Saturday, September 10, 2011

Field Fashionistas

Clothes make the man.

Those words were penned by author Mark Twain over 100 years ago, yet they still apply throughout society. Fairly or unfairly, many of us judge (and are judged) based on appearance. For better or worse, a first impression can be a lasting one.

Sports fashion is a little different from what the world is used to, but it certainly exists

While it may lack a Parisian runway, sports fashion carries similar guidelines. Many teams spend months -- even years -- crafting the image that they want to display to the public. Everything is scrutinized by players and fans alike -- whether it's the colors, the logos, the jerseys, the pants, the caps or helmets, even the footwear. Some teams tend to gravitate toward history and traditionalism, while others opt for the latest trends and bold looks.

A team's uniform serves as an important part of its identity

This week, the University of Maryland football team opted for the latter...wearing a uniform that was largely blasted on television, radio and social media sites. The Terrapins wanted to make a cutting-edge fashion statement...partly to get attention focused on the program, and partly to attract new fans and recruits. On Monday night, Maryland beat the Miami Hurricanes in a dramatic contest on ESPN -- but it wasn't the game that most people were talking was the uniforms.

Maryland's new football uniforms garnered a lot of attention -- both positive and negative

It was not the first time that a team has used their threads as a promotional tool, and it certainly won't be the last.

On May 29th, 1999, the Pittsburgh Pirates decided to honor their past by bringing their old, gaudy uniforms into the present. The Pirates won the World Series in 1979...featuring a collection of jerseys, pants and caps that were a sign-of the times back then, but could make some people cringe now.

This was part of the baseball uniform trend in the late 1970s

Among uniform enthusiasts, it's referred to as the Buccos' "bumblebee" look -- a combination of yellow, black and white that could be mixed-and-matched in any way that the team saw fit.
The 1979 Pirates had a colorful assortment of uniforms to choose from

While the "We Are Family" Pirates featured Hall-of-Famers Willie Stargell and Bert Blyleven, along with notable players like Dave Parker, Kent Tekulve and Bill Madlock...the team is remembered more for what they wore, rather than what they accomplished.

The Pirates' achievements are sometimes overshadowed by their fashion sense

Even before the 1999 season started, the Pirates were promoting "Turn Back the Clock Night" at Three Rivers Stadium on their website and other media outlets. To set the right atmosphere, the team was planning to break out the yellow-and-black uniforms...and give away replica pillbox-style caps that were worn by the 1979 club. It was a combo that was too much for me to resist.

My college baseball season was over and final exams were still a week away, so I had free time to make the roughly three-hour trek from Athens, Ohio to Pittsburgh. With one of my friends tagging along, we embarked from Ohio University in the early afternoon on what would prove to be a quiet ride along the interstates...through Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.

Road trip to Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium

Upon arriving at Three Rivers Stadium, we were greeted at the entrance gate by smiling ushers who tore our ticket stubs, followed by smiling staff members who handed us our 1979 Pirates' caps. It was delightfully hideous as I could imagine. The cap had a "so bad, that it's good" appeal to it. On top of that, the cap was made of surprisingly quality material, considering it was a giveaway item.

My ticket from a special Saturday night in Pittsburgh

While the Pirates were champions 20 years ago, they were decided underdogs in 1999. Entering the Saturday night game against the Houston Astros with a record of 23-24, the Buccos had already suffered through six consecutive losing seasons.

The Astros, on the other hand, were entering what appeared to be a golden age in franchise history. With two straight playoff appearances under their belt, the Astros were once again in 1st place in the NL Central in 1999, jumping out to a 29-18 record.

The Astros entered 1999 as the back-to-back defending NL Central champions

As my friend and I settled into our seats in Section 530 -- while already wearing the 1979 caps -- we were hit with our only disappointment of the night.

When a home team holds a "throwback" night, the visiting team is usually provided retro uniforms to add to the atmosphere. In 1979, the Astros wore their famed (or dubious, depending on your view) "Tequila Sunrise" uniforms...which featured a collection of graded, horizontal stripes in yellow, orange and red.

I wanted the Astros to wear this on "Turn Back the Clock Night"

The thought of seeing those uniforms -- going up against the Pirates' "bumblebee" look -- excited us to no end...but alas, Houston wore their standard road gray jerseys, trimmed in navy blue and gold.

With a festive crowd of 32,426 looking on, the Astros seemed determined to spoil the retro party. On the very first pitch of the game, 2nd baseman Craig Biggio roped a double to left field against Pirates' starting pitcher Francisco Cordova. Biggio would later score on a single to center field by Carl Everett, giving Houston a 1-0 lead.

Craig Biggio got things going early for Houston -- in their mundane 1999 road unis

The Pirates, in their splendid throwback duds, tied the game against Astros' pitcher Shane Reynolds in the bottom of the 2nd. A leadoff double by Kevin Young set the stage for a run-scoring groundout by 2nd baseman Warren Morris later that inning...leading to mild applause by black-and-gold-clad Pittsburgh fans.

The Pirates' offense rallies against Houston pitcher Shane Reynolds

That cheering would become more impassioned in the 4th inning, as the Buccos used "small-ball" and Three Rivers Stadium's artificial turf to take the lead. An infield single by outfielder Brian Giles, a stolen base, a productive ground out, and another infield single by Morris put the Pirates ahead, 2-1.

Looking around the ballpark, you could see reminders of a more successful past. In addition to the giveaway pillbox caps, numerous Pirates fans wore Willie Stargell jerseys in various colors. In the upper deck, tarps covered much of the outfield seating...displaying the franchise's 9 National League pennant years, and 5 World Championship seasons.

Upper deck tarps at Three Rivers Stadium provided a history lesson

The Pirates maintained their 2-1 lead against the first-place Astros until the bottom of the 8th inning. With Reynolds still on the mound for Houston, outfielder Al Martin started things off with a single. After a fielder's choice ground out, Reynolds exited the game for reliever Jay Powell. A walk and infield error loaded the bases for catcher Jason Kendall, who came through with a 2-run single to left field. Morris followed with a sacrifice fly, plating his 3rd RBI of the night. It was now 5-1 in Pittsburgh's favor, and that's how the game would end.

The Pirates' old logo was displayed throughout the stadium during the game

Perhaps the yellow-and-black uniforms brought the Pirates some much-needed least for one night. A flashback to 1979 brought a big crowd to Three Rivers Stadium, and sent those fans home with a satisfying victory.

Was the "Turn Back the Clock" theme a genuine nod to the past? Or was it a strategic marketing ploy? That can be left open to interpretation...and there is probably no wrong answer.
The Pirates' gold jerseys were a success that night

Uniforms can be a powerful drawing card for both college and professional teams alike. Whether it's a throwback theme or a cutting-edge unveiling, a team's choice of attire can resonate with fans, as well as the media.

You can argue about its effectiveness...but all I can say is this -- during college, I drove six hours in one day for a hat, a ballgame, and a fun story that can be shared. Who knows if it would have happened otherwise.

Yes, I still have the pillbox-style cap

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