I’m not the swiftest guy for recognizing trends, especially as they pertain to sports. Purists might argue that I’m unfashionably late to the party, and no true Scotsman when it comes to speaking about baseball and the Toronto Blue Jays. I might counter with a hipster retort that I established my bona fides before many of these folks were even born, that I can describe the precise ass-numbing feel of a field-level aluminum blue Exhibition Stadium seat and the sights, sounds and smells in early 80’s late September in visceral, soul-stroking detail, but admittedly, I titled my first piece of modern-day baseball writing All Aboard the Bandwagon, so contend with that contradiction if you will.
But there is one particular thing I’ve grown very aware and very weary of in these latter days regarding team jerseys. Specifically this: that it is considered in circles of sports fandom a pitiable faux pas for a fan to wear a professional jersey with his own name stitched on the back. “Lame” is the first adjective that usually gets attached to it. Plenty of sports writers both professional and amateur enjoy dropping in sneering little digs against self-named jerseys like it’s some kind of shibboleth for the hallowed learned ones, pretenders need not apply. Even the athletes themselves get in on the scorn: Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets made a video in which (among other things) he condoned mocking it.
Far be it from anyone, I think, to dictate how any individual should be permitted to express their fondness for a particular sports franchise – barring unhinged, singular, stalker-like obsession – but let’s parse this a little.
Jerseys are massive business, the leading source of every team’s merchandise revenue, and demand for them is largely inelastic, especially if your guys are consistently winning. Tune into any ballgame and the stands are an ocean of home team colors rising and rippling like a stormy Atlantic with every successfully batted ball, every welcome trot across the plate. Only 25 guys at a time will enjoy the privilege of wearing those jerseys for the purpose for which they were designed, but this shouldn’t stop the 50,000+ people watching them from wanting to be connected to the action, from feeling that but for a few twists of fate (and lack of athletic ability) it might be themselves standing on that mound, or squaring up in the batter’s box with the emotions of millions of people pinned on the outcome of their swing at the incoming curve. Not a fan has yet drawn breath who never, at any point in their lives, imagined they were out there on that field. And the odds of actually getting to do so are lottery-like in their impossibility. So we settle then, for donning the uniform in expression of solidarity with the fortunate few. It lets us be part of something bigger than ourselves.
Not that this is a cheap option. A basic MLB-quality Blue Jays jersey can set you back $250 and change, with customization driving the cost even higher. For most fans this isn’t going to be a purchase they’re going to treat casually. It might have to be a once-in-a-lifetime deal, unless one falls victim to an unfortunate mustard mishap during the seventh-inning stretch. So the choice of what to stitch on the back requires careful consideration. The most common option is to request the number and name of your favorite current player, but this can present a quandary should he abruptly be traded or otherwise fall from that esteemed plateau we reserve for our athletic heroes. How many Jays fans still relish wearing Brett Lawrie jerseys as he flails with the failing White Sox while the guy they traded him for two years ago establishes himself as arguably one of the premier players to ever wear the Blue Jays uniform? How many folks rushed to purchase a David Price jersey for his two-month run in Toronto in 2015 and now cringe at the sight of him leading the Red Sox biting at the Jays’ heels for first in the AL East? And how many out there thought twice about slipping on their old Jose Reyes jersey again after his domestic violence bust?
If Edwin Encarnacion is trotting his home run parrot for the Boston Red Sox next year as is widely rumored and feared, will the sea of Toronto fans who now wear his #10 still be as enthused to do so, especially when those jacks are jacking up the score against us? Players are transitory – so is the nature of professional baseball as ultimately a business – but the team endures.
