Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Jersey Bedeviled

For the longest time, I couldn't see the purpose in wearing a team jersey to a ballgame. Do I need to display my allegiance? I already bought the overpriced ticket to get in, and I plan on getting at least two beers at the game, too. That's like the down-payment on a hatchback. Displaying fealty by paying more money to a multi-million dollar empire seemed like a double-toll. Hell, between tickets and taxpayer-funded stadiums, in theory the team ought to run out there with pictures of random fans and the shape of the county on their jerseys.

To a certain extent, I still don't get the jersey impulse, in part because of some of the people wearing them. If you can rest a pitcher of beer on your stomach while standing, there is no message any sport's jersey broadcasts louder than the one your gut does. Football jerseys, as a rule, just seem odd. Baseball's a sport almost anyone can play, but it's hard to picture most people in a football jersey having played the game past 8th grade.

Baseball jerseys just work better. This is a sport where Prince Fielder is a superstar, despite looking like the product of the Michelin Man and an obese anthropomorphic brownie making babies. This is a sport where the 1986 World Champion Mets smoked cigarettes in the dugout. Almost all baseball jerseys look good on women, because they're basically like men's dress shirts; and all women are sexy wearing a man's dress shirt and nothing else.

Clearly, whatever my problems with sports jerseys, I got over them. Or maybe I just got used to them. Maybe the impulse to fit in wore down my snarky asides over dozens of trips to the ballpark. Sure, I often ask myself, "Why are people smaller than I am wearing XXXL jerseys," but now I usually follow that up with, "And where did they get them?"

The more I looked into it, the more I discovered how much of a problem getting team jerseys can be, both in terms of cost and presentation. My buddy Glenn illustrated this perfectly the other weekend when we headed out to the baseball mausoleum to catch the Rays hosting the White Sox. He wanted to wear a Rays jersey to the game and went shopping at the last minute. Balking at $150 for authentic team jerseys, he went to Wal-Mart and got a Rays jersey for $30. It was perfect — well, apart from the fact that the team's name was in cursive and apparently in the sort of electric pastels usually reserved for the side of a waverunner. At the sports bar, later, I think he got a high-five from a similarly economically minded fan.

Since real-life options for getting a jersey seemed to veer exclusively between either looking like an African villager in a Buffalo Bills 1992 Super Bowl Champs! t-shirt or simply winding up having the buying power of one, I opted to check out the internet and see if it could be of any help. Several fruitless searches, some online posting and one snide "Let Me Google That For You" link later (h/t, AJ), the issue comes down to authentic jerseys v. replica jerseys. And here's where it gets a little irritating.
Authentic Jerseys
These are the 100% real-deal jerseys with embroidered logos, numbering and, as necessary, lettering. The shoulders and elbow areas have reinforced stitching for a longer lifetime of use. Without commemorative autographs, bells or whistles, this one shirt will cost you $150.

Replica Jerseys
Jersey snobs can tell right away that these aren't the 100% real-deal, because the lettering and logos on your jersey will be flush with the rest of the jersey's fabric, as they'll be screened on. Also, the colors may not match 100%, and small subtle changes in the annual MLB jersey, such as commemorative patches, will often not be reflected in the replica jerseys. On the other hand, these are usually only $75.
For me, I guess it's no contest. If you're going to buy something as silly as a special shirt for drinking beer while watching baseball, spending $65 more than a three-pack of Hanes t-shirts is already a stupid waste of money. If you're going to waste money for such a dumb purpose, might as well be legitimate about it. Otherwise it's like joining a Poison cover band and getting all the right makeup and wigs and learning all the moves to look just like C.C. Deville but bailing on buying an authentic Flying V because it's, like, too much money, man. I mean, come on, getting that one instrument right is pretty much the only essential part of the enterprise. Similarly, if you're going to leave the house in a huge-ass shirt that makes you look like a boy, only so you can authentically park your ass for three hours while spitting sunflower seeds out onto your pants, get the equipment right.

So, okay, the authentic stuff it is, then. But that only answers one question. There are actually much tougher ones in line behind it.

