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Players talk long and short of baseball pants

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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole (left) and third baseman Josh Harrison sport the stirrup look with their throwback uniforms on April 20 at PNC Park, while the Brewers’ Carlos Gomez wears the modern long-pant look.
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen says he likes the way he looks in the throw-back uniform, and “If you like the way you look, you feel good, and when you feel good, you play good.”
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker says he likes the look of the stirrups, but he says the long pants are comfortable, 'like playing in sweatpants.'

For old-school baseball fans, today’s uniform pants are a definite downer.

Falling somewhere south of the ankle, they are a far cry from the knee breeches and stirrups that long defined the major leagues.

Although breeches are still standard-issue among many college and minor league teams, when players hit the “Bigs,” most graduate to a long slouchy style that purists consider a fashion foul.

ESPN uniform columnist Paul Lukas calls them “pajama pants.”

“Players associate the high-cuffed look with something an old fuddy-duddy coach told them had to do when they were in the minors, so even if they want to go high-cuffed and stirrups, they’d take a razzing from their teammates if they were to wear them,” says New York-based Lukas, 50.

“They go ‘pajama pants’ because they can,” he says.

“You have to earn long pants, and you want to be in whatever vibe your team is in,” says Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole. “Long pants are more comfortable.”

Pirates second baseman Neil Walker agrees.

They’re “like playing in sweat pants,” says Walker, who likes the high-cuffed and stirrups look but almost never wears it.

While every other part of a player’s uniform is regulated by Major League Baseball, including the fit of the jersey and the colors of cleats, there are no rules about “the intersection of socks and pants,” giving big leaguers some measure of fashion freedom, says Lukas, an avowed classicist who considers today’s look “dumpy” and an affront to the baseball tradition.

“Pajama pants dishonor the hosiery heritage,” Lukas says. ”There’s a reason we have teams like the Red Sox and White Sox. If I were baseball commissioner, I’d mandate high cuffery and stirrups.”

A handful of players, like the San Francisco Giants’ Hunter Pence, wear high cuffs, but even fewer go all-out with stirrups. Knowing how to properly wear them is becoming a lost art, although faux stirrup-socks provide the look without the hassle.

Pirates’ utility player Josh Harrison prefers playing in long pants but wears high cuffs for turn-back-the-clock Sunday home games, he says, “as a tribute to old-time players.”

So, too, does Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

“I do it as a way to honor the Negro Leagues,” says McCutchen, whose dress-for-success ethic is noted on the field.

“I like the way I look when I wear the throw-back uniform,” McCutchen says. “If you like the way you look, you feel good, and when you feel good, you play good.”

That’s why Pirates catcher Chris Stewart always goes long.

“I’m a pants-down guy,” he jokes. “I have small calves, so I don’t like to show them off. I hide as much as I can.”

Ironically, comfort and practicality prompted the earliest baseball teams in the mid-19 th century to scrap long woolen trousers and go short, like cricket players. It’s how the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1868 got their name.

“Players complained the long pants caught on their shoes,” says Tom Shieber, senior curator of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. “Teams experimented with looser openings or tapered ankles. Some even belted their pants at the ankle, like bikers that don’t want their pants to get caught in the spokes of their wheels, but that didn’t work, either.“

The Red Stockings not only improved their mobility, they got to show off their team color, Shieber says, noting that other clubs followed suit and came to be known by the hue of their socks. “That’s when fashion in baseball started rearing its head.”

When white sanitaries — socks — were added for hygenic reasons, colorful stirrups were adopted around 1910 and remained popular for most of the last century. Pants started to inch downward to somewhere between the knee and the ankle in the 1940s in a trend set by greats like Boston Red Sox hitter Ted Williams.

“The way these things work is like any other kind of fashion,” says Shieber, whose online exhibit “Dressed to the Nines” provides a detailed account of changing uniforms.

“Somebody wears their uniform a certain way, and if other players like it, it catches on, especially if it’s someone who’s successful, like Williams,” he says.

Although umpires fought long pants, claiming they made it harder to see the batters’ strike zone which ends at the knee, by the 1950s, pants were on a downward spiral.

In the early 1990s, then-Pirate Barry Bonds, Cleveland Indian Manny Ramirez, and Montreal Expo Cliff Floyd advanced a no-sock look that morphed into the slouchy trousers that now prevail.

Players were making all sorts of alterations to pants as a matter of both style and efficiency, says Lukas. “Bonds looped fabric under his cleats. Other players were using Velcro, or stretching their cuffs under their heels and impaling them on their cleats.”

Although the MLB eventually banned these things, some players continued to make adjustments and simply paid fines, Lukas says: “Pedro Martinez was fined $5,000 for doing the heel-spike thing in 2006, but it didn’t stop him from doing it again.”

In the Pirates organization, clubhouse and equipment manager Scott Bonnett is the point person on the dress code. Pants can’t cover the logo on a player’s cleats, and cleats have to be at least 51 percent black, he says. “If they’re not, I get an email about it from the MLB. A player can comply, contest it or pay a fine.”

Bonnett started his baseball career as a bat boy for the Cincinnati Reds in the 1980s and has seen fads come and go. “Back then, skin-tight uniforms were in,” he says. “It’s the only look I didn’t like.”

Today’s players wear roomier pants that, despite their casual look, are tailored to their personal preferences, he says. “The second or third day in spring training, Majestic (uniform company) comes to Florida and takes everyone’s measurements and finds out what they like.

“If a guy wants a baggier thigh area, they accommodate. If it’s Starling Marte or anyone who slides a lot, they’ll get an extra layer of protection on the butt, the thighs and the knees.”

Pirates first baseman Ike Davis likes a semi-roomy fit. “I have skinny legs, so my pants can’t be too tight or too loose,” he says.

Experimental looks have come and gone in the leagues, like the shorts the Chicago White Sox donned, briefly, in 1976, around the same time the Pirates traded belts for elasticized waistbands, a style that lasted in most of the majors for about two decades.

Although stirrings of a stirrups comeback have been seen over the years, Lukas doesn’t think they’ll ever get a leg up on the current look.

“Long pants,” he sighs, “are probably here to stay.”

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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