AKRON Sports have become more of a fashion show than ever in recent years.
Teams have one alternate uniform after another to diversify their look and in the process, build their brand and sell more merchandise to eager fans. One of the pioneers in the multi-look endeavor has been the Oregon Ducks, whose partnership with Nike has allowed them to be college football’s most sartorially diverse program. The Nike-Oregon partnership has produced dozens of combinations of helmets, jersey tops and pants, allowing Oregon to wear a different uniform for literally every game of its season should it choose to do so.
Akron’s own Ducks - or RubberDucks, to be more specific - are likewise a team of many looks, sporting five different regular jersey combinations and mixing in four or more specialty uniforms every season. General manager Jim Pfander is among those who are part of the process of deciding upon and executing those specialty looks and enjoys the chance to bring unique uniforms to the field at Canal Park.
"Some of it’s the same because some of the specialty jerseys are traditions that we try to do every year, like the (Akron) Children’s Hospital one where the kids design the jerseys and we wear the winning design on that night when we recognize them," Pfander said. "It’s just really cool that the kids get to design them, pick the colors and everything that goes with them and we get to wear them."
RubberDucks media relations director Adam Lieberman recalled one recent Children’s Hospital jersey design idea that featured a uniform full of dinosaurs with an interesting twist - all of the dinosaurs had emoji faces. According to Pfander, doing any specialty jersey is typically a six-month process with plenty of planning, revision and conversation among those involved. The Children’s Hospital jerseys, which are typically worn for a home game in August, are one of a long list of specialty jerseys that have brightened up the field at Canal Park in recent years.
"The Children’s Hospital ones hold a special place in everyone’s heart, but the others are fun, too," Pfander said. "We did the Cleveland Force jersey remembering the indoor soccer team that played from about 1978 to 1988 and did their home jersey four years ago, which I see people wearing around town and this year we did their blue road jerseys. We also did the Christmas in July jersey, which was a red jersey with a black belt on it, and last year we did the John Glenn space suit design of his famous orange space suit. It gives us a chance to be a little bit creative and think outside box."
Of course, the specialty uniform business can be a tough one, as is any venture into the world of fashion. Sometimes, players, coaches and fans like an unusual uniform idea and others, not so much. Pfander recalled pitching coach Rigo Beltran’s response to this year’s Cleveland Force-inspired blue jerseys, noting that Beltran said the blue-and-yellow uniforms were "great for a night on the town - in Miami."
Most of the specialty jerseys are auctioned off to fans, or given away in promotions, Pfander noted. Others are given as gifts to sponsors and a handful are kept back for other uses, but the veteran general manager estimated that 95 percent of them are auctioned off.
Shad Gross, the clubhouse manager at Canal Park, has been around longer than most members of the team’s front office and has been part of scores of specialty uniform games. He’s the one who contacts the team’s uniform supplier and arranges to have all of the jerseys made and delivered in time for the game.
"It’s not difficult …. we get a deadline from the supplier and I send them the list of player jerseys we need plus a few extras," Gross said. "The guys usually like them because most of them are made from the same lightweight material as the normal jerseys."
A few of the specialty uniforms have caught on with players, team staffers and fans alike. Gross recalled the 2009 camouflage jerseys the team wore during the regular season and tried to wear during its run to an Eastern League championship, only to be told by the league that they weren’t allowed to wear the unique uniforms in the postseason.
"We wore the camo jerseys four or five times, but we didn’t auction them and the guys actually took them on the road and wore them every day," Gross said. "(Former RubberDucks pitcher and current Cleveland Indians starter) Josh Tomlin loved them and wore his all the time. They wouldn’t let us wear them in the playoffs, so people in the front office wore them instead."
Because the team won the EL title that season, the camo jerseys have retained a special place in the team’s history and another of the specialty uniforms is popular, according to Pfander, because the design is a throwback look to the franchise’s Canton-Akron Indians days playing at Thurman Munson Stadium in Canton. Those jerseys feature the word "Indians" in the design, so it gives players a chance to wear a uniform with the name of the major league team for which they hope to play some day.
Of course, given the promotion-heavy style of minor league baseball, such jerseys are a way of life for many teams at all levels of the minors. For the RubberDucks, they’re also a fun way to add color to the long baseball season.
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