by Dan Glaun
The short black sleeves on Alex Pappas’s jersey were offset by a triptych of white and orange lines near the shoulder. “Yaquis de Obregon” was splashed across the front in a slanted, stylized font, the dark letters bordered in orange. Pappas told the small crowd around the table about how he had hopped the border to get the jersey, which represents a team from a Mexican winter baseball league. The kid next to him, Mike Engle, wore the blue and red of the Montreal Canadiens and offered a tamer story: He’d merely custom-ordered his clothes to look like those of the team’s mascot, and replaced the usual numbers with an exclamation point. But Paul Lukas, whose jeans were rolled up to the knee to reveal striped baseball socks, sipped from a pint glass and quietly listened all the same.
Though millions of college bros and white collar desk jockeys analyze their fantasy football teams each year with the statistical rigor of a top-flight dungeon master, the social centrality of sports mostly insulates its obsessives from any outsider status. But then there are people like Lukas, the fifty-year-old writer behind Uni Watch, ESPN.com’s regular column on sports aesthetics, and his audience — who call themselves the “uni-verse” — close-readers of the visual language with which teams brand themselves through color, pattern and uniform variations. Their debates rage over the relative merits of long and short baseball pants; they catalog minor and major changes to sports clothing; they note trends in typographical size and angle; and they count chevrons and check-patterns.
The gathering, at Brooklyn’s Sheep Station bar last month, was the fifteenth anniversary party for Lukas’ project — a remarkable longevity for what began as a niche column for the Village Voice. “I’ve had a lot of media projects — three years doing this, four years doing that,” Lukas told me. “I am surprised that this has turned out to be the most durable.” Lukas spent much of the nineties writing about industrial and consumer design for outlets like Fortune, New York Magazine and the now-defunct New York Press, covering stories from the naming conventions of fried chicken restaurants to reviews of the world’s shittiest product launches — a beat that Lukas described as “inconspicuous consumption.”
In 1999, Lukas pitched the idea for a regular uniform design column to then-Village Voice sports editor Miles Seligman, whose deliberately off-beat section nestled behind the alt-weekly’s sex ads, featured pieces like regular movie-style reviews of hockey fights. “I think we had a conversation about the button on top of the Mets cap,” Seligman said. “That kind of minutia, both of us were animated and excited to talk about. That’s the kind of thing that we did at the sports section in the Village Voice.” Seligman, who envisioned the column with significant political bent, encouraged Lukas early on to cover the controversy over the Washington Redskins team name, but Lukas preferred to focus on the details of the uniforms themselves. “My goal was to talk about geeky minutia,” Lukas said. (In recent years, however, Uni Watch has taken a strong editorial stance on the naming of the Redskins; it has refused to print the team’s name or logo on membership cards, and it runs a regular feature covering efforts to re-christen the team something less blatantly degrading.)
After the Voice shuttered its sports section in 2003, Lukas’s column was briefly picked up by Slate, before finding a long-term home at ESPN. The site’s unconventional treatment of the sport was initially met by backlash; Uni Watch’s FAQ maintains a section with a pre-emptive rebuke to readers who question Lukas’ sexuality for covering sports in terms of its clothing. But the growth of sports writing that downplays the beat’s competitive masculinity — like the stats-focused offerings of Baseball Prospectus, which published Nate Silver before he targeted his algorithms at national politics — has largely normalized the project, which now has a committed online audience. Over a thousand of Lukas’s readers have shelled out for twenty-five dollars for membership cards.
Marty Buccafusco, on crutches and in a pre-World War II replica baseball jersey, and his wife Jesse, pregnant and in street clothes, told me that the interaction on Lukas’s blog and occasional in-person meetups provide a counterpoint to what had been an isolating hobby. “Before this it was like you sit with a group of people watching sports, and you’ll bring something up like, ‘Wow, that’s weird, these stripes are slightly larger,’ or ‘On Thursdays, the Cowboys have a different color blue in their pants than in their helmet,’” he said. “And everybody’s like, ‘What?’”
A childhood fascination with the details of baseball was a common thread among the readers at the meet up, whether it had once been train on card collections or hours of baseball broadcasts. Engle, the twenty-year-old in a red and white Montreal Canadiens jersey, described the appeal of seeing a detail he’d never noticed before. “I’ve always been the person who tries to look for the patterns and then the exceptions,” Engle said. “If you’ve seen it, you can never not see it any more.”
It seems an odd subject to inspire passion, but according to Lukas, their interest is rooted in one of the strongest forms of branding out there: the loyalty between fan and team. Lukas cited the Seinfeld bit on sports lovers “rooting for laundry” — the unique pull that keeps Knicks fans buying tickets despite the radical, nepotistic incompetence of owner James Dolan, that has Cubs fans staying Cubs fans despite a legacy of failure that would send near any other product to the discount rack. “That is a completely bizarre and irrational and powerful form of brand loyalty,” Lukas said. “That is the power of the uniform.”
Dan Glaun is a writer living in in Queens.
Photos by Jake and Leigh Greaney, respectively.