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A Brief Guide to MLB's Bizarre Uniform Guidelines

MLB outlawed Willson Contreras's Venezuela armband because it violated its uniform policy. So what other rules exist in those guidelines?

Major League Baseball’s recent wave of warnings about uniform violations—to Mike Clevinger and Ben Zobrist about their cleats, and to Willson Contreras about his personalized sleeve—don’t feel like they’re meant to protect specific policies; it feels more like they’re meant to protect an idea. That idea is one of what belongs in baseball and what doesn’t, and where individual personalities and concepts of fun might fit in there, and it’s all very old; it’s the sort of thing that feels so fundamental as to be embedded in the very structure of the game.

But, of course, there are specific policies behind these violations, and rather than being natural pieces of baseball’s foundation, they’re carefully crafted through years of negotiation, as the MLBPA recently reminded everyone. “The shoe regulations in our CBA were initiated by the League office,” the MLBPA’s statement from this week reads. “On multiple occasions, Players have sought modifications to relax them … But our previous proposals have been either rejected or met with unbalanced demands for concessions.”

Each individual word of those regulations is debated and chosen deliberately, with lawyers heavily involved on both sides to produce the result. Which is all par for the course here, but it still feels a bit funny when you realize that the aforementioned shoe regulations have to include provisions as basic as “avoid excessive laces.” So, in light of all this, a look at some of the more creative rules filed under the CBA’s uniform guidelines:

“Players will not be allowed to change shoes while running bases during any Major League game.”

Perfectly reasonable! There are any number of valid reasons to ban shoe changes on the basepaths, perhaps none better than the fact that it could slow the process down an awful lot, and it’s completely logical to make sure that no player can try for an outside advantage here by upgrading his cleats. And yet… what would the situation prohibited here even look like? The player pulling some spare shoes out of his pocket as he rounds first? Motioning to a base coach to come bring him some cleats? Signaling to the dugout for someone to toss a pair over? Whatever it may be, the CBA makes sure that we won’t find out.

“Every effort will be made to replace, in a timely fashion, pants torn during the game.”

This is all collectively bargained, yes, but the bulk of these uniform regulations read as the league putting forth standards for the players. You must wear this; you cannot wear that. But this one is different—the only one that seems designed as an open accommodation for players. If you tear your pants, they’ll try to get you some new ones. No guarantees, of course. But they’ll make their best effort.

“At least 51% of the exterior of each Player’s shoes must be the Club’s designated primary shoe color and the portion of the Club’s designated primary shoe color must be evenly distributed throughout the exterior of each shoe.”

There’s not too much precision in these regulations. Uniforms aren’t supposed to feature “distracting” shoe flaps or “baggy” pants, but there’s not a whole lot of clarification on what that means. For this one, though, the precision is the whole thing. No less than 51 percent of the primary color, and evenly distributed, at that. It doesn’t exactly seem like the sort of thing that can accurately be assessed from afar by the league office, but, hey, a rule’s a rule.

“A Player will not be permitted to change his jersey number even if such request is approved by his Club unless the request was received by the Office of the Commissioner no later than July 31 of the year preceding the championship season in which the jersey number change would take effect. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the Office of the Commissioner will not deny a request to change a Player’s jersey number even when the requisite notice was not provided if... the Player (or someone on his behalf) purchases the existing finished goods inventory of apparel containing the Player’s jersey number that is held on hand by the then-current authorized apparel licensee(s).”

There have been only a handful of changes to the uniform regulations over the past decade, and this is one of them. Included for the first time in the 2011 edition of the CBA, this establishes that even if a player misses the in-season window to file for a new jersey number, he can still make the change—as long as he buys up all of the existing apparel that’s available with his old number. Which, as the Cincinnati Reds’ Scooter Gennett found out firsthand when he tried to switch away from #4 last season, can add up to a quite a lot: “They make so many jerseys in the team shop… I just don’t have the available cash to be able do that.”