[Editor’s Note: The days tend to bleed into each other during the pandemic, so you might not realize that Memorial Day is now just a few days away. With that in mind, I’ve decided to rerun the interview I did a year ago with former U.S. Marine and MLB front office employee Nick Francona. While MLB obviously won’t be playing on Memorial Day this year, it’s still a powerful read. Enjoy. — PL]
Monday is Memorial Day — the day when we remember and mourn fallen military members. As most of you know, I’ve been critical of the way Major League Baseball has handled this holiday in recent years, for reasons that I won’t belabor here. (I’ve also given MLB credit for having a better approach to the holiday this year.)
I’m not the only one who has had issues with MLB’s treatment of this holiday. One of MLB’s most prominent Memorial Day critics is a man named Nick Francona, who has repeatedly questioned MLB’s handling of camouflage uniforms and merchandise. His thoughts on the intersection of MLB and Memorial Day are particularly notable because of two prominent entries on his résumé: He has served in the Marines and he has worked in the front offices of several MLB teams, all of which gives him more insight, perspective, and moral authority on this topic than the average observer.
Francona, who is the son of Cleveland manager Terry Francona, no longer works in baseball. His most recent MLB gig — assistant director of player development for the Mets — ended last summer. He says he was let go because of his criticisms of MLB’s handling of Memorial Day. MLB has said there’s no truth to that; the Mets have simply said they wish him well.
I’ve been aware of Francona and his thoughts about Memorial Day but had never communicated with him until last week, when he commented on something I had tweeted. With MLB teams having just worn camouflage for Armed Forces Day, and with Memorial Day right around the corner, I thought this would be a good time to pick his brain. We spoke on the phone earlier this week. What follows is an edited and slightly condensed transcript of our conversation.
Uni Watch: First, please tell me a bit about yourself. How old are you, where do you live, and what do you currently do for a living?
Nick Francona [shown at right; click to enlarge]: I’m 33. I live in New York now, moving to Boston soon. And I’m waiting to hear from some grad schools.
UW: I know you were in the Marines. When did you serve, and in what capacity?
NF: From early 2009 to 2012, I was an officer. My MOS — that’s military occupational specialty — was ground intelligence officer, and my role was scout sniper platoon commander.
UW: Where did you serve?
NF: I was stationed in California, and then I did a deployment to Afghanistan.
UW: I’m sorry to ask such a sensitive question, but did you personally serve alongside anyone who died in combat?
NF: The battalion I was in — 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines — lost five Marines during the deployment to Afghanistan in 2011. No need to apologize for asking. It’s the reality of it.
UW: I know you’ve also worked for several MLB teams. Which teams were they, and what did you do for them?
NF: I was coordinator of major league player information for the Angels, and then I was the assistant director of player development for the Dodgers and the Mets.
UW: I know you’ve had concerns with how MLB distibutes the proceeds from sales of Memorial Day apparel. Could you please summarize those concerns for me?
NF: Before getting to the proceeds and the financial aspect, I want to step back a bit. Memorial Day should be a dignified way to honor those who’ve fallen during service to our country. And I think any reasonable observer would say that that’s not even remotely close to what’s been happening with Major League Baseball.
UW: How do you mean?
NF: If you go back and look at it through the recent years, the one consistent theme is that it’s a commercial campaign to sell apparel. I don’t see how anyone could look at this and say, “MLB is honoring the fallen by pushing camouflage hats on people.” It’s just not the case.
UW: But they would probably say — and this brings us back to the financial aspect — that they’re donatiing their profits to military charities and so forth. But I gather that that’s what you’ve been taking issue with, either in terms of their transparency or their follow-through.
NF: Right. But making a charitable donation and coming up with a dignified campaign don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I think a lot of people started looking at all this with a little more skepticism after Brandon McCarthy [MLB pitcher who was then with the Dodgers, now with the Rangers] sent out that tweet a couple of years ago.
generations of soldiers died protecting our country and its freedoms- don't forget to buy an official baseball hat to say thank you
— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) May 29, 2017
I had actually put together a document that proposed how MLB could do this the right way. I highlighted a lot of the issues where we were totally missing the boat with it. Like, just for one example, the Dodgers sent out photos of players in their Memorial Day hats, and it said, “Fresh,” with a fire emoji.
