Baseball caps to have new feel
By Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY
A pitcher stands on the mound in the August sun, tugging at the bill of his sweat-soaked cap, stained white with the salt of his labors.
That might be an image of the past if Major League Baseball's new caps work according to plan.
Big-league caps traditionally have been made of 100% wool. The new caps, debuting opening day, look just like the old ones despite being 100% polyester.
MLB and its cap manufacturer, New Era, say the new fabric is designed to "wick" away sweat and evaporate it while reducing the stains, odor, shrinkage and fading that come with wool.
Most players haven't donned the new caps, but opinions are forming.
"Some of the guys might want to keep the old ones," Chicago White Sox catcher Toby Hall says. "You see some guys out there with their sweat rings, some hats that have (faded and) turned pink. They don't want to get rid of them."
But White Sox outfielder Darin Erstad says, "I like the old school as much as everybody does, but technology has shown its face in every facet of life. So why not reap the benefit of it? ... We'll find out when it's 100 degrees and the sweat's wicking its way from my head onto the hat. Then we'll know how good it is."
According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame website, flannel uniforms, made from a wool-cotton blend, were the norm in the big leagues well into the 1940s. Then came lighter blends of wool and synthetic fibers. In 1970, the Pittsburgh Pirates introduced double-knits, which became the standard.
There has been evolution in caps, too. In the 1950s, the tops of the caps went from eight panels stitched together to six. But caps remained wool — until now, with these new caps made at plants in the Buffalo suburb of Derby, and Demopolis and Jackson in western Alabama.
"Although it's going to look very similar on the field ... it really is the first time we've kind of taken the thing and completely re-engineered it," says John DeWaal, New Era's vice president of global marketing.
In the old caps, the bottom of the brim was light gray. In the new caps, it is black, aimed at reducing glare. The cloth headband inside the cap, also advertised as new and improved for removing moisture, has gone from white to black.
Wicking technology has been used in an array of sports apparel but "it's new for us, and it was unique for us in that it's headwear," DeWaal says. "But the properties are similar to some of the other products that you see out there."
Howard Smith, senior vice president/licensing for MLB Properties, says the change is in keeping with Commissioner Bud Selig's focus on "getting our athletes the best product we can." MLB also was careful not to change the look.
"The proof is in the pudding. ... If you look at two Yankee hats (old and new) or two Pittsburgh Pirates hats side by side, in the absence of looking at the brim, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference," Smith says.
Steve Vucinich, equipment manger of the Oakland A's, says the black bottom of the new brims might require some adjusting for players who like to write inspirational words in black ink.
But Vucinich, who saw about a half dozen A's test the new caps during games over the past two seasons, welcomes the switch. He says on hot days he would notice sweat "pouring" down the sides of players' faces, particularly pitchers, under the old caps.
"Where the bills connect to the hat on the right side and left side, it would mostly drip off there," Vucinich says. "With this wicking, you don't see that at all."
Vucinich says he did a demonstration of moisture management with some of the players who tested the caps. He spilled a few drops of water on the old and new caps.
The droplets tended to bead up on the old caps. With the new caps, the droplets spread out over the fabric.
"It draws the moisture away from your head, and it leads to evaporation a lot quicker," Smith says.
Batting practice 'do-rag'
The new hats won't be used until opening day. New Era, though, has a new line of batting practice caps, and they are being worn in spring training.
The batting practice caps are "stretch fit," not individually sized like the regular-season caps, and sell for $28. They are 62% polyester, 38% wool, also billed as having wicking properties. A stretch band is visible on each side of the cap above the ear.
"I'm not a big fan of them," Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson says of the new batting practice caps. "They have that little different color-flap (the stretch band) above the ear and it looks like everybody is running around with a do-rag under the hat."
That's the look until opening day. Once the season starts, Arizona Diamondbacks second baseman Orlando Hudson says his focus will be on his performance, not his cap.
"As long as I catch the ball behind my pitchers, make plays and get the important outs, that's the big thing," Hudson says. "I don't think the hat is going to help the ball stay in the glove."
He jokingly adds, "If I boot it and it's the hat's fault, I'll tell you after the game, 'It had to be the hat.' "