Baseball

Major League Baseball: An Identity Lost in Time

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January is the time of year for reflection. The new year inspires society to reflect on past lessons, realize the passage of time, and appreciate how valuable the limited time is that we have with each other. For baseball fans, it is especially a time of anticipation, looking for to spring training, opening day, and new uniform reveals. This January, I would like to reflect on a few uniform trends of the MLB cultural renaissance: the 1990s.

What Made the ’90s So Great

Major League Baseball has a complicated relationship with the 1990s. On one hand, the mid and late 90s is the saving grace from above that baseball needed to escape the cultural Siberia that was the 1980s where baseball was at strikingly low popularity. The 90s produced some of the greatest stars in history and injected them into mainstream pop culture with a serving of excitement. On the other hand, baseball’s cultural and economic explosion is poisoned with steroid usage and cursed MLB with an eternity of disagreement over the legitimacy of accomplishments and worthiness of the Hall of Fame. The 90s and MLB’s Shakespearean performance: the greatest success followed by the greatest tragedy.

In fact, it does seem that MLB is in the process of trying to recreate the 1990s, both intentionally and unintentionally. The first striking similarity is the effort towards home runs. In the 1990s, fans experienced homerun races through Bonds, Sosa, McGuire, and Griffey Jr, the likes of which producing numbers never deemed possible. MLB has clearly been trying to copy that trend by marketing home runs and home run hitters, to the point where it becomes detrimental to other productive forms of offense. This desire culminated in Aaron Judge finally hitting 62 home runs in 2022.

Adjacent to the homerun craze, modern baseball has possibly been artificially influencing the production of home runs, however in a different way from the 90s. While Bonds, Sosa, and McGuire never tested positive, many fans, writers, and former players have accepted the assumption that all three had taken steroids. Even more wild is then-commissioner Bud Selig probably aware of steroid usage and willingly turning a blind eye because of all the revenue it was generating. Modern baseball reflects this trend with another technically unproven, but widely accepted claim of MLB providing “juiced balls” (baseballs manufactured in a way to travel further when hit in the air).

So why is MLB not seeing the fan interest in the modern day that they saw in the late 90s? I would argue that MLB misses the point of what makes the 90s home run craze successful. Home run races are special when a few individuals ascend like superhumans, while the rest of the players are still giving productive offensive baseball through high average and on-base percentage.

The 90s also counteracted this with the dominant pitching of a few legends like Smoltz, Maddux, Martinez, and Johnson. Overall, there was a little something for everybody and there was balance in all aspects of the game. Modern baseball has committed to the extremes and has given us high home runs and high strikeouts spread out throughout the whole league. Baseball gets boring when there are only two options, and no one stands out when everyone is the same. Even more philosophical, baseball is a reflection of America as a whole. So when baseball turns off fans by committing to two extremes with no middle ground, you have yourself an oddly accurate metaphor for American politics.

The ’90s Are Still Present in Baseball

Even uniform trends seem to call upon the 1990s for inspiration. At its core, City Connect jerseys are simply MLB’s second attempt at the Turn Ahead the Clock collection from 1998 and 1999. The concept is nearly identical: try to provide as many rams as possible with an unusual alternate uniform. The concepts are so similar that the Colorado Rockies even went with the same base concept for their uniform for both collections: display the shape of the mountain across the chest. So far, it seems like City Connect is being much better received than Turn Ahead the Clock.

The uniform trend does not stop there. While we don’t see a resurgence in vest uniforms (while at a point MLB had up to 14 teams with vests in their uniform lineup), we do see the New York Mets revive the black jersey that was so popular and iconic of the 1990s. The only other team that put effort to revive their 90s look was the Tampa Bay Rays, but only for the 20th anniversary season. The Mets, in contrast, look to make their black jersey a mainstay.

What does this all mean? It tells us that MLB does not know what its identity is, or what it would like it to be. They resort back to past popularity without understanding how today’s world calls for different strategies. MLB is lost in identity and lost in time.

main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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