Uniforms in Retrograde

The Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles have each announced that they will revert to previously employed uniform logos. The Blue Jays will go with a slightly modified version of the bird head silhouette they sported from 1977 – 1996, a design that for me is indelibly linked to Joe Carter’s 1993 home run. The Orioles, on the other hand, return to the cartoon version of their titular bird, which I and I’m guessing many other would quickly connect to Earl Weaver and his successes in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Those changes, together with the new look of the Miami Marlins, have brought the aesthetics of baseball uniforms to the front of the hot stove conversation.

The first trend that comes to mind, obviously, are the reversions to old logo and uniform designs by Toronto and Baltimore. These choices reflect a broad trend toward designs of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, spurred, on one level, by the Internet and all of its brilliant highways and bi-ways. One of the most common currencies online today is any reference to old and nostalgic media products–from TV shows and movies, to toys and fashion. Functioning much the way such references do in live conversation, allusions to a shared childhood or past experience create a quick bond between strangers, and tap into a collective sense of childhood or adolescent or at least past sense of well-being, ie. nostalgia. There is no greater compendium of nostalgia than baseball, and the Internet has allowed us–P&P, with our 1990s First Basemen Week and our tumblr are right in the thick of it, after all–to share the love with breathtaking speed and efficiency.

Simon Reynolds in his book Retromania describes a fixation on retro matters as slowing down time itself. Describing the 2000s: “The sensation of moving forward grew fainter as the decade unfurled. Time itself seemed to become sluggish….” One factor he cites is the wide availability of content from every era. iPods act as oldies stations, according to Reynolds. Pop culture struggles to move forward with its eyes cast continually backward at “our own immediate past.” Eerily, Reynolds asks, “what happens when we run out of past?” The answer seems to be: we become a culture of snakes eating their own tales, a culture so self-referential that it stagnates into a narcissistic morass. Maybe we’re already there. Have you seen Glee?

Clearly, in the case of the Blue Jays at least, team management catered to the desires of their fans. A series of terrible logos sealed their fate, and public distaste for the steel-blue logos featuring highly emotional birds was rampant. Emma Yardley commented, via Infield Fly, that “The modern uniforms look, well, cheesy. While I do actually prefer the black, navy and slate grey (the classic uniforms should lose the red in my opinion), the lettering font is dated and no style-conscious person would ever put that on their body. It makes me ask, why did they change it in the first place?” I have yet to find anyone of a disparate opinion.

Something needed to be done, and twice the Blue Jays created new designs (let’s not forget the short-lived juiced Jay of 2003) that flopped hard. What else but to throw the grounded pick-up truck into reverse? Lots of baseball conversations revolve around the idea of risk, and risk aversion. The Blue Jays have succumbed to aesthetic risk aversion. They are done crafting new ideas, new design, and it’s back to the visual identity that taps into the Blue Jays fan’s pleasure sensors. A team of 25 Joe Carter’s will trot out onto the field in 2012.

As for the Orioles, I admit to having zero awareness of Baltimore or the nation’s call for a change to what I considered the classy design of the Orioles logo and jersey. ‘Duk of Big League Stew, however, hails the return of the cartoon bird, going so far as to call it “triumphant.” He goes on, however, to keenly highlight the risk and reward dynamic of the baseball uniform: “But given the choice between the O’s bowing to a fan-requested nostalgia trip and the San Diego Padres ignoring the wishes of their fans, it’s an easy decision every time.” The Padres’ resistance of the retro wave washing over the clubs whose logos aren’t timeless enough to keep has led to a general backlash. That, in my opinion, has more to do with the specific choices–ie. the uniforms are non-descript and repulsive at the same time–than simply the shock of creating something new.

In Baltimore, as many commenters have noted, the switch to an old design, though charming, means little as long as they field such a shabby team. Such a notion denies the importance of aesthetics, putting visual design several levels behind performance in baseball’s aesthetic hierarchy. This being Pitchers & Poets, I’m not ready to accept that hierarchy. I see baseball culture more as a galaxy, filled with planets of varying sizes and gravitational pulls and orbits. One planet is performance, another a team’s logo, yet more for architecture, history, radio broadcasters, etc. etc.

In Miami, of course, nostalgic relics are more elusive. Marlin World Series victories fit into what I’d put under the “recent” umbrella, unlike the Orioles’ generations ago dominance and the Blue Jays generation-ago run, and besides, during their heyday the Marlins had the same uniforms and logos that they do now. What element of visual culture could they bring back, besides a Gary Sheffield bobblehead doll? With a mostly shifting roster lacking sufficient bulletproof stars to bind the generations–Hanley Ramirez has come close, but he was absent for the World Series wins that have thus far defined the team. Josh Beckett would have done the job had he stuck around–and with poor fan support and a dire need for new energy with a new stadium, the Miami Marlins are a fine petry dish for design innovation, and they have jumped off of the yacht into strange waters. Orange, yellow, and blue waters.

