Big League Threads

Baseball jerseys today are more comfortable than in years past. (via Cathy Taylor)

Baseball jerseys today are more comfortable than in years past. (via Cathy Taylor)

Dodgers super utility man Justin Turner needs a lot of gloves to play all the positions he’s capable of filling. But gloves aren’t what crowd his clubhouse stall. It’s all the clothes.

Most of it is team-issued gear. Like his teammates, Turner has several kinds of jackets, a few workout T-shirts and a couple of sweatshirts. The laundry list keeps going. He also has two jerseys, one for batting practice and one for the game. He has workout shorts and uniform bottoms. All of it is emblazoned with the Dodgers and MLB logos. Most of it is sold at a premium in the team store atop Dodger Stadium.

What does Turner think of all those threads? He doesn’t.

“It’s all pretty comfortable, I guess,” he shrugs. Then he changes out of one stretchy, moisture-wicking performance T-shirt and into another before heading to the batting cages.

That’s all the people at Majestic and Nike, the two primary outfitters of authentic MLB gear, could hope for. Uniforms and warm-up clothes are like umpires. They really aren’t meant to draw attention. When it happens, it’s a bad thing. Any Seinfeld fan knows that.

It’s taken a while for player apparel to reach the point where it’s so comfortable players don’t even notice. When they walk around in clubhouses several hours before games, most of them are dressed in the baggy team-issued shorts and stretchy, tissue-paper thin compression T-shirts Nike supplies every team with. With flat stitching and lots of little vents, the shirts and shorts feel like wearing nothing at all.

It’s laughable now, but cotton was once the performance layer in baseball. Cotton undershirts soaked up sweat like a sodden dish towel, but players needed something comfortable to safeguard them from rashes left by the thick, polyester jerseys they had to wear in the summer heat.

“No question the jerseys we have now are a lot nicer and much more breathable,” said Dodger bullpen coach Chuck Crim, who pitched for eight seasons with the Brewers, Angels and Cubs in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “I love the lightness of the jerseys now. How much different can we get from what we used to wear?”

Not much. Today’s jerseys are so comfortable you see Bryce Harper wearing nothing or very little underneath them. Paul Lukas of Uni Watch said Harper and his peers are simply benefiting from a larger trend in sports apparel.

The emphasis, he said, has changed from rugged and durable to performance, whether that means moisture-wicking or temperature control or lightweight.

“It all has to do with the development of synthetic fabrics and all sorts of sciences throughout apparel,” he said.

Cindy McNaull, global brand director for CORDURA® brand fabrics, agreed, adding that durability isn’t necessarily becoming less important. It’s just that everyone from pro athletes to regular joes like us expect more than that. Much more.

“In the old days one fiber did one thing,” said McNaull. “Now people are striving for things that have moisture management, wicking, durability, anti-odor properties and other functions. They want multifaceted capability.”

Oh, and whatever it is, it had better be comfortable.

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“We listen to customers and bring that feedback back to our R&D team to make sure we’re on point, and that’s what drives fiber and fabric construction,” said McNaull. “When someone says they want durability but also odor control and sun protection and other performance-based functions, we have have to go back to the drawing board and mix things in ways we never thought we would.”

CORDURA doesn’t produce the fabrics specifically used by Majestic and Nike. Its products include Lycra, Coolmax and Stainmaster. But the same rules apply to everyone.

Majestic’s game jerseys, for instance, are made of its branded Cool Base technology, which is essentially polyester moisture-wicking mesh.

“Then there’s the whole existence of batting practice jerseys, which have no reason to exist except it’s just another thing for fans to buy,” said Lukas. “Some of what you see floating around locker rooms is there just so fans will see a player wear it pre-game or in the dugout.”

The hope, of course, is that the motive to wear what the players wear drives fans to the team store and pay extra for the Therma Base hooded sweatshirts. Or the light-weight practice pullover, which may be the greatest sweatshirt ever. Or the short-sleeve training jacket, which may be the most ridiculous jacket ever.

“Basketball players have short-sleeve warmup tops they can snap out of,” said Lukas. “It’s not unique.”

At least basketball players are indoors.

“Certainly now players are catered to much more than a generation or two ago,” said Lukas. “You do want a player to have everything in his arsenal to be comfortable in every different weather condition or based on whatever superstition they may have. If a player really wants that item, it’s made for them.”

Usually, though, those requests apply to the uniform. They’ll ask for jerseys with longer tails so nothing comes untucked on a hard slide or dive in the field. Others want longer or shorter sleeves. Then there are players who want the pajama-style pants that go all the way down to the cleats. Lukas said Ryan Howard, for instance, employs velcro to keep his pant legs down at all times.

Players even request changes to their caps.

David Price comes to mind,” said Lukas. “He does not like the button on top of his cap. He calls it the ‘ouch button’ because if you tap someone on top of the head the underside of the button knocks on your skull and hurts.”

