This past weekend, Major League Baseball and its Players Association held their inaugural “Players Weekend,” a three-day stretch that allowed the game’s players to break the usual limitations on gear and accessories and deck themselves out in whatever manner their hearts desired.
Instead of sticking with the traditional last name on the back of a jersey, players had the opportunity to choose their own title, similar to when the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets debuted the “nickname jerseys” back in 2014. Aaron Judge’s “All Rise,” Kyle Seager’s “Corey’s Brother” and Kenley Jansen’s “Kenleyfornia” were some of the more creative options that were debuted at Players Weekend.
For a game that has been mired in traditionalism for the entirety of its existence, the decision to let players have more of a say regarding what they can wear was a welcome one. Players seemed to love the league’s decision to open up the Pandora’s Box of customization options, which gave them much-needed free range to find individuality in a team sport where the individual can be lost in a sea of monotony.
The personalization of appearances didn’t end with the names on the back, as the rules of Players Weekend also allowed for players to roll out more customized versions of accessories and gear that would be considered taboo any other time of the season, if not outright illegal. From bats to socks to cleats, players ran with the idea and unleashed their creative side.
While the weekend was fun while it lasted, it simultaneously served as a reminder of how limited players can be when it comes to finding a distinctive ways to let their personalities shine.
Major League Baseball is both a profession and a sport — hence the title of a professional sport. While the latter of those two titles alludes to a child’s game which is meant to be fun, the former is more often embraced, so much so that that baseball, to a degree, embraces a suit-and-tie code of ethics when it comes to appearances.
Players do have some leniency to customize their appearances, but the spectrum is so minimal that only the most extravagant of the bunch find a way to stick out, and even those ballplayers blend into the crowd. When players don’t comply, the league hits them where it hurts most: the wallet.
Back in 2010, at the peak of his stardom, Brian Wilson trotted out to pitch an inning with a particularly vibrant pair of cleats. Aside from a little bit of white coming from the Nike swoosh and the midsole of his cleats, Wilson donned a pair of all-orange Nike Air Max Diamond Elites.
Those cleats weren’t just fashion statements — they served as a representation of Wilson’s exuberant personality. Wilson was a rock star in every sense of the word, and the cleats exemplified that attitude, the unabashed willingness to stick out and defy convention. Wilson described the shoes as “awesome.” Major League Baseball begged to differ, fining Wilson a rack and forcing the illustrious Nikes into an early retirement.
The distaste of styles that do not fall under the blanket of traditionalism unnecessarily suppresses players, especially in an age where the league has mightily struggled to endorse its players. Fans overwhelmingly approved of the customized gear from Players Weekend, and Major League Baseball had a gem of untapped marketability potential fall in its lap; if the league continues to waddle in a world where it thinks high socks make a player stand out, it’s locking itself in the past and throwing away the key.
Fans don’t just remember a batter’s stance and a pitcher’s form, but the style and originality they brought onto the field. No more is this more apparent than with Tito Fuentes, whose playing career spanned from the mid-’60s to the late-’70s, a period when individuality was suppressed even more than it is today. The light-hitting, Cuban-born ballplayer wasn’t a Hall-of-Fame talent by any means, but Fuentes brought along a flair that few players dared attempt.
The swagger Fuentes brought to the field was unlike that of any other, from the way he would flip his bat before stepping into the batter’s box to his tendency to add some style to the most mundane of plays, but he made what I believe is the single greatest fashion statement in baseball history.
Fuentes openly defied the long-standing style guide of Major League Baseball by wearing a headband on top of his cap and, in some instances, his helmet. Fuentes was considered a “hot dog,” a player who has a tendency to show off, and instead of attempting to shed the title, Fuentes embraced his reputation. What better way to do that than with a headband, the ultimate signal of both the fun that comes with playing the children’s game and shameless disregard for what others consider proper.
Players Weekend was a good starting point for Major League Baseball and the Players Association, but players should be given more freedom to express themselves the entire season rather than a small batch of ball games. It’s fun for the players and, by extension, it’s fun for the fans. A slew of new customization options isn’t a catch-all solution when it comes to the rejuvenation of baseball among the younger generation, but it’s a starting point from which baseball should continue to build.