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) May 27, 2017
It’s like, really? That is so tone-deaf. I mean, that is just patently offensive, to suggest that that’s even approaching anything like a dignified way to memorialize people. And now it’s not just camouflage caps and jerseys — you have the camouflage eye black, the cleats, the socks, the arm sleeves. It’s turning into dress-up at Halloween. And what you don’t see, through any of this, is any acknowledgment of “This is so-and-so who died. This is their name and their story.” These are real people who died, they have families left behind. And when you actually talk to the families, they care about their lost loved ones’ stories and keeping their names alive. They don’t care about camouflage.
And it’s not just the camo itself — it’s how it’s presented. When you have to really dig and find the fine print that says they’re donating the proceeds — and even then, the fine print is basically “Take our word for it, we’re donating to charity” — that’s problematic. Nobody would look at that and say it looks like a benevolent charitable campaign.
UW: Do you have similar concerns about the proceeds of sales from MLB’s Independence Day merchandise, which have also been targeted for military charities, or just Memorial Day?
NF: There are a lot of overlapping concerns there, but I’ve focused more on Memorial Day.
UW: Let’s talk more about how the proceeds from the camouflage merchandise are handled. MLB says it donates its profits from this apparel, but of course they’re not the only ones profiting. Let’s say, for example, that Lids is selling a camouflage Yankees cap from Armed Forces Day for $40. Now, their web page for that item says — and this is the fine print you were referring to — “Major League Baseball will donate its licensed royalties from the sales of such items to MLB Charities to support programs for service members, veterans and military families.” Do you happen to know roughly how much of that $40 retail price goes to Lids, how much goes to New Era, how much goes to the Yankees, and how much goes to Major League Baseball as a royalty? Because only that last part, the royalty, would be targeted for charity, while the rest would still be taken as profit by the other participants in the supply chain, right?
NF: You have hit the nail on the head, and that is the issue I’ve asked about very specifically. I mean, that’s a very simple question: How much of this is going to charity? MLB has refused to answer that question, and so I couldn’t give an answer to Gold Star families who wanted to know. It’s embarrassing that they refuse to provide that information.
UW: So there’s no transparency there about how they slice up the pie.
NF: Exactly. And if you look, even the language of the fine print has changed.
UW: Right, it used to say “net proceeds,” and before that it said, “a portion of the proceeds.”
NF: This is the first year they’ve mentioned “royalties.” They’re very lawyerly about it, but they won’t even say how much the royalty is. And I am positive that they are making money off of this directly, because MLB also serves as a retailer in various shapes and forms. Plus there’s an enormous economic advantage to having your partners profit, whether through volume discounts or whatever. There’s economic value there. But there’s no transparency.
UW: Let’s assume that the designated royalties do indeed go to MLB Charities. What do you know about MLB Charities, and how do they, in the words of the fine print, “support programs for service members, veterans and military families”?
NF: That’s a really good question. I do know that they’ve made some donations in the past. How much, and when, and where, is an open question. Which is pretty remarkable, because that’s not usually how charities function. I spent a lot of time trying to research MLB Charities’ paper trail. From the best I can tell, for a while it was being done through the McCormick Foundation, which had a program called Welcome Back Veterans. But when I started digging into it, what I found is that Welcome Back Veterans is basically a phrase and a program, but there’s no entity, no organization, no board — nothing by that name. And I asked MLB, “Who’s in charge of this? Who runs Wecome Back Veterans?” And they had no earthly idea, because there isn’t anyone in charge. It’s not a registered entity — it’s just a tag line.
MLB would ostensibly give this money to McCormick to distribute, but one of the problems is that the McCormick Foundation is so large — they do charitable programs on orders of magnitude larger than MLB — and there’s nothing earmarked as “this is the MLB money.” And I reached out to McCormick on many occasions and never got a response.
And again, these should be easy questions. This is not “gotcha” stuff. If you’re selling a product and saying the profits go to charity, that’s elementary. There’s so much smoke and mirrors behind it.
When I drew up that document to show how they could take a better approach, I thought they’d eagerly embrace it because they were catching hell over the whole thing on social media. And the response was basically, “Stay out of our business.” It was very defensive. And when people would ask questions, it would result in almost this comedy of lawyers and and PR gurus, off-the-record briefings for reporters, all this stuff. Like, guys, this shouldn’t be so hard.
UW: If you could run the program involving MLB’s military-themed apparel and how the funds are channeled to charities and so on, what would you change from the way it’s currently run?
NF: Again, a lot of it is in that document. From an aesthetic standpoint, I’d probably do away with the camo. But most importantly, regardless of the aesthetics of the uniforms or caps or whatever, there would be complete financial transparency.
