For all photos, click to enlarge
It all started last Tuesday evening, when Padres radio broadcaster (and card-carrying Uni Watch member) Jesse Agler sent me a note from Cincinnati, where he was getting ready for that night’s Padres/Reds game. He attached the photo shown above, featuring a minimalist catcher’s box. I’d never seen anything like it, and Jesse said he hadn’t either. Like, were they trying to save chalk or what?
Here’s a closer look:
I promptly tweeted Jesse’s photo, and the ensuing discussion led me to a guy who explained the whole thing to me. But before I get to that, let’s take a second to talk about the catcher’s box.
The rulebook requires the catcher’s box to be part of the field, just like the two batter’s boxes, and has two diagrams showing how it should look (here and here). Although the diagrams indicate that the box should include a backline, many MLB ballparks skip that line and just have the two vertical lines on the left and right. Other ballparks do include the backline.
In theory, Rule 5.02 (a) stipulates that a catcher will be called for a balk if he leaves the box before the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand during an intentional walk; in practice, catchers routinely left the box early for years (and sometimes still do so for pitchouts), but it never got called, and the rule is essentially moot now that the four intentional balls no longer have to be thrown. More to the point, the catcher’s box always gets erased by the end of the first inning anyway — and sometimes before the game has even started! It’s among the game’s least useful details, but it’s nonetheless part of baseball’s longstanding visual signature, which it why the version they were using last week in Cincinnati looked so weird to me when Jesse sent me that photo.
I was curious to know if this was a new thing in Cincinnati, or if it had been going on for a while and I just hadn’t noticed, so I started looking for photos. Because the catcher’s box is hard to see once the game has started, I looked for photos of someone singing the national anthem (or other pregame ceremonies). Opening Day turned out to be the most fertile photographic territory. Here’s what I found:
• On Opening Day in 2015, the Reds’ catcher’s box looked just like the rulebook says it should, complete with the backline:
• A year later, on Opening Day 2016, the backline was gone but the two vertical lines had two prongs extending off of them, sort of implying the backline without actually showing the full line:
• On Opening Day 2017, the two back prongs were shorter:
• On Opening Day 2018, the backline had returned:
• It’s hard to be sure, but it looks like Opening Day 2019 had the minimalist corners, like what Jesse Agler saw last week:
• On Opening Day 2020, they definitely had just the corners. So this is not a new style — they’ve been doing it at least since 2020, and probably since 2019:
• On Opening Day 2021, they went with what we might call a “back bracket” style:
• They maintained that style for Opening Day 2022:
Clearly, the Reds’ catcher’s box situation has been a free-for-all!
As I was going down this rabbit hole, the responses to my tweet of Jesse’s photo led me to a guy named Stephen Lord. Lord is currently a sales consultant for Advanced Turf Solutions, but from 2015 through last year he was the Reds’ head groundskeeper, and before that he spent eight years as the head assistant groundskeeper for the Rangers. (He left the Reds to achieve a healthier work/life balance and be more present for his wife and kids — good for him!) I wanted to pick his brain about the Cincy catcher’s boxes, but it took a few days for our schedules to match up. We finally spoke by Zoom yesterday. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
Uni Watch: When you were with the Reds, would you personally apply the chalk for the batter’s boxes and foul lines, or would your staff do that?
Stephen Lord: Most of the time it was my staff, but I’d do it probably once a homestand.
UW: I said, “chalk,” but I guess I should have asked first, do the Reds use chalk or paint?
SL: Chalk. The only places we’d use paint would have been painted foul lines on the grass, as well as the half-circle that they do around home plate.
UW: How did the Reds end up with their own style for the catcher’s box, and how has that style evolved?
SL: First, you should know that MLB groundskeepers for years have been — I wouldn’t call it bickering, but they’ve at least brought it to the league’s attention through the years that most catcher’s boxes are scrubbed out by the first pitch. Either by the catcher or sometimes the umpires will kick it out. People are more careful with the batter’s boxes, but the catcher’s box has always been one of those things that looks great when everyone’s standing for the anthem, and then 30 seconds later, out comes either an umpire or the catcher basically scrubbing it out, so that it’s not even a part of the field of play anymore as far as having any distinguishable use.
UW: But it’s there in the rulebook, right? And theoretically, the ump can call a balk if the catcher leaves the box before the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand.
