Uniforms are, by definition, uniform: "Not changing in form or character; remaining the same in all cases at all times." So despite slight variations between small, medium, and large, you didn't have much choice as to how your Little League shirt fit from season to season. Nothing was tiny enough for the team shrimp, and tall, lanky kids like myself were usually swimming in oversized XLs that hung off our shoulders and got caught on our elbows during (failed) game-saving catches. We blamed the uniforms, mostly because we could.
But when you're called up to the big leagues, they don't ask you what size tee you wear on the weekends. They don't toss you a few to try on before finding something "close enough" that you have to live with regardless of any discomfort. Instead, each Major League uniform is custom measured and bespoke crafted to fit each player, both in size and need.
"We believe that if it looks good and it feels good, they're going to play good," says Michael Panuccio, manager of patterns at Majestic, which has dressed every MLB team since 2005. "Each person has their own philosophy about how they want their uniform to fit. We might not like the way a pant fits a player, but he's the one up there taking a pitch."
Do you like a pant baggy or tight? Do you wear stirrups? How wide do you like your arm hole? How high? If you're looking at balls in a wide horse-stance, like Jeff Bagwell was known for, you want a little more range of movement. "He got a looser fit, and when big name players do that, others start following them. I saw the pants get a lot bigger around 2003."
Panuccio and his team assists eight northeastern MLB squads each season, making sure that the last thing a player thinks about is how a uniform might be affecting his swing. Three additional groups service the remaining MLB teams in other regions. During annual consultations, players are given the option to adjust the waist, legs, inseam, rise, and taper of their pant, and customize the chest, sleeve, and length of their shirt before the season.
More than 10,000 jerseys and 8,000 pants were produced in the last month before Opening Day this year. Panuccio's staff customized 1,176 for the more than 2,000 ballplayers in their jurisdiction, including everyone from All-Stars to utility guys and bullpen catchers, minor league hopefuls, coaches, and managers. And then they're redone over and over when players change their minds, or when out-of-shape athletes get in mid-season form. Sometimes he makes house calls when teams travel through Philadelphia, Baltimore, or New York.
"Every day we get new orders. Every day," Panuccio says. "We had a player, in one year's time, ask for 11 different pairs of pants. I'm still not sure why."
Beyond fussy athletes, some of whom Panuccio can turn new uniforms around for within the same day in emergency cases, his group has to adjust with the business of baseball, including hot August days, All-Star games, throwbacks, holidays, and the occasional misspelling. He also has to keep an eye on any trade talk, so when players get moved, they have a comfortable copy of their uniform waiting when they arrive at the new destination.
"If you heard about a big name, and three teams think they might get him, we've already made three uniforms and sent them to all three teams," Panuccio explains, "and just said, 'Throw them out if you don't get him.'"
While trends of the steroid era had players hiding massive forms in even bigger shirts and caps, Panuccio has seen the athletes' attention to style pervade on-field gear in recent years.
"Before 1999, you didn't see a wrinkle on anyone," Panuccio says. "I see players going back to a more fitted look. The young kids want a low rise, which didn't even exist a few years ago because it might be uncomfortable if you have a cup on and you're squatting down. But now you have players who are concerned about fashion."
Whether it's a stylish Yankee or one of the haphazard Red Sox "Idiots," ballplayers tend to be neurotic. They focus their attention on a small white ball traveling more than 90 miles-an-hour toward their head, and in the split second when it sits right where they want it, they begin the turn: From their front foot, up their legs, into their hips, torso, shoulders, arms, and hands, they connect with incredible speed and force. Hitting a home run is maybe the hardest feat in sports. It would be a lot tougher if the tall guys were swimming in XLs. Trust me.