UW: One issue with charities and nonprofits of any kind, military or otherwise, is that not all charities follow through on their mission statements and not all of them spend their donated funds efficiently. For example, the Wounded Warrior Project sounds like a good organization, but it had a scandal a few years ago regarding lavish spending on parties, which resulted in several of its executives being fired and even led to a Congressional investigation. If a Uni Watch reader doesn’t want to buy a hat but does want to contribute to a military charity, are there any good ones that you can personally vouch for or recommend?
NF: I would encourage people to go a bit deeper than “military charities” in general. There’s a lot of different types of things out there — veterans transitioning to the civilian world, guys that are wounded, stuff for families, stuff for children of people who’ve died in combat. And within each of those categories, there are hundreds of organizations, if not more. So there are lots of areas.
One that I particularly like is the Travis Manion Foundation. The guy it’s named after, Travis Manion, was a Marine lieutenant who was killed in Iraq. And one of the things they do is help veterans participate and play meaningful roles in their communities, and really bridge the gap between the military and civilians. And one thing I love about them is that it’s not limited to veterans — civilians can go join that as well. That gets to the bigger picture of what I think is missing in a lot of this discussion, creating that bridge between the military and society. Like, instead of supporting our troops by buying a hat, how about if we support them by being educated voters on the issues that affect them.
UW: Leaving aside the question of money and charities, I’m curious to know how you, as a former Marine, feel about the use of camouflage sports uniforms as a sort of all-purpose military signifier. One of my readers, a guy named Scott Rogers, recently posted a comment about this on my website. It’s fairly long, but I’d like to read it to you:
I object to the spectacle of teams signaling their patriotic commitment by forcing their athletes to play dress-up in soldier costumes.
American pro athletes can be divided into two categories:
1) Citizens of foreign countries, whose loyalty in the event of a conflict would properly align with their home countries, and so no decent American would seek to force them to pantomime wartime loyalty to the United States; and
2) American citizens who are young; who are spectacularly physically fit; who are highly trained and capable in teamwork and small-unit physical and mental coordination; and who are, mostly, college graduates. That is, they are exactly the people who should be serving in [the armed foces].
But because we do not have compulsory service, these young athletes have chosen not to serve their country. Which is fine; we allow young people to make that choice. But having made that choice, it’s obscene for any of these young Americans to play dress-up in soldier costumes. Want to wear camo uniforms? Want to wear the flag on your sleeve? Great! Go find your local Armed Forces Career Center. If you can play at even a minor-league professional level, you will almost certainly qualify to become an officer in the armed forces of the United States, and you can serve for a short enough term that you’ll still have plenty of years left to pursue professional sports after your discharge.
Any thoughts on that, or on the sports world’s use of camouflage in general?
NF: I would start by saying it’s probably overstating things to say that any professional athlete is automatically qualified to serve in the military, and it probably undersells the officer corps a little bit there too.
But aside from that, there are some really good points there. I’ll start by addressing the foreign players, because that is something that stood out to me from the get-go. I mean, I’m a proud, patriotic American, and that’s why I served, but when I worked in baseball I was always a little uncomfortable with the idea of forcing people from other countries to wear American military camouflage. It’s something I brought up with Major League Baseball. I mean, if someone made me wear another country’s military pattern, that wouldn’t sit well with me, since I’ve worn a real American military uniform.
Anytime this point is brought up, the responses usually devolve into, “They’re making milliions of dollars, they should be grateful” type of thing. Which I don’t think is a particularly useful conversation. I just think there are better ways to go about this, in a way that can be meaningful to families. So last year, when I was still with the Mets, there are lots of Dominican players in MLB, and specifically on the Mets. And there’s also a large Dominican-American community in the New York area, and quite a few of them have been killed in combat.
So I matched up players with local families, based on shared commonalities in their backgrounds — where they were from, where they went to school. For example, there was a Dominican individual who was killed, and his family was matched with Amed Rosario. There was a Venezuelan with Wilmer Flores. It’s a lot more organic and personal. And the players, it was very emotional for them, but they loved it. And the families, it meant the world to them — that people who would never have heard their loved ones’ names were now hearing them.
And the players all had these metal Memorial Day bracelets for the people they were honoring. In case you’re not familiar with those, it’s a stamped-metal bracelet that shows the person’s date of death, unit, location, and so on. It’s something very recognizable in the military community. And it was a big success — the families loved it, the players loved it. Everyone wins, eveyone looks good.
UW: In the past, I’ve been critical of MLB for using camouflage uniforms on Memorial Day, because Memorial Day is a day of mourning, not a day to celebrate. This year they’re using remembrance poppy jersey patches instead of camouflage, and they’re not selling any of the Memorial Day uniform merchandise this year, both of which I think are big improvements over their previous practices. What do you think?