Caps, of course, are another part of the uniform Major League Baseball has really cashed in on. Not only do most teams have multiple game caps depending on when and where they’re playing, they also have specific caps for batting practice.

But here’s the thing. Despite what you may think of the designs, the latest 59Fifty Diamond Era BP cap feel better than game caps, which despite relatively recent fabric changes from wool to polyester still feel a lot like the old wool caps. The BP cap is lighter and cooler, which begs the question. Why don’t players just wear those all the time?

“There is definitely nothing that says we won’t someday see the Diamond Era Performance fabric as the official game cap fabric,” said Michael Raychel, senior design manager of all on-field product at New Era. “One thing to remember is baseball is a game of tradition with not only the players but also the fans. We believe we need to have our sights on the future, while respecting the heritage of the past.”

Raychel said coming up with the new on-field caps requires a three-tier process. He begins by creating some really out-there designs and fabrications to loosen up MLB officials and broaden their views on what is possible.

“Next I’ll do something more safe and traditional, like use current logos and colors in different ways than they’ve been used before,” Raychel explained. “Lastly, I like to do something in between the two extremes. A perfect example of this is the 2015 Stars and Stripes cap. It was very clean looking, yet different than anything that has ever been worn on-field before.”

Players have input, of course.

“We, with the help of MLB, will choose a couple of teams to partner with during the testing process,” said Raychel. “That is the most important thing when it comes to the players, does it perform the way they need it to, to be the best they can be?”

Players also give their two cents when New Era is toying with new silhouettes.

“Whether it is the traditional 59Fifty, low-crown 59Fifty, a knit or even a 39Thirty stretch fit, every player has an opinion, and we want to make sure that they are heard and that they are performing at the highest level,” he said.

With all these different kinds of baseball caps available to players and fans, Lukas tosses this little nugget into the fire.

“Why do players need to wear a cap?” he asked. “The original reason in the 1800s was that gentlemen were not seen outdoors with an uncovered head. Then the brim evolved more to keep the sun out of your eyes. Most games are at night now and you can wear sunglasses for day games. There is no reason. We just accept that’s the way it is.”

Look at softball players. They don’t always wear caps. It’s optional, and even then many players favor visors.

“It is arguable that the people who least need to wear baseball caps these days are baseball players,” said Lukas. “It’s a little weird that it’s a rule, but we accept it as a uniform component. I’m not arguing it shouldn’t be, but it’s interesting to think about.”

Don’t worry. Massive cap revenue makes this whole argument moot. In fact, you can apply that reason to the entire major league wardrobe. Everything could be simplified. One uniform would be fine. And maybe a jacket for those early season (and, if they’re lucky) late-October games. But that’s it.

In fact, in the future one garment may be enough in just about any weather condition. Fresh from a recent conference on new fabric innovations, McNaull said the buzz there was wearable technology via fabrics that can monitor outside conditions as well as the body and adapt accordingly. So a jersey could one day loosen up to be more airy and cool when it’s hot and tighten or thicken its weave to be warmer when it cools down.

“It knows what’s coming and has a great balance of features and some wearable technology built in for monitoring,” said McNaull. “It’s more seamless technology than what’s available now.”

Technology like this could have an even more profound impact on player health.

How about a starting pitcher who is overextending himself just to get that complete game? Data from his compression undershirt could alert the team trainer that his arm is under too much stress and head off all-too-common Tommy John surgery. Consider a hitter rehabbing a leg injury who is pushing to recover faster. Data from a pair of compression shorts could save him from a setback.

Could data from a wired-up hat help trainers and doctors overcome the challenges with managing concussions? Maybe. Athletes are already wearing sensors though, so it makes perfect sense that the sensors will eventually be integrated into the clothing itself.

McNaull has no idea how it will happen. No one does — yet. But that’s the buzz in the performance fabric and apparel industry, and she said the how will likely come from an industry completely unrelated to athletics. CORDURA, for instance, has already gotten great ideas from its work with the U.S. military.

“We’re always trying to increase the comfort factor for today’s soldiers,” she said. “Like athletes, they’re looking for things that are lighter weight. Soldiers may be in environments that are more extreme than a ballpark, but they deal with similar temperature shifts throughout the day. The point is we can take different technology invented for something else and put it in performance apparel.”

How do Turner and other major leaguers feel about all this? Meh. As long as a garment is comfortable and has the team logo on it, they’ll put it on. They know they’ll probably be changing into another piece of team-issued gear soon anyway.


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Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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DENNIS BEDARD
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DENNIS BEDARD

For me the mystery of uniforms is how do they get them so white. I use Clorox on my whites and it does not come close. I think MLB hired chemical engineers from NASA to come up with the type of formula necessary to make those uniforms whiter than fallen snow at 7 am on a Boston morning in January.

Kevin
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Kevin

I figure the unis are replaced often enough for that not to be an issue

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