Uniforms Display Baseballs Identity Confusion Right In Front of Our Eyes
Stop me if you heard this one before, but baseball has an identity crisis. I can almost guarantee any consistent baseball viewer has consumed some sort of content either acknowledging or discussing MLB’s struggle with identity and the rift between the old school and the young guns. It most often manifests in discussions of the unwritten rules, the ideal hitting strategy, and the role of the manager. It feels like baseball is going through backward puberty: It is already a grown and mature adult but is now facing sudden, drastic, world-altering changes that now have to make it younger. Also similar to a teenager, these changes and influences may or may not change MLB into someone vaguely recognizable. It’s too early to tell.
I am not interested in a discussion about unwritten rules or the quality of play. I am most turned on by branding and visual aesthetic. I believe that a look at MLB uniforms can demonstrate everything we need to know about MLB’s struggle with identity, self-image, and which fans they want to satisfy.
The Prime Suspect:
To me, the most obvious and most symbolic demonstration of MLB’s identity struggle is the Tampa Bay Rays uniform lineup.
It’s fine I guess. Frankly pretty bland and forgettable. The font looks like it belongs to a local seafood restaurant that Grandma and Grampa enjoy. The colors go together well, but there is nothing significantly good, nor bad about these uniforms. It does make you wonder though, what is a Ray? Is it the sun’s rays? Is it still the fish? We get hints of both but no follow-through on either, so I really don’t know what this team identity is. These uniforms are about as neutral and emotionally unprovocative as a slice of buttered toast.
And then these came along…
Now we’re talking! This uniform uses a color palette that no other team in MLB uses, so they are easily distinguishable. The bright, bursting colors coincide with the modern uniform trends of other American sports leagues. This uniform is flashy without being obnoxious; it is fluorescent and tropical, like their home state of Florida; it’s exciting and youthful! This uniform even tells me what a Ray is! THIS is a modern, complete, and wholesome identity! Also, lucky for the Rays, they have a top pitcher like Tyler Glasnow who can exploit this jersey on highlight reels.
So someone please answer me this question: why is this not the regular uniform and brand??
The Tampa Bay Rays have a beautiful, inviting, distinguished, and marketable brand that they consciously chose to sideline in favor of blandness. It is almost as if the Rays realized they were on to something and didn’t want to be too adventurous because they had to please the baby boomers who don’t like new things. That is baseball’s identity crisis.
But it doesn’t end here. The identity crisis peaked to its ultimate form in the 2020 playoffs when our eyeballs were all subject to this disaster:
The problem may not be so apparent at first glance. After all, I just gushed over how much I love this hat, and the Columbia blue is the best of all the Rays’ full-time uniforms (for my money, at least), so what disaster are we talking about? The problem is that the hat and the jersey don’t go together. The brand on the hat is a different message and color palate than the brand on the jersey. Seriously, the hat sports bright green which is nowhere on the uniform, and the base color for the jersey is never used on the hat. Hell, the ray on the sleeve doesn’t even match the Ray on the hat. The hat and the jersey come from two different identities.
It is a disaster because in the playoffs, when the most amount of people are watching, and MLB has the chance to showcase the best of what they have to offer for entertainment, the Tampa Bay Rays chose a confusing uniform combination that didn’t know what it wanted to be or what message they wanted to send. They went halfway and got stuck in an awkward pickle.
I applaud the Rays for wanting to show off the bright, fluorescent uniforms during playoff baseball; but if you want to send a bold message then you have to go all-in and can’t stop halfway.
Anyone Else Doing It Wrong?
I am not just picking on the Astros because they cheated, I have held the following opinion since they rebranded in 2013: they are effortlessly bland. It truly is a shame that a franchise that was once one of the trailblazers in weird uniforms has sunk itself so low into a uniform so uninspired.
Firstly, the name is “Astros”, as in outer space. In what way is outer space at all represented in the Astros uniforms? It isn’t. Block lettering is the least outer-spacey lettering choice the designers could have possibly imagined. At least try to finagle a spaceship on the uniform, or maybe the baseballs in orbit like the team’s logo until 1975. Even more simply, all the Astros needed to be on-brand was to be obnoxious. They couldn’t even make the jersey interesting to look at.