SL: Yeah, but you don’t ever see anyone get called for it, even on pitchouts, whether they leave the box early or not. And with catchers setting up inside or outside, they’re basically all over the place, but you’re still never gonna get called. So the box has become mostly a worthless marking. To the point where some groundskeepers, like Bob Christofferson in Seattle and Tom Burns of the Rangers, brought it up at our annual meetings with the league that, you know, we’re wasting product, wasting labor time, for an aesthetic that’s basically knocked out five seconds later.
So some of the guys said to MLB, “Hey, can we get rid of this? Can we just not do it anymore?” And the response was basically, “We’d love to accommodate you, but the rulebook is the rulebook, so it’s got to be out there.”
UW: So how did the Reds develop their own version of it?
SL: There’s this guy Bill Littlejohn, who’s been part of the Reds’ grounds crew since the late 1980s, going back to Riverfront Stadium. He usually handles all the chalk around home plate. Once BP is over, he’s the guy who brings out our chalk boxes and chalks the actual outlines, I’d say for 75 out of the 81 home games.
UW: So he’s the one who started changing the look of the box?
SL: Yeah. He was always saying stuff like, “Hey, I put it out there and it gets beaten up right away. So what are we doing here?” So sometime around 2016 or ’17 — I think that’s when it was — he started using two little corners on the back of the box, little dog ears.
UW: Looking at old photos, I noticed that the length of the corners could vary.
SL: Yeah. And eventually it kind of morphed and just put the two corners on there without the vertical lines. There have been several different iterations of it, for sure.
UW: So the two corners, without any other lines, we might call that the minimalist style.
SL: Yeah. And I’d say that’s probably been the standard since 2020. You use less chalk, and you end up with less chalk migrating to your dirt surfaces. But it’s also kind of a unique look that we’ve kind of branded as our own. I’ve put pictures of it on Twitter a couple of times, and the response has always been overwhelmingly positive.
UW: Response from who — other groundskeepers?
SL: The big Reds fans who follow me would always comment about how they liked the look. But yeah, also other groundskeepers would see it and say, “Hey, that’s unique.” I’ve had a number of people tell me that they’ve started doing it at their rec fields or their high school fields, just because it’s something fun, something different. It gives people a different aesthetic.
UW: I’ve seen another style, with the backline and the corners. Here, let me share my screen with you — this was Opening Day of this year, so just a few weeks ago.
SL: That’s a new one! I don’t think I’ve seen that before.
UW: See what happens when you leave the Reds? Bill Littlejohn starts freestyling!
SL [laughing] I’d say we give him a pretty decent creative range for things like that, especially when there’s no impact to the game.
UW: Has any catcher or umpire ever noticed or said anything about this?
SL: I’ve never been approached about it, whether from players, managers, or umpires — no one said anything. We’ve never been called out to fix it or anything like that. So I think they kind of look at it the same way that we do — it’s kind of a useless line. I don’t think anyone would miss it if it completely went away.
UW: Are you almost disappointed that nobody said anything? Like, nobody noticed that you did this thing a little different?
SL: Not really. With groundskeeping, usually you only hear about it if somebody had a negative experience. So something like this, that’s not going to make any difference, you don’t expect to hear anything about it.
UW: Were you concerned that you might hear from somebody higher up, like from the league, because it’s not exactly the way it’s spelled out in the rulebook?
SL: It crossed my mind. But I think that the league office is pretty good about picking their battles with things. A couple of times a year we might get interesting feedback about the yellow home run line, or if a ball got caught under a wall pad, stuff like that. But never about the catcher’s box.
UW: Is it annoying or sort of depressing that you chalk something out really perfect — not just the catcher’s box, but the batter’s boxes, everything — and then most of it is scrubbed out so early in the game?
SL: Not really. I worked in golf course management before I came over to sports turf, and one of the tough things about it was that you rarely have a moment of perfection, a moment where you can stand back and look at things and appreciate what you’ve done. But with baseball, you get that every night at 7:05. You can see the fruits of your labor. So I always looked at it as being lucky that you have your moment of perfection. I mean, the field’s there to be played on, and things aren’t going to remain 100% perfect all the time. So that’s just part of the game.
The biggest thing that would bother me was rain. You’ve got everything ready to go, it looks perfect, and then you get a pop-up thunder shower and you’ve got to put tarps on everything. And anytime you put the tarp on, you catch chalk on the tarp, whether it’s your baselines or around home plate. That would drive me nuts. If something’s gonna mess it up, I want it to be the players, not Mother Nature.