One could argue that the audacious neon of the new design recalls the 1990s and its hypercolor shirts fluorescent kidswear and Zubaz pants. The eyeless Marlin would not look out of place on an OC Surfwear t-shirt. But also there’s the culture of Miami itself, the pastel brilliance of art deco architecture and Caribbean culture. The logo, to my mind, smartly walks the line, without committing itself to one or another vision of itself. An art deco hotel’s facade, the sun setting on the water, a Daytona surf shop: the design is complex enough to compel the viewer/consumer to dream a little.

The questions is: do these designs stop time? Are they inhibiting some more crucial, life-affirming advance into the future? Yeah, probably. Or maybe not. What am I, some kind of genius?

Each design has a relationship with time, however. Aesthetically, the Orioles and the Blue Jays are telling their fans, with their designs: think about this particular time period in the past, when this player and that player played, and how we should be like them. The Marlins, on the other hand, aren’t telling. They are requesting the favor of viewership and trust, and a future that features those favors. Like any situation requiring trust, there will be resistance. And maybe not all that much resistance. This review of the new uniforms by Ted Hill at Fishstripes is a reasoned consideration, and he even calls for a more bold use of the new color scheme.

(A fascinating aside would be a consideration of the remarkable amount of influence baseball fans have had over changes in uniform. Maybe it’s the market making the choices, and drops in sales preceded the Orioles and Jays changes, but it certainly feels like public sentiment is at an all-time aesthetic high. Then again, the Padres went their own way.)

Like a work of art, a baseball uniform is something that you’ve got to live with before rendering any final judgment. Time and experience ferment or sour the mix. Speedy judgements lack the richness of experience. In that sense, the Orioles and Blue Jays reversions deny fans the opportunity to learn about something new, or to mine a new aesthetic experience. To paraphrase Donny Rumsfeld, the silhouetted blue jay and the cartoon Oriole are known knowns.

6 Responses to “Uniforms in Retrograde”

  • in milwaukee over the past 3 or 4 seasons, players raised a shaeffer beer stink about being comparred to 1982. the front office billed 2007 as the 25th anniversary year. and see, they won the wild card in 2008. in a baseball world of metrics, it reaks like middle age superstition, but front offices are separate from on field play.
    continuity is an effective marketing option for franchises. retro uniforms do just that in my opinion. there is no reliving the glory. there is remembering.
    as scripted as ricky romero and brett lawrie sounded, there was some sense of blue jays 1977-2012 and this is a damn good thing in my opinion.
    i don’t think people today are any more retro than any other decade. but the internet offers much more access and as you said, social networks link people more frequently than happenstance encounters and conversations at bars, cafes.

  • It’s certainly true that the work of the PR departments is separate from on-the-field play, but I agree that the players and the vibe of the team must come into play as inspiration for the overseers. With the Jays, it makes sense, given their strong fans and player potential. In Baltimore, it feels more like a bid to energize a flagging fan base.

    Agreed completely that we’ve always been a nostalgic species, and that wistfulness just moves a little faster these days.

  • maybe memory eludes me, but didn’t the marlins wear strictly turqoise blue uniforms in 1997 and then blend in more black over the years? either way, as you pointed out, the new look is heading into “strange waters.”
    it’ll take some time for fans to adjust like an actor switching from comedy to crime, but i like the night life bright carribean colors with black backdrop on the alternative.
    where in the world do the marlins get their money? when watching them play on tv at home, it looks like the attendance total could be counted on human hands.

  • Nice analysis Ted. I really like your account of the forward and backward-looking-ness of various franchises. It strikes me as unsurprising that the Marlins are pointedly not going with a nostalgic feel, precisely because they’ve never been a franchise that stands on tradition. In a certain sense, they’ve been the quintessential “new business” of baseball team since their inception. Pay as little as possible, have no loyalty to players, win when you have a chance… Tradition isn’t really their thing. And, well, it’s hard to say it hasn’t worked for them.

  • Are we saying that the Marlins are the TomorrowLand of baseball? ‘Cause I think I’ve definitely ridden that new logo at either Disney Land or Epcot.

  • Now that you mention it, Bryan, there is a certain “waitress at a Disney World restaurant” vibe to the Marlins new ones.

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