NF: It’s definitely a step in the right direction. But to me it’s nakedly transparent that they wouldn’t have made this change if they hadn’t come up with this other holiday, Armed Forces Day, that lets them sell camo stuff. So I don’t think the folks at MLB sat down and said, “How do we appropriately celebrate Memorial Day?” I think it was more like, “How do we sell camouflage hats and get away with it, now that we’ve been criticized for how we handle Memorial Day?”
So that was a year ago. I got in touch with Nick earlier this week and am happy to report that he’s doing fine. He offers this follow-up on our interview:
The mystery still remains as to how much of this money is donated, where it goes, what percentage is donated, etc. After you posted that update when a reader sent in some info about MLB’s practices flagrantly violating the best practices of charity watchdog groups and even state regulators, I dug into it a little more and was shocked by how bad it actually was. But I found out that these regulations are almost never enforced, so organizations just tend to do whatever they please.
I ended up gathering a variety of the statements made over the years by MLB, individual clubs, media outlets, and apparel partners regarding the donations, and put them together in a short video:
MLB’s campaign to sell apparel and profit off of those who’ve served is not only distasteful, it’s unlawful (in multiple ways).@NewYorkStateAG, I’m sure you’re busy so I tried to make this easy for you.
Take a look. And then take action. pic.twitter.com/pUcWuVXeuZ
— Nick Francona (@NickFrancona) June 6, 2019
It’s easy to see how the statements are entirely meaningless, often mutually exclusive or contradictory, and basically show an attitude of carelessness. It is pretty stunning not only that an organization as large and visible as MLB can be so reckless in the first place, but that they have done it with a free pass.
Thanks, Nick. Keep fighting the good fight.
Your suggestions wanted: My next piece for InsideHook is going to be about throwbacks. Specifically, it will address the question “Which uniforms that have never previously appeared as throwbacks should be brought back as throwbacks?”
So, for example, Bucco Bruce and Pat Patriot would not qualify, because they’ve both appeared as throwbacks. But Wild Wing and Burger King would qualify, because they’ve only been brought back for pregame activities, not for an actual game.
Here, I’ll get us started. In addition to Wild Wing and Burger King, I’d like to see the following:
• MLB TATC
• Quebec Nordiques (although we might be seeing those soon, or at least soon-ish)
• North Stars green (the white has already been done)
And so on. Many of these, of course, are just garish designs that frequently and deservedly show up on “Worst Unis Ever” lists, which is part of why it would be fun to see them again on the field. But there are also overlooked classics that deserve to see the light of day again, including some that our own Alex Hider has spotlighted in his “Gone Too Soon” series, like the early-1980s Cavs and the early-1940s Pirates.
What about you? Which throwbacks would you like to see? Any Big Four pro uni is eligible, along with NCAA uniforms. Post your suggestions in today’s comments!
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Building the future: Lots of people design uniform or logo concepts, but designer Alan Beam has created a ballpark concept — in this case, for the A’s. He envisions a new stadium with a fairly standard amount of foul territory down the third base line and a more generous amount — mirroring the Oakland Coliseum’s famously expansive foul territory — down the first base line.
“Even though the extremely large foul territory is a nuisance to most teams (and their stats), it would honor the past, provide a one-of-a-kind quirkiness to the entire lower bowl, and create an intriguing dynamic for teams that were built to play there (especially in the era of the shift),” says Alan.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a ballpark with this type of asymmetrical grandstand design around the infield. It’s a clever idea — I like!
Another membership raffle: Readers Logan Irons and Jeremiah Allyn recently donated to memberships for me to raffle off, and reader Ben Garner donated two memberships. So we’re going to raffle off all four of those today.
This will be a one-day raffle. To enter, send an email to the raffle address by 8pm Eastern tonight. One entry per person. I’ll announce the four winners tomorrow. Big thanks to Logan, Jeremiah, and Ben for making this one possible!
Membership update: One of the most interesting Purp Walk membership requests we received was from reader Matthew Happen, who wanted a purple sumo mawashi. It was a tricky request, but card designer Scott Turner and I were excited to have our first sumo-based card, so we went ahead with it. Turned out nicely!
Matthew’s card is one of several that have been added to the membership card gallery, as we continue to make our way through the purple onslaught.
Ordering a membership card is a good way to support Uni Watch (which, frankly, could use your support these days). And remember, as a gesture of comm-uni-ty solidarity, the price of a membership has been reduced from $25 to $20 until further notice.
