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Major League Baseball is taking a stand against cleats and arm sleeves

This is a colossal mistake for a league obsessed with attracting younger fans

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League Championship Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Chicago Cubs - Game Four
Willson Contreras hits a home run last October wearing his signature arm sleeve
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Last Friday was Willson Contreras bobblehead day. I know I’m biased, but it’s probably the best bobblehead ever. They got his face uncannily close to reality, down the a bit of stubble on the side. It has a removable catcher’s mask. Oh, and one more thing, it’s wearing his signature Venezuelan flag arm sleeve.

Willson Contreras bobblehead
Sara Sanchez

You know the arm sleeve. It’s the same one that the Best Fans in Baseball™ were up in arms about last season when Willson kissed his biceps after a home run.

I won’t revisit that whole incident and you can read more about it here. But it’s worth noting that it turned out to be Cardinals’ fans overreacting to Willson paying homage to Venezuela coupled with a lot of concern that he might just be having too much fun playing baseball.

Well, earlier this week that arm sleeve was gone. Because it turns out Major League Baseball also has a lot of concerns about self-expression and fun. The Sun-Times has the story:

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras used to wear an arm sleeve with the Venezuelan flag on it. Who was that bothering? But he stopped wearing it under threat of a fine.

This is the same crackdown that resulted in a letter to Ben Zobrist threatening fines if he continued to wear black cleats at Wrigley Field:

Ashley MacLennan had an excellent writeup of that incident here over the weekend. I’ll repost this for emphasis:

His statement is as polite and Ben Zobrist-like as one might imagine, but when a player like Zobrist is calling out your bizarre and archaic policies, maybe it’s time for the MLB to adjust their thinking on this matter.

Because, quite honestly, they have more pressing matters to think about than whether or not a cleat is at least 51% blue.

Apparently, MLB disagrees that they have more important things to worry about, and frankly that’s unfortunate. This is a counterproductive fight for MLB. As I looked at the context behind this fight, coupled with players reactions, it also looks like a fight they will almost certainly lose.

What’s all the fuss about?

This offseason saw tensions rise between owners, players and the league as free agents struggled to be signed. I’m not going to rehash all of this here, but you can read up on possible causes ranging from concerns about: tanking teams, collusion, and the collective bargaining agreement.

The bottom line: there is trouble in paradise. In light of some serious problems with the Major League Baseball Player’s Association on the horizon, you might think that MLB would pick their fights wisely. Apparently, MLB had other plans. This is the statement they issued about their new found orthodoxy regarding cleats and (apparently) arm sleeves:

We have shoe regulations that were negotiated with the union in the last round of bargaining. If players have complaints about the regulations, they should contact their union which negotiated them. We have informed the union that we are prepared to negotiate rules providing players with more flexibility, and that issue is currently being discussed as part of a larger discussion about apparel and equipment.

The MLBPA countered with a statement suggesting that this new enforcement regime is an attempt to elicit concessions from players:

I highly encourage you to read the whole USA Today article, because it seems like Zobrist’s protest of this rule is garnering a lot of player support. First up, Kevin Kiermaier’s statement:

“A guy like Ben Zobrist, who means good in every intention, in all facets of life, if he’s saying something like that,” said Kiermaier, a former teammate of Zobrist’s with the Rays, “well, he wasn’t trying to cause a distraction. Now, it is a distraction, because they’re trying to fine us or whatnot.

”I don’t agree with it. No one in this room agrees with it. If they’re trying to punish us and fine us for it, so be it.”

Additionally, Bleacher Nation reports that Kyle Schwarber and Steve Cishek both joined Zobrist and donned black cleats of their own during Monday’s game:

On Saturday (sic), pink cleats (for Mother’s Day) briefly pushed the story off our radar, but it came back in a flash yesterday, when Ben Zobrist (and others including Kyle Schwarber and Steve Cishek) took the field wearing their own all-black cleats.

Does a uniform rule exist? Yes. Is the last week evidence of more stringent enforcement of that rule new? Also yes. Is this new enforcement of that rule worth a player revolt over their right to reasonable self-expression? I’m going to go with no.

That reasonableness is front and center in Sergio Romo’s objection below:

“Shoes are personality,” said Rays reliever Sergio Romo, motioning toward closer Jesus Colome and his baby blue cleats. “They’re a way for us to show our style, personality, things that we like.

”I want to conform, I want to follow the rules and do what’s right. I’d also like to express myself, too, within reason.”

This is a particularly bizarre hill to die on for MLB. Major League Baseball has spent a lot of time, money and effort in the last few years trying to shave seconds off of innings in order to entice a younger demographic to the game. Regardless of what you think about pace of play, celebrating players is at least as important to bringing in younger fans.

In fact, last April, Jayson Stark identified baseball’s inability to market its stars as a key problem for the game when he asked:

Can a game with no face really call itself the national pastime?

We raise this question because, as a new baseball season begins this week, there is no answer to the once-simple question: Who is the Face of Baseball?

Stark got a partial answer to that question from sports agent Arn Tellem who notes:

“Baseball is at a point now where they have to reach the youth of America,” he says. “And clearly, [promoting] the game is important. But it’s about using stars and developing stars and helping them become bigger names, as a way of reaching the youth. And baseball has to see that convincing [those stars] and having them participate will serve the game.”

A lesson from the NBA

You know who excels at developing and promoting stars? The NBA. As luck would have it, last month the consulting firm Strategy+ published an enlightening interview with NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver. The whole thing is worth a read, but this really jumped out at me and seems particularly relevant to the war on cleats (emphasis mine):

SILVER: In this league we recognize that the players are the stars, and we treat them as our partners. The fact that the league has their backs when they put themselves out there doesn’t necessarily mean we agree with everything they say. But we want them to know that political speech is protected in this league.

Twenty-five percent of our league is made up of players born outside the United States and who often come from countries where free speech is not permitted. It’s especially important that those players understand that when they play in the NBA, they get all rights afforded to U.S. citizens. It’s become part of our brand, in essence, that there is an expectation for our fans, even some who don’t agree with a particular point of view of a player, that this is a platform in which players should feel comfortable expressing themselves.

Admittedly, Silver was talking about speech and expression far more broadly, including political speech, which is beyond the scope of this article. But footwear is a huge part of player expression in the NBA. If you don’t believe me, check out this article from the Denver Post earlier this year:

As the NBA prepares for the All-Star Game on Sunday in Los Angeles, an annual showcase for shoe companies to put their products on global display, the league is in the midst of a sneaker revolution. More than ever before, players have been using their shoes to make statements about politics, equality, fashion, culture and everything in between. In cases like Murray’s, footwear can serve as a nod to team pride and history.

Whatever the goal, players are finding more ways to fuse functionality and performance with self-expression.

That’s the polar opposite of the current MLB approach, which is interesting since Strategy+ also notes that the NBA is considered the gold standard for fan engagement and involvement:

In an age of cord cutting, constant distraction, and rapidly changing media and sports habits, professional basketball has bucked many trends. Television ratings are up by double digits so far this season, and attendance has set records for four years straight. Relations with the players’ union are relatively placid. NBA players compete with global soccer stars for the largest social media followings.

MLB should learn a lesson from the NBA about backing players’ expression as part of their brand. After all, players are the greatest asset in any sports league. The NBA offers a strong test case for encouraging and embracing player self-expression. Baseball would do well to celebrate and amplify Zobrist’s desire to wear black PF Flyers, or Willson’s arm sleeve representing his home country. If Major League Baseball is truly intent on building a younger more enthusiastic fan base, they should probably reconsider their war on cleats and arm sleeves.