Faaaascinating! Much like my piece last year about the unusual batter’s boxes at Dodger Stadium, today blog entry casts a light on a really interesting and overlooked corner of athletics aesthetics. Peak Uni Watch! Or at least that’s how it feels to me. Hope you enjoyed this as much as I did.
My next step, clearly, should be to secure an interview with Bill Littlejohn. Stay tuned.
(Thanks to Stephen Lord for sharing his story with me; to Twitter-er @jerrylawless3 for bringing Stephen into the discussion; to Steve Kriske for catching the hint of the back corner in the 2019 photo; and, most of all, to Jesse Agler, who really deserves all the credit for today’s post.)
Inside the beltway: Interesting move last night by the Astros, who changed the belts on their “Space City” alternates from navy to orange — a big upgrade (additional photos here). It’s still not a good uniform, but it’s interesting to see how much it can be improved by tweaking the baseball uni-verse’s most overlooked and underrated element. At a time when belts have become a free-for-all, with no uniformity and players wearing pretty much whatever the hell they want, this is a good reminder that getting a small detail right can go a long way.
(Big thanks to Twitter-er @spadilly for spotting this one.)
— Kendrick ♥️💙💛 (@kendrick_67) May 2, 2022
The usual slop: Here’s a quick history lesson: For many years, MLB teams wore camouflage to “support the military” for Memorial Day. During that same time, certain observers, including this website, kept pointing out that Memorial Day is not a rah-rah day to celebrate the military but is rather a solemn day of mourning. So in 2019, MLB dialed down the rah-rah for Memorial Day (players now wear a cap patch and a poppy jersey patch). But the MLB folks didn’t want to miss out on their annual camouflage merch dump, so they moved that to a “holiday” that most Americans had never even heard of, Armed Forces Day, which takes place on the third Saturday of May. And then they had the players wear the merch-dump hats for the entire three-day “holiday weekend.”
And that, my friends, is why your favorite team will look like shit on May 20, 21, and 22.
Click to enlarge
By Brinke Guthrie
Mascot races are very popular in Major League Baseball, and that includes the sausage races in Milwaukee! Here we have a plush toy of the No. 2 stuffed Polish racing sausage, one of the guys you saw in that video clip!
Now for the rest of this week’s picks:
• Here’s a pair of NFL Action Footwear boots — looks like a canvas upper with a toe piece that resembles the classic LL Bean boot.
• Toronto Blue Jays fans could plan their days, weeks, and months with this 1985 Blue Jays planner.
• Speaking of the Jays, here’s a plush turtle puppet of the SkyDome mascot, Domer.
• Paging Dr. James Anderson to the white courtesy phone: If you’re looking for your 1989 Minnesota Twins Parking Pass, Dr. Anderson, well, I found it!
• Sammy Sosa put his signature and “2One” logo (which I’d never seen until now) on this 1998 set of colored markers and pencils.
• I decided to include this kids’ size 7 Baltimore Colts jersey (Bert Jones, no doubt) for one reason: It’s made of Paul’s favorite uniform fabric, Durene.
• How about this 1970s New York Jets varsity jacket with chenille Jets logo? Proudly manufactured by the Aladen Athletic Wear Co of Pompton Lakes, NJ. And look at the chain they put on there for hanging it up!
• I bet your local Dade-Broward (county) Chrysler-Plymouth dealers happily tossed in one of these “I’M A DOL-FAN” license plates with every new car purchase!
Click to enlarge
Pin clearance update: We sold out of November 2021 yesterday, and I’m down to the last two of June 2020. In case you missed it yesterday, prices are even lower this week, as I’ve moved into final clearance mode:
• For up to eight pins, the price is $3 per pin plus $5 for shipping.
• For more than eight pins, the price is $24 for the first eight and $2 for each pin after that, plus $7 shipping. So for 11 pins, for example, the price would be $37 ($24 + $6 + $7).
• If you’re outside the USA, contact me for a shipping quote.
To order, send me the proper amount via Venmo (use @Paul-Lukas-2 as the payee), PayPal (firstname.lastname@example.org), or Zelle (email@example.com). If you’d rather use Apple Pay or a paper check, contact me and I’ll give you the info you need.
After sending payment, email me with your mailing address and a list of the pins you want. Please list them by date — “January 2020,” “May 2021,” and so on.