KRC update: It’s been a while since we had a new Key Ring Chronicles entry, but there’s a new one today, about a cog from a bicycle. Check it out here.
By Lloyd Alaban
Baseball News: The Pirates are selling a new shirt featuring a modified “Jolly Roger” logo wearing his bandana as a mask to help to raise money for coronavirus relief efforts (from Timmy Donahue).
Football News: This image from Browns WR Jarvis Landry’s Instagram shows him wearing the team’s new uniform with orange pants. The team released no photos of orange pants when they unveiled their new uniforms last month (from our own Alex Hider). … A photo was released of Bucs QB Tom Brady practicing with his new teammates. Brady is wearing the team’s new helmet with the new black facemask, while his teammates are still wearing the old helmet with the chrome facemask (from @WTHelmet). … Gridiron Uniform Database researcher Bill Schaefer found this 1981 photo of Cowboys S Charlie Waters with an unusual red “Dallas” nose bumper plate. … Here’s a neat story about how the Rams have donated tablet computers and hoodies inspired by their new uniforms to a namesake youth team in Watts, Calif. (from Kary Klismet). … U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) has a plush toy of Spuddy Buddy, the mascot of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, on his shelf (from @S_SquaredESQ). … Here’s a good thread of quarterbacks wearing custom facemasks to protect their injured jaws.
Hockey News: The NWHL has announced the name of its newest team, the Toronto Six (from multiple readers). … CCM is unveiling a women’s-only equipment line this week (from @OlegKvasha). … Here are four equipment-related style suggestions from a hockey writer (from Wade Heidt). … Also from Wade: As selected by NHL.com writers, here are the top goalies to wear No. 31. … In the TV series The Americans, a season two episode featured a closeup of two tickets to a 1982 game between the Blackhawks and Capitals. However, the tickets are not historically accurate, as there are no team names or team logos on the tickets. The Capitals colors are also inaccurate for the time period (from Max Weintraub). …The boards at Calgary’s old Stampede Corral, where the Flames used to play, were higher than at other NHL arenas.
Soccer News: Here’s every kit ever worn by Sporting Kansas City (from Kary Klismet). … Polish side Wisla Krakow traveled to training camp wearing facemasks with the team’s logo on them (from Ed Zelaski). … EPL team Everton has struck a new kit deal with Hummel (from Casey Hart).
Grab Bag: A sportswriter asked Twitter to post a picture of celebrities wearing sports-related clothing, and Twitter delivered (from LoLo Phymarski). … A graphic of New York’s sports team logos was shown onscreen during Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing yesterday. Oddly, the graphic omits the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres, which are both in the state, while including the NFL’s Jets and Giants, which both play in New Jersey. It also uses the Jets’ old logo and the cap logo for the Yankees, instead of its usual media and press logo (from Brooks D. Simpson). … Someone gave the Tokyo 2020 Olympics logo a coronavirus treatment (from Jeremy Brahm). … NHRA Pro Stock motorcycle rider Shawn Gann died last weekend. Gann was known for wearing superhero-themed leathers (from David Firestone). … Here’s the famous “I Heart NY” logo modified for social distancing (from our own Anthony Emerson). … Australian Football League team Richmond revealed their indigenous-themed guernsey, designed by forward Shai Bolton, that was supposed to be worn this weekend (from our own Jamie Rathjen) … The remaining items in this section are all from Timmy Donahue: Battle Mountain High School in Edwards, Colo., has tweaked its husky logo after it drew comparisons to the University of Washington’s husky logo. … The New Jersey State Democratic Committee has released its “Don’t Be a Knucklehead” T-shirt campaign, drawing on iconic Garden State imagery, to encourage social distancing and benefit the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund. … New patch for the Seneca Falls Police Department in New York. The patch design highlights parts of Seneca Falls history, including symbols of women’s suffrage — the Justice Bell and “XIX” for the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
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What Paul did last night: Last night’s porch session got off to a rocky start, as we had a petty squabble over something stupid (hey, it happens). But then something rare happened: The guy who owns the car that was parked in front of our house came out, got in the car, and drove off. Looking back on the full set of Pandemic Porch Cocktails™ photos, this is only the second time that parking spot has been unoccupied.
We guessed how long the spot would remain vacant. The Tugboat Captain said four minutes; I said five. It turned out to be six.
Anyway: Bud for me, white wine for her, delicious raspberries for both of us. They looked nice bobbing in my beer:
The branch is still there.