Who Do I Pick?
For most people, this question probably has a much simpler answer. For one thing, most people who buy a jersey will probably buy another one within a year or so, allowing them to correct for errors and have a small wardrobe of team stuff. So, for them, the answer is something like, "Anyone who'll still be on the team in a couple years." See, the default troubles for most people with an expensive jersey are, in order of probability:
1. It gets mustard, ketchup or nacho cheese on it.
2. The guy whose name is on it starts sucking immediately.
3. The guy whose name is on it demands a trade, and everyone remembers him as a frontrunning asshole who didn't want to stick with a team and build toward the future.
4. The guy whose name is on it files for free agency and then leaves your team for more money elsewhere, and everyone remembers him as a money-grubbing asshole.
And here's where things get tricky. (Aside from having to use lots of napkins, just to be careful.) Picking a player suddenly becomes a lot more difficult when you don't want to sink $150 into a shirt only to have it be hopelessly dated or embarrassing in just a year or so and when you don't plan to buy another next year and the year after. If you're going to buy one and wear it out, it needs to count.

You don't want to pick a hitter in his early thirties who just started crushing the longball, because this year is probably an aberration; even if it isn't, age is bringing him crashing back down to earth in a year or so. (This is why anyone who bought a David Ortiz jersey last year is a chump: fat, dead-pull sluggers tend to go into their decline with all the gradualism of the splashdown log ride at an amusement park, and he was definitely slowing down a bit last year.) Picking relief pitchers is always chancy, too. Rarely will any one be so lights-out that a team won't trade him, and they're just as liable to be next year's goat as this year's hero. And while starting pitchers' jerseys can be nice, it sucks to have a shirt that's only applicable to one out of every four-to-five home starts, if that. If you can only get out to see games a few times per year and want to support a favorite player, it's nice if he's actually playing.

So what you want is a young position player who doesn't suck, who isn't likely to leave town any time soon and thus will probably always be associated with your team. For me, then, the ideal jersey candidate is really easy to pick: Evan Longoria.

One, he plays for the Rays, so it's my local team. Two, he's ridiculously good and probably only going to get better. And even if he doesn't get better, did I mention that he's already ridiculously good? Three, the Rays presciently (and luckily) signed him to a long-term contract. He's under contract for the next five years (all arbitration years), with options for three more after that. So basically even if the Rays never draw enough money to give him the huge payday he'd want at the end of those years, he would have spent the vast bulk of his prime playing for the organization. In the public consciousness, he's always a Ray. So even if he signs for two years with the Mets, someone busting you for still having a Longoria jersey would be like someone in 1972-3 busting on you for having a Willie Mays Giants jersey. Yeah, sure, he technically played for the Mets for those two years. On the other hand, who gives a shit?

Here's my Longo problem though: I'm worried he's a little too white for me. Don't get me wrong, I love Longoria; I think he's amazing. But I remember listening to local talk radio all last season as drawlin' white caller after drawlin' white caller said the same thing, "Finally, we have a star of our own." Now, sure, maybe some of them meant a breakout Rays star, but Carlos Peña (hispanic) crushed 46 home runs the year before! True, he'd played for the Tigers and Red Sox, amongst others, but he'd been a bust with all of them. He became a star with the Rays. Better example: Carl Crawford (black) had been a star for five years with the Rays and was also homegrown talent.

To me, there seemed to be a real racial implication to a lot of those comments about "us" finally getting Longo. (A lot of callers also added that it was important to have another star to replace "Rocco," meaning Rocco Baldelli, another white player and one who suffered long stints on the disabled list due to a peculiar mitochondrial condition. Baldelli now plays for the Red Sox.) And it certainly didn't help to see the white hordes at the Trop all clad in Longo jerseys or Andy Sonnanstine jerseys. Supposedly Matt Garza (Californian, of hispanic descent) has the second-best selling Rays jersey, but I'm not really ready to credit that to racial enlightenment on behalf of white Rays fans. There are, after all, a lot of hispanic residents in the Tampa Bay area, and at the ballpark they account for most of the Garza jerseys I see. Then again, this could all be confirmation bias on my part.

Then again, too, my problems extend past my discomfort with other people's racial issues and past individual player issues and into general team issues. Namely, I'm a sports bigamist.

