single biggest reason why youth turns off baseball,” says marketing expert Ganis. “It is so slow, when everything else is picking up pace. When kids are multitasking with multiple screens in front of them at any given time, and baseball is still played at a pace that a snail would be proud of.”
Ganis says Players Weekend is a small step forward.
“There’ll be some impact,” he says, adding that “some of the nicknames will be unexpected. There’ll be some social media interaction on that and mainstream interaction on that. More merchandise sold so there’ll be people wearing ‘All Rise’ [a nickname for budding Yankees star Aaron Judge] on the back of a Yankee T-shirt that looks very different than their existing uniform. And all other teams as well.”
This won’t move the needle much, says Ganis. Speeding up the game will. Baseball is fully aware of that and taking steps.
But until that happens, baseball will rely on events like Players Weekend to try to bring in new fans. According to one baseball official, many of the players are putting a lot of meaning into the upcoming, colorful weekend.
As a way to connect. As a way to express themselves and show that baseball isn’t such a tired sport after all.