Shrinkflation and see-through pants: MLB’s uniform debacle is a sheer farce

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Philadelphia Phillies;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Philadelphia Phillies</a> players wait to have their photo taken during a spring training photo day last month.</span><span>Photograph: Charlie Neibergall/AP</span>

Back in the ’90s there was this executive with the New York Yankees – the assistant to the traveling secretary, if memory serves – who was a big believer in the power of the breathable uniform. But it’s unlikely even George Costanza would have cottoned to baseball’s latest wardrobe change.

Ahead of the upcoming season, Major League Baseball announced plans to update the playing uniforms for all 30 clubs. The rollout has gone about as well as the league’s other attempts to breathe fresh life into America’s stodgy old pastime in recent years. What’s more, it’s almost too fitting that the poster boy for this problem is the game’s biggest draw.

When spring training opened last month, there was great anticipation to clap eyes on Shohei Ohtani in an LA Dodgers uniform for the first time since the Japanese star scored an historic 10-year, $700m contract from the club. But his official team portrait made it appear as if prying the two-way star away from the “crosstown” Angels had come at the expense of the Dodgers’ clothing budget. “Why is Shohei Ohtani wearing see-through pants?” was the Japanese press’ snap reaction, news that was only recently topped by Ohtani announcing his surprise marriage to “a normal Japanese woman”. Action shots from spring training games showed what else players risked showing off in the trousers if they bent over or attempted more technical baseball moves. On the Tonight Show, host Jimmy Fallon cracked: “I get the feeling this year we’re going to see a lot more dingers.”

Besides being too revealing, the jerseys also feature smaller fonts for the numbering and lettering; call them knock-on effects from working with lighter material designed to provide 25% more stretch and dry 28% faster according Nike, which engineered the new unis – which are still made from polyester. You know they used to make leisure suits out of that fabric?

All the new baseball uniforms appear to be airing right now are the players’ frustrations. One unnamed Orioles player told the Baltimore Banner that his refreshed livery felt like a “knockoff jersey from TJ Maxx”. The Kansas City Royals successfully lobbied to keep their old threads. The San Diego Padres are hoping no one notices them passing off last year’s pants as this year’s pants. Yankees reliever Tommy Kahnle told the New York Post that his pants, in addition to being see-through, are “a little tighter than we’re used to”. That’s despite Nike saying it body-scanned “more than 300 MLB players to dial into the ideal fit”.

The sense of discomfort is so pervasive around the league that players complained to their union in hopes of stalling the new uniform rollout until alterations can be made. Meanwhile, fans can’t help but take the misfits as more evidence of how much commissioner Rob Manfrend hates his sport. “It’s an ongoing dialogue,” union head Tony Clark told reporters after meeting with Dodgers players about the new uniforms last week, adding that he hoped to resolve the matter before the end of spring training. “I’d hate to be in a place where we’re still having conversations about some of the challenges we have in that regard once the lights come on.” Even so, MLB remains defensive about its fancy rags. Denis Nolan, the league’s senior vice president of global consumer products, called them “world-class”.

Any time costume overhauls happen in sports, the immediate reviews are bound to chafe. When Nike unveiled new college basketball uniform styles more than a decade ago, many sports fans couldn’t imagine the kids at Duke or Kentucky pairing their baggy shorts with skin-tight jersey tops. But before long, the trend caught on and the actual basketball games regained prominence before anyone really noticed the shorts had shrunk down to a trimmer size. The tone is similarly harsh when an NBA team unfurls “city edition” colors, an NFL team “thinks pink” and either league attempts to explain these vogue lines as anything more than a blatant cash grab.

Still: Major League Baseball’s uniform unraveling feels like something different, just the latest example of shrinkflation. For much of this century MLB uniforms have been made by Majestic, a near-50-year-old firm based in Pennsylvania’s textile corridor. But then in 2017 the company was bought by Fanatics, an online sports merchant run by Michael Rubin – the Philly-area tech bro and former 76ers co-owner better known now for taking the Hampton all-white party mantle from Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs. Since Fanatics has been in the licensed sports apparel game, they’ve earned a reputation among customers for selling poorly made goods at a considerable premium.

Last September one Philadelphia Eagles fan related his experience paying $80 for a pair of Kelly green t-shirts with Jalen Hurts’s name and number misaligned. Another fan reported paying $110 for an Eagles windbreaker that had left the team logos off entirely. As millions more fans went public with similar gripes, Fanatics paused shipments of Eagles gear to conduct a quality control assessment. (“One wrong order or unhappy fan is too many,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “We take every complaint very seriously.”)

None of that has shielded Fanatics from further accusations of scarcity pricing or price-gouging or charging extra for jersey sponsor patches, bringing the total damage for a fully loaded official replica to $449.99 plus shipping costs (free, for a limited time) – a scheme that makes the Human Fund look like actual charity. Not even Fanatics pausing the MLB uniform rollout during the pandemic to manufacture masks and gowns for emergency personnel on the Covid-19 frontlines seems to have bought any lasting goodwill.

The company’s shabby reviews are neatly summed up in a social media feed called Fanatics Sucks. The pinned post is a spoof of a TV ad for the NHL’s online store – for which Fanatics furnishes, it jokes, “the largest assortment of the worst selection of fan gear anywhere. Every NHL team and seven players you’ve heard of, all printed on the cheapest material found in China.” So it figures that Wall Street touts Fanatics, worth about $31 billion, “as the Amazon of sports” even as the company lays off hundreds of employees and is named with the NFL in an antitrust lawsuit.

On its face, breathable uniforms are a capital idea: players are cooler, more comfortable, happier – they’re gonna play better. But if baseball’s chosen outfitter keeps struggling to thread the needle, the league shouldn’t be surprised if America’s pastime falls even further out of fashion.