Sports Bigamy?
Some people will tell you that sports bigamy is unforgivable, but mostly I think they're full of shit. I notice this attitude is held most deeply by people who grew up solely in one area, who grew up in the internet and cable-sports-package age and could follow teams anywhere, or who moved but also enjoyed continual dominance from their team. They're either people who never had to experience abandoning a team for practical, geographic and programming reasons, or they had selfish and vain reasons to cling to a team they couldn't see anymore.

Personally, I think I come by my condition honestly. I've probably explained it before, and doubtless it'll come up again, so I'll spare you the full story. Suffice to say that I grew up on the west coast rooting for the Giants, then moved out here in the pre-ESPN-saturation, pre-MLB cable packages, pre-internet era. Back then, if you didn't see your former team on a local sports channel, you basically didn't see them at all. Worse, my state didn't have its own teams. In the absence of my own childhood teams or local teams to adopt, I picked the Red Sox out of a romantic love of futility, Boston's history and New England in general. Then, surprisingly, about six years later, a local franchise cropped up where I was living.

I'm nothing if not neighborly, so I rooted for the (then) Devil Rays to be accommodating and because, really, what harm could it do? They dwelt perpetually in the cellar and showed no signs of leaving. Besides, I like going to ballparks, even if the inside of them is lit about as invitingly as a cinderblock access hallway inside a mall. Without really noticing it, I ended up going to about a dozen games per year and watching a ton more on TV, even in the dire years, followed them in the paper, knew their lineups and bullpens as well as the Sox's. Then came last year, and success, and the ALCS, and suddenly my sports bigamy wasn't so innocuous to people who like to argue about these things.

Consequently I find myself in a bit of a bind. Even though the Sox are still my favorite team, I won't lie and pretend I don't like and know the Rays very well. Just as important: I'm only going to go to Rays games in person. So I could wear a jersey from my favorite team, but I'll get some shit for it at the ballpark. I could get a Longo jersey, but, as I said, the unsettling dog-whistle white buzzwords about him make me want to shy away from taking part. On the other hand, it's not like there's any shortage of racist Bostonians, either. I could sidestep the issue by getting a Peña jersey — my second favorite Rays player — but he's also 31 and may start sliding into decline in the next year, making the jersey sort of an embarrassing relic. Or a Crawford jersey, but I think his contract is up soon. And there's no sidestepping whiteness with Boston, since the only regular non-white starter for them is Ortiz, who, as said, is already in his decline. And again, going with pitchers sucks, because there's only a 1/4 or 1/5 chance they'll be playing any time you go to the ballpark.

So what to do?

I thought of two elegant solutions to all these dilemmas. The first is to get an authentic Red Sox jersey and either put a #24 or a #45 on the back, for Manny or Pedro. Manny Ramirez is pretty much the most entertaining baseball player I've ever seen, and I don't think I'll ever see someone pitch with as much pure mastery as Pedro Martinez ever again. I could write 1,000 words explaining how ridiculously awesome watching both of them was. Both would afford me ample opportunities for fun arguments, e.g. "Manny is the greatest right-handed hitter of all time," and "Pedro put up the historically best numbers for a pitcher over a seven-year span." And both had such great and iconic seasons with the Sox that wearing their jerseys wouldn't be ill-fitting even despite their moving on to other teams. On the other hand, that solution does seem a little gauche. I'm not sure how, but it does.

The other solution that occurred to me is to say screw it, split the difference and get a #25 Barry Bonds Giants jersey. One, it hearkens back to my childhood team. Two, Barry Bonds is fucking amazing. I love Barry Bonds; I don't even care what anyone thinks about that. Three, it'll piss everyone off, so there's no point in trying to justify it at all, ever, to anyone. Nobody'll listen, and nobody'll care. Rays fans won't be pissed that I'm wearing the colors of a division rival, and Red Sox fans won't be pissed that I'm wearing a Rays jersey. Everyone will just be pissed because it's Barry. In a way, I think that would be a proud testament to the man himself and also something he — and I — would find perversely sort of satisfying.

Of course, I'll probably just take the coward's way out and hem and haw over it until it's the offseason. By that time, birthdays and Christmas will be looming, meaning I can't throw away money on crap like this, when I need to give gifts to other people. Also, by then it'll be time for others to give gifts to me, and there's a chance that some well-meaning loved one will simply resolve this whole issue without my involvement.