Late last week, it became apparent MLB was cracking down on custom cleats in a way they hadn’t done recently. There wasn’t a specific rule change that led to it — consider it more of an existing policy the league decided they wanted to enforce all of a sudden — but multiple players received letters about their infractions.
Ben Zobrist got a letter about the all-black cleats he’s always worn at Wrigley Field in a salute to baseball tradition, and is now continuing to wear them in defiance of the league threatening punishment. Mike Clevinger and Jakob Junis both received letters about their custom cleats as well as they did not fall under the color schemes agreed upon by the current CBA.
This is all petty squabbling between the league and the union that is now affecting players and their chosen uniform tweaks — uniform tweaks that don’t make a damn difference about a player’s performance on the field.
In fact, people like Bryce Harper (with his custom brand-inspired cleats) and Zobrist become more interesting and watchable if they have fun with their uniforms.
But the league is clearly cracking down to prove a point, and their latest move is to ban Willson Contreras’ Venezuelan-flag sleeve, which he wears to honor his home country. Last year, Contreras said of the custom sleeve,
“We’ve been having a tough time and I want to do the best for Venezuela. Our minds after the game go back to our families. I was playing for my country today.”
Yes, because honoring your home country completely precludes you representing the team you play for in the states. This move is even more egregious than the cleats since the cleats were just for fun and to show off some personality on the field.
Contreras’ sleeve is a little bit deeper than simply showing off his personality, especially considering what Venezuelans have been through over the past year and the awareness the flag can bring. Even if the league is suddenly classifying the sleeve as “political”, it would be quite the stretch. And a stretch that wasn’t happening last season.
”Nobody said anything to us this year. A lot of guys ordered their custom spikes, what they wanted to wear and go out there and show on the field and grow the game. Now all of a sudden, just out of nowhere, they’re dropping warnings and fines on people.
”It’s just been interesting. If they want us to work together in a lot of situations, then they crunch down on something as small as this, it’s just really confusing.
If the league can hold press conferences a dozen times a year about all the ways they are growing the game and tweaking coverage to appeal to more fans in the regular season and during the postseason, but then abruptly change their minds about players having a little fun despite there being no official rule change from last year to now, it’s an absurd case of mixed messaging.
Under commissioner Rob Manfred the league has made strides, sure, but after an offseason of PR battles with the players and the union over free agency holdups and smaller contract sizes is this really how it wants to be conducting itself? Like a parent grounding a kid for being home three minutes past curfew when they used to be able to come home a half hour late and it was never an issue?
Casual fans may not have been specifically attuned to the petty squabbling over the offseason, but their favorite players speaking out about this ridiculous, unreasonable behavior is absolutely something they will notice. It will be interesting to see if the league backs off after player and fan pushback, or if this is the latest hill they’ve chosen to die on.