Every year for Christmas, my dad buys his mother a pair of socks. It’s a tradition borne out of a family for whom money was tight and socks and underwear were the Christmas presents; it is an acknowledgment of the fact that sons (or at least my grandma’s sons) are terrible shoppers, and could never choose a substantial piece of clothing that she would actually want.
When I was younger, these socks were still functional—usually thick and woolly, then polar fleece midst those heady, mid 90’s Eddie Bauer days. But in recent years, the socks have become patently ridiculous, each Christmas my dad trying to one-up himself, the rest of us gathered around to see what he’s dug up now. Once it was rainbow striped toe socks; another time it was Superman with little red capes on the backs of the calves. And this past Christmas, they were Mets socks—knee-highs with half a baseball on the bridge of each foot, so if the wearer stands with their feet pressed together, they can make the whole Mets logo.
The socks were hit with my grandma, hardcore Mets fan that she is, but looking at them now, it seems the Mets have since managed to raise the stakes for next Christmas—my grandma’s socks are not quite as silly as the new gear the players are actually wearing.
Stance, the MLB’s official sock provider, has been designing new socks for all the teams since last season. A variety of styles and logos are in play, ranging from the thick stripes of the Pirates’ and Cardinals’ new socks, to very small, subtle logos for the Cubs, and throwback styles forthcoming for the White Sox and Dodgers. For their part, the Mets have decided to include everything on their socks—blue socks with two orange stripes at the top, a large Mets logo on the back of the calf, and the New York City skyline stretching around the leg. The new socks were originally spotted on Yoenis Cespedes in mid-April during a soft roll out, but it looks like the new socks since have become part of the uniform, at least for away games. The socks are really busy, and when it comes to pairing them with the pinstripes there is, as the outfielder Curtis Granderson put it, “just a little too much going on.”
The Astros have two new designs in play, one of which also features a skyline and the label “H-town” across the back,” but the Houston players are said to have been very involved in the design process, coming up with the concepts and giving detailed input on the placement of certain elements.
This doesn’t seem to have been the case for the Mets. Though Cespedes was excited about the change, saying the new socks “are just prettier than the other blue ones,” Granderson, noted for wearing his socks high in homage to Negro League players, was more critical. “It just would have been very interesting to see the process beforehand and had a little bit of input going into it since we’re going to be the ones wearing it,” he told the Associated Press last week. Maybe it’s the socks that are throwing off his game, and if that’s the case, it’s more bad news for the Mets, since the redesign will take upwards of 16 months.
Overall, though, MLB’s move to make more interesting footwear strikes a certain balance between preserving baseball history and the ongoing schemes by the organization to appeal to younger fans. Rule change ideas, including the introduction of no-pitch intentional walks and pitch clocks, or starting extra innings with a runner on second, seem novel (mostly in a bad way) to longtime fans. However, these kinds of changes are also bound to fail with the younger generation, particularly those who didn’t grow up playing the game themselves; no one is going to suddenly start caring about a sport just because the game time is 10 minutes shorter.
Rather, I think the best way to draw these new viewers in is to make baseball cool again—New York has seen firsthand what the hand of, say, Jay-Z, can do for the popularity of even a hopelessly bad team by giving them a style makeover (let’s go Nets!). Athletic footwear is a $17 billion industry in the US as of last year, with the majority of the market devoted to basketball sneakers and the stars who design and wear them. But Joey Votto’s shiny Nikes made waves in the sneakerhead scene, including devoted postings on the Kicks on Fire blog. So if the way to the heart of youth culture—particularly the urban set (a long-declining fanbase in baseball)—is through its feet, socks and shoes may be the best move yet for an organization that is slow to change and prone to changing for the worse.
At the same time, uniform changes also bring something for the diehards to appreciate. Baseball has a long tradition of attention to hosiery, and even a tradition of using said socks to boost attendance. The Cincinnati Reds, (then the Red Stockings), first exposed their socks in 1864 in an effort to “create a sensation.”
America’s favorite pastime might do well to scrap the silly rule changes and take a page out of their own history book—a focus on footwear could very well once again be a key to keeping the game in the zeitgeist. Though next time around, maybe the Mets should get Granderson in on the design team.
Photo credit: Tim Heitman – USA Today Sports