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MLB’s cleat crackdown is just petty muscle-flexing

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Sunday’s Say Hey, Baseball looks at MLB’s latest personality-suppressing ridiculousness, the wish of Yasiel Puig’s mother, and the love between Shaq and Judge Judy.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger received a letter from MLB’s offical office of No Fun Or Personality, also known as the commissioner’s office. He’d been wearing fun, personalized cleats on the field, and they didn’t conform to the color scheme rules that had been decided in the previous collective bargaining agreement. At least 51% of the shoe needs to be in the team’s primary color.

But Clevinger wasn’t the only one to get a letter. Ben Zobrist got a letter about the black cleats he’d been wearing at Cubs home games for two years. Jakob Junis, who wears cleats that he thought conformed to this arbitrary color scheme rule, was also sent a letter. So were many other players across the country. Their personalized and sometimes personally meaningful cleats have to go because not enough of their team’s main color is showing.

Of all the things ballplayers wear, their cleats are what we see the least. Half the time they’re buried in grass or dirt, and unless a player tweets a close-up picture, fans aren’t going to know or care at all about them. So why does MLB and Rob Manfred care so much about forcing players to conform to arbitrary cleat color rules, especially when they didn’t seem to care mere weeks before?

There’s a hint in the statement that MLB released in response to Zobrist’s impassioned Instagram post: “We have shoe regulations that were negotiated with the union in the last round of bargaining. If players have complaints about the regulations, they should contact their union which negotiated them. We have informed the union that we are prepared to negotiate rules providing players with more flexibility, and that issue is currently being discussed as part of a larger discussion about apparel and equipment.”

Well okay then! From that statement, it looks like the commissioner’s office is doing this just because it can. It’s almost like they remembered these rules existed and decided to enforce them just to go “neener neener, your stupid union negotiated these rules, how do you like them now!?” That statement couldn’t sound more petty or ridiculous.

The whole thing is mind boggling. Rob Manfred is obsessed with trying to grow the game, but seemingly only through minute, relatively meaningless changes that don’t substantively improve pace of play. He’s ignoring something that could actually seriously make the game more attractive to younger fans: personality. But hey, Rob Manfred, a stuffy middle aged lawyer, obviously knows what kids today want, right? And since he spent years working as a lawyer in MLB’s collective bargaining arm, actively trying to wear down the player’s union and get the best possible deal for MLB owners, I’m sure this shoe thing has nothing to do with the larger, unstated mission of making players angry at each other and at the player’s union, which would continue to weaken it. Rob Manfred just really, really cares about sho color. He cares about it so much.