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Shrinkflation and see-through pants: MLB’s uniform debacle is a sheer farce

bIn the 1990s there was an executive at the New York Yankees: the assistant Unpleasant the traveling secretary, if I remember correctly – who was a great believer in the power of the breathable uniform. But it’s unlikely even George Costanza would have done that cotton to baseball’s latest wardrobe change.

Ahead of the upcoming season, Major League Baseball announced plans to update the playing uniforms for all 30 clubs. The rollout has gone as well as the league’s other attempts to revive America’s boring old pastime in recent years. Plus, it’s almost too fitting that the poster boy for this issue is the game’s biggest draw.

When spring training kicked off last month, there was great anticipation to see Shohei Ohtani in an LA Dodgers uniform for the first time since the Japanese star scored a historic 10-year, $700 million contract from the club. But his official team portrait made it seem like he pried the two-way star from the road “cross town” Angels had come at the expense of the Dodgers’ clothing budget. “Why is Shohei Ohtani wearing see-through pants?” was the swift response from the Japanese press, news that only recently came to fruition when Ohtani announced his surprise wedding “a normal Japanese woman”. Action footage from spring training games was shown what else players risked showing off in the pants as they bent over or attempted more technical baseball moves. During the Tonight Show, host Jimmy Fallon said, “I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot more dingers this year.”

Los Angeles Dodgers designated hitter Shohei Ohtani, left, and pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto pose for a portrait during media day at Camelback Ranch. Both players’ jerseys can be seen tucked into their pants. Photo: Mark J Rebilas/USA Today Sports

Besides being too revealing, the jerseys also have smaller fonts for the numbering and lettering; call them knock-on effects of working with lighter material designed to offer 25% more stretch and dry 28% faster according to Nike, who designed the new unisex – which are still made of polyester. Did you know they made casual suits from that fabric?

All the new baseball uniforms currently airing are players’ frustrations. An unnamed Orioles player told the Baltimore Banner that his updated colorway felt like a “knockoff jersey from TJ Maxx”. The Kansas City Royals lobbied successfully keep their old threads. The San Diego Padres hope no one notices they pass off last year’s pants as this year’s pants. Yankees reliever Tommy Kahnle told the New York Post that his pants are not only see-through, but also “a little tighter than we’re used to.” That’s despite Nike saying it “scanned more than 300 MLB players to find the ideal fit.”

The sense of discomfort is so widespread across the league that players have filed a complaint with their union in hopes of delaying the rollout of the new uniform until changes can be made. Meanwhile, fans can’t help but view the misfits as proof of how much commissioner Rob Manfrend hates his sport. “It’s an ongoing dialogue,” said union head Tony Clark told reporters after meeting with Dodgers players about the new uniforms last week, adding that he hoped to resolve the issue before the end of spring training. “I would hate to be in a place where we’re still having conversations about some of the challenges we have in that area once the lights come on.” Yet MLB remains defensive about its beautiful rags. Denis Nolan, the league’s senior vice president of global consumer products, called them “of the very best level”.

Any time costume revisions happen in sports, the immediate reviews are bound to irritate. When Nike unveiled new college basketball uniform styles more than a decade ago, many sports fans couldn’t imagine the kids at Duke of Kentucky pairing their baggy shorts with form-fitting jersey tops. But it didn’t take long for the trend to continue and the actual basketball games to come back to the fore before anyone really noticed that the shorts had shrunk to a trimmer size. The tone is similarly harsh as an NBA team unfolds “city edition” colors, an NFL team “thinks pink” and both leagues attempt to explain these fashion rules as anything more than a blatant cash grab.

Still: the unraveling of Major League Baseball’s uniform feels like something else, just the latest example of it shrinkflation. For much of this century, MLB uniforms have been made by Majestic, a nearly 50-year-old company based in Pennsylvania’s textile corridor. But in 2017, the company was bought by Fanatics, an online sports retailer run by Michael Rubin – the Philly tech brother and former co-owner of the 76ers, now better known for taking the all-white party in Hampton cloak of Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs. Since Fanatics has been in the licensed sportswear space, they have developed a reputation among customers for selling poorly made goods at a significant premium.

Fanatics founder and CEO Michael Rubin, second from right, crushed it at his annual Hamptons white party in July. Photo: Michael Rubin

Last September, a Philadelphia Eagles fan recounted his experience paying $80 for a pair of Kelly green T-shirts with Jalen Hurts’ name and number misaligned. Another fan reported paying $110 for an Eagles windbreaker with the team logos completely removed. Just like millions more fans went out with similar complaints, Fanatics has paused the shipment of Eagles gear to conduct a quality control check. (“One wrong order or dissatisfied fan is too many,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “We take every complaint very seriously.”)

None of this has protected Fanatics from further accusations of scarcity pricing or price gouging or extra charges for jersey sponsor patches, bringing the total damage for a fully loaded official replica to $449.99 plus shipping (free, for a limited time) – a plan that makes the Human Fund resemble real charity. Even fanatics who halted the rollout of MLB uniforms during the pandemic to manufacture masks and gowns for first responders on the Covid-19 frontlines don’t appear to have bought any lasting goodwill.

The company’s poor reviews are neatly summarized in a social media feed called Fanatics are stupid. The pinned post is a parody of a TV ad for the NHL’s online store — for which Fanatics, it jokes, has “the largest selection in the worst selection of ventilator equipment anywhere. Every NHL team and seven players you’ve heard of, all printed on the cheapest material found in China. So it turns out that Wall Street is touting Fanatics, worth about $31 billion“as the Amazon of sports”, even as the company lays off hundreds of employees and is named to the NFL in a antitrust case.

On the face of it, breathable uniforms are an excellent idea: players are cooler, more comfortable, happier – they’re going to play better. But if baseball’s chosen supplier continues to struggle to get its act together, the league shouldn’t be surprised if America’s pastime falls even further out of fashion.