If you want to combine your purchase with an order for a Uni Watch koozie, a trading card, a seam ripper, or a magnet, email me and I’ll give you a price that includes a combined shipping fee for the whole shebang. (Sorry, these are the only Uni Watch items I can combine into one shipment, because our other items ship from separate locations.)
Also: I’m down to the last two of the June 2020 design, so move fast if you want one of those. Thanks!
By Alex Hider
Baseball News: I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the Twins logo listed in the middle of this graphic. Anyone else know more? (From Trevor Williams.) … The White Sox wore their City Connect uniforms for the first time this season yesterday, and it appears they’ll continue to wear them for Monday home games moving forward (from Ryan Andrew). … Speaking of City Connect, here’s a design concept for the Mariners (from Jonah Henderson). … Cubs OF Rafael Ortega uses the song “Thank You Hashem” as his walk-up music. The song is by a Haredi Orthodox artist and has become a staple at some Jewish celebrations. It turns out Ortega uses the song because he is a follower of Messianic Judaism (from @walbergLines). … The Staten Island FerryHawks of the independent Atlantic League are asking fans to design the uniforms they’ll wear when they play as the “Greenbelters” on June 16. The one-off nickname pays homage to the borough’s public parks project known as the “Staten Island Greenbelt.” Click here to submit info and enter the contest (from Rex Doane). … Seventy-First High School in North Carolina is poaching both the Giants’ and the Atlanta Falcons’ logos (from Gerry Dincher). … Japanese club Rakuten Golden Eagles has released an in-depth video showing how they launder team uniforms (from Jeremy Brahm). … Also from Jeremy: Hanshin Tigers players will be using pink bats and batting gloves for Mother’s Day.
NFL News: The Packers have announced the new number assignments for their rookie class (from Phil). … WR A.J. Brown will continue to wear No. 11 with Philadelphia, becoming the first Eagle to wear that number since QB Carson Wentz. Another new WR arrival, Zach Pascal, was slated to wear No. 11, but it appears that he will now wear No. 3 (from Sam McKinley). … The state of California has announced it will sell 49ers-themed license plates, with proceeds from the specialty plates going to support state parks programs (from our own Lloyd Alaban). … Here’s another fascinating progressive timeline animation, this time showing the number of NFL draft picks by school since 2000. … Cross-listed from the Baseball section: The Seventy-First High School baseball team in North Carolina is poaching both the Falcons’ and the San Francisco Giants’ logos (from Gerry Dincher).
College Football News: Here’s a unique animated look at UTEP’s uniform combos (from Shawn Hairston). … The University of Western Ontario has presented its players with championship rings following their win in the 2021 Vanier Cup, which is the championship for university football in Canada (from Wade Heidt).
Hockey News: Teams in the playoffs have added a decal of the new Stanley Cup logo to the back of their helmets (from Wade Heidt). … Reader Gabriel Luis Manga brings to our attention this “profoundly weird” sausage ad featuring former Canadiens RW Guy Lafleur playing on a children’s indoor soccer team. Gabriel notes that while Lafleur is wearing what appears to be a Habs-inspired uniform, Lafleur’s socks don’t match his teammates’. … Also from Gabriel: A Russian opposition newspaper editor, Dmitry Muratov, was attacked last week with acetone poison. At the time of the incident, he was wearing what appears to be a New York Rangers shirsey. Gabriel notes that the shirt was more than likely a Artemi Panarin shirsey — a Russian player who has been public in his criticism of President Vladimir Putin.
Basketball News: Gross: The Bucks looking to sell the naming rights to the fan district outside their arena (from Brinke). … Arizona men’s is changing its uniforms and dropping the gradient patterning (from Phil and Benjamin Nisbet). … Here’s the floor design for Texas’s new arena (from @sprotsbot). … This blog ranks the four best uniforms in the recent history of Notre Dame men’s basketball (from Phil).
Soccer News: Nashville SC played the first game in their new stadium over the weekend and wore an inscription on their jerseys to mark the occasion (from Kary Klismet and Justin Buznedo). … Also from Kary: RB Bragantino of Brazil’s Série A1 have released their 2022-23 home jerseys.
Grab Bag: In news that will undoubtedly thrill Paul, Delta Airlines is allowing employees to swap out their purple uniforms for grey replacements. The airline has faced lawsuits after some workers said the purple material prompted allergic reactions (from Douglas Ford). … A Swiss company claims that Meta, Facebook’s parent company, stole its logo (from Trevor Williams). … Here’s how the Microsoft logo has evolved since the 1970s.