How could the Astros miss the mark so badly? Because they didn’t make an Astros uniform, they made a Colt 45s uniform. Weird, because even the Colt 45s uniform could draw a few eyes. My prediction is that once Correa, Verlander, and maybe Altuve move on, the Astros will rebrand themselves again in order to symbolize a new beginning from the shadow of the 2017 cheating scandal. Hopefully, at that point, they can design a real Astros uniform, and throw these current ones in the trashcan.
A ONE-TONE BLOCK LETTER “C”? THAT’S THE BEST YOU GOT?
We have all witnessed the Cleveland Indians trudge through one of the steepest uniform downgrades in American sports. I don’t care about how you feel about the symbolism of Chief Wahoo, but you cannot deny it is a very artistically pleasing logo, hence why it stood the test of time. Chief had great colors, efficient lines, and was easy to market. It was silly and kid-friendly without being so childish that it turned off adults. Simply put, Chief Wahoo was an A+ brand.
The Indians franchise is worth over a billion dollars. With all of that money, the best hat that the organization could hire anyone to design, was a single-color block-letter “C”? Half your fans have the technology and imagination to design a better logo in their basement. This is an absolute insult. The C doesn’t even go with the script jerseys, which I guess is why they decided to introduce block-letter jerseys to match the hat instead of, you know, finding a better hat to match the script jerseys. The Cleveland Indians look like someone’s grandfather got the cheapest embroidered hats for his grandson’s little league team and said “yeah that’s fine.”
BONUS: Just because I love to hound on the Indians’ horrible design, in the 2000s, the Indians had a script letter “I” on a hat. An on-brand and good-looking Wahoo-less hat already exists, and the Indians forgot it existed.
Why Does This Matter?
This matters because humans absorb most of their information by sight, and in the short-focused technological 21st century, it is more important now than ever for visual advertising to be efficient with its message. Jerseys are the first thing that anyone will notice when seeing a baseball team for the first time. As MLB struggles to get younger, it is imperative that they understand how to use the uniform to attract the eye and interest of the younger viewer. Also, keep in mind, a baseball hat is a signature of American fashion. So when a team creates a really good hat, people will want to buy them.
I’m not saying every team needs to be overly bright to be hip. Teams like the Yankees, Cardinals, Cubs, and Dodgers are some of the most worn and recognizable brands. These brands are timeless, and a lot of that has to do with their franchises’ lineage having strong roots in American culture as far back as multiple generations. So yes, there still is a vital role for historic and simple brands in baseball. But MLB needs to understand to balance its timeless brands with modern brands. The Rays and Astros are not historic nor timeless. They need to adjust and keep up with the times and embrace their reputation for being kooky. The Indians on the other hand had a historic logo, but they bailed on it. Replacing a timeless brand could be successful if you smartly replace it with something better than nothing.
If you’re looking for an example of non-historic teams who I believe brand their uniforms very well for 2021, check out the Miami Marlins, San Diego Padres, and Arizona Diamondbacks
You may notice the running theme between the three troubling uniforms I discussed: confusion. In some ways, these uniforms are confused between different brands, or between an old look or an exciting new look, or just don’t even know what they want to accomplish. I believe these brand confusions perfectly symbolize MLB’s own confusion with finding its audience. I feel like MLB is entering NASCAR territory where they don’t have a product that captures the attention of the new generation, and try to do that by implementing changes that anger the old generation. I can’t help but wonder if the City Connect jerseys which eight teams will wear this year also serve as an experiment for MLB to survey what brands/colors/themes are peaking fan interest.
If you need any more proof of MLB’s identity confusion, look no further than the aftereffects of Yermin Mercedes’ now-infamous home run against the Twins. What are we trying to do here? I don’t know, and I don’t think MLB does either. But more on that another day…
Follow me on Twitter at @B4Mets_Yankees to see my latest work. Also, follow us on social media at @OTHeroicsMMA to stay tuned in with our content! Please visit our web page to keep up with everything MLB!
Main image credit