Finding a uniform policy

April 08, 1999|By George F. Will

LOS ANGELES -- The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Jiffy Lube Giants this day. They trailed the Burger King Dodgers 4-3 with but one inning left to play.

Dodgers' pitcher, Kevin "Chevy Trucks: Like A Rock" Brown (during the Seventh Inning Stretch, which was brought to the fans at Microsoft Dodger Stadium by Frito Lay, General Motors bought the naming rights to Brown) toed the big "S" on the chocolate-brown Snickers pitcher's mound and glared toward the red Papa John's Pizza home plate, where the recently renamed Barry "Tylenol" Bonds menacingly waved his black Twizzlers Licorice bat with the bright yellow M&M's sweet spot on the barrel.

Antacid relievers

The Dodgers' How Do You Spell Relief? R-O-L-A-I-D-S bullpen was busy as the Giants' runners took their leads from the pink Victoria's Secret first base, the purple Eunice and Ralph's Bar, Grill, Bowling Alley, Truck Stop, Massage Parlor and Pawn Shop second base, and the sea-blue Santa Monica Condominiums: If You Lived Here You Would Be Home By Now third base.

Brown touched the Starbucks resin bag, ground the pilsener-yellow Coors Light ball into the Citibank logo in the pocket of his bright green TruGreen-ChemLawn glove and ...

000-

Has it come to this? Not yet. And the people pondering the advertising-on-uniforms question say not to worry. A word to the wise: Worry.

Those thinking about putting advertising on major league uniforms say it is unthinkable that baseball could become like stock car racing, where drivers, wearing jumpsuits plastered from shoulder to ankle with advertisements, drive cars that are rolling billboards, and at the end of a race pop out of their cars holding particular products -- say, a sponsor's soft drink. But the way to prevent a slide down a slippery slope is to stay off the slope.

Some will say: Lighten up; we are already slaloming swiftly down the slope. Ads on uniforms would just be additional bits of ballpark signage, so would putting one small logo on one sleeve (the "R" of the uniform manufacturer, Russell Athletic, already is on a sleeve).

Let us be clear. Baseball, like any business, should be unsleeping in pursuit of profits. "Soaring revenue" is the second-most beautiful phrase (second to "Opening Day") in the American language. America would be a better place if the Fortune 500 list of biggest businesses were Major League Baseball and 499 also-rans.

Ballpark signage is as traditional as players spitting. (The origin of the term "bullpen" is lost in history's mists, but some say it was born when pitchers warmed up along fences adorned with Bull Durham tobacco signs.)

Corporations make sensible advertising decisions by buying naming rights to ballparks, thereby helping themselves, their communities and baseball. (Why is a ballpark bearing the name of a business offensive to fastidious fans who get misty-eyed thinking of old ballparks named for businessmen -- Crosley Field, Ebbets Field, Wrigley Field, Shibe Park, Griffith Stadium, Comiskey Park, Navin Field which then became Briggs Stadium before becoming Tiger Stadium?)

If businesses want to sponsor (and they do) pregame lineup announcements, calls to the bullpen, seventh inning stretchesgood.

But advertisements on uniforms cross a line, a fine line but one worth drawing, between advertising so strategically placed that large numbers of people are apt to see it (say, on the scoreboard) and advertising so unavoidable it is assaultive. Advertising on players -- the necessary focus of fan's attention -- obscures the fact that within the cheerful swirl of commerce at a ballpark, there is a baseball game, a dignified competition in a zone of its own, within the white lines.

Furthermore, baseball, unique among American sports, is in its second century of traditions that are still more often cherished than traduced. Those traditions, which include some teams' uniforms are a marketable asset.

So baseball has a business interest in conserving the aura of being a bit more than a mere business. So leave the sleeves alone.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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