Five years from now, most of the Blue Jays we are cheering for today and whose names and numbers we wear with pride will be gone; traded, retired or otherwise sent packing. Some will depart embittered for richer pastures, others will conclude their Toronto careers with naught but fond memories. But the fans will still be here. Stamping your own name on the jersey is to ensure its life beyond any possible expiration date, beyond unexpected trades and multi-million-dollar free agent contracts. It’s to declare that your loyalty to your team is absolute, and can’t be bought by a Scott Boras type who’s secured you a king’s ransom to smash dingers somewhere else. You’re here for the long haul, and you won’t be embarrassed to sport that jersey when your chosen guys suffer the inevitable down year and linger in the basement racking up a hundred hair-tearing losses in half-empty stadiums shaking with catcalls and flung empty beer cans.
The esteemed Mr. Syndergaard’s comment seems to suggest that some if not many of the players themselves don’t like fans wearing self-named jerseys either. Maybe they believe that some rando in the stands hasn’t earned it the way they have, through bruising slogs in the minors to that coveted, fabled call up to The Show. But it would seem the height of ego to assume that the fan is wearing it because he somehow equates himself with the greatness of the professional player, that he is trying to hint that he is just as good as they are.
At every home game, the Blue Jays hold a small ceremony in which they present a customized jersey to a member of the Canadian Forces who has served on active duty. If that soldier then chooses to wear that jersey to a game simply as a fan, would anyone, pro athlete or otherwise, dare to scoff and suggest that he or she hadn’t earned it? There may be a story to that self-named jersey, and you shouldn’t presume that it’s because the person chose to spend $250 on being “lame.”
No matter what Noah Syndergaard might possibly think.
(And let’s put things in perspective: the ability to throw a 100 mph fastball is not curing disease or contributing to world peace. It’s not even as noble a cause as that of a teacher who gets first graders passionate about reading, and no matter how many millions of bucks we fling at these dudes, they’ll be relegated to being laughable side statistics and local celebrity golf guests the day their arms finally blow out.)
For my (harrumph)th birthday, my family got me a Blue Jays jersey with MILNE and 11 on the back. I don’t wear it to disrespect Kevin Pillar, the gravity-defying center fielder who currently wears #11 for the team. I don’t even wear it for myself, even if it is my last name.
I wear it for my father.
Dad attended the very first Toronto Blue Jays game in 1977 and sat shivering on the metal benches of the Ex to watch them beat the White Sox in the April snow. When I was old enough he started taking me to games, often pulling me out of school to the chagrin of my friends so we could hustle down to Toronto for a 12:35 contest on a Wednesday afternoon. He loved the Blue Jays more than I ever could, and bequeathed to me an enduring passion for the game – a flame that sadly dwindled following the 1994 strike but blazed back to life in 2015. While he saw them win the AL East for the first time, and we shivered in the stands together as they lost to George Brett and the Royals in the ALCS, he passed away in early 1987, and would never see the Jays make it to and win the World Series five years later. It’s one of my deepest regrets that he missed out on that. As for the #11, that was his number when he played football in high school, and when he played amateur slow-pitch softball as an adult – with me on the creaky wooden bleachers, scoring the game and keeping track of the bats and gloves and the post-game beers. In another life he might have worn #11 for the Blue Jays himself, such was his dedication and determination for the things that drove him. But absent the realization of that fantasy I will continue to sport the 11 and the name in his memory, to carry a part of him with me to the games that he would have loved to see, and if you want to approach me and tell me I’m lame for doing that then I hope you enjoy the bloody nose you’re going to walk away with.
The point is that you don’t know. You don’t know where that jersey came from, or the personal significance of what’s stitched on the back. There’s certainly more of an emotional history to it than to that of anyone who goes out and buys a Donaldson or a Bautista so they can look exactly the same as the fifteen other guys sitting in their row. Making fun of someone who chooses to support their team in this small way is yet another example of this perplexing and tribal human need to qualify, for whatever insecure ego-assuaging reason, precisely how people are allowed to demonstrate their interest in whatever innocent something makes them happy – a reminder that class distinctions and unspoken rules prevail even in the shared passions that everyone is quick to claim unite us.
Just stop it already.
Anyhow, see you at the game.
You’ll know which one I am.