Cubs

In Ben Zobrist spikes flap, MLB fails to see that the players are the product

Ben Zobrist would look ponderous on the base paths if he wore blue spikes, white spikes or tie-dye spikes. But black spikes take a few clicks off his and any player’s top speed, for reasons that science can’t explain. When you’re about to turn 37, as Zobrist is later this month, wise guys start to ask if black spikes are the new comfort shoes.

But it’s the thought that counts, and the thought behind Zobrist’s black cleats is that the past is worthy of being honored. And no one could be against the past, as long as the slice of history being recognized is good, right?

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Wrong, you foolish people!

Major League Baseball has threatened to fine the Cubs' Ben Zobrist for wearing black cleats. Zobrist posted a letter from the league office on Instagram saying the cleats he wore May 2 against Colorado violated the collective bargaining agreement. MLB says they must be at least 51 percent blue--the Cubs' colors--and warned he could be fined and disciplined if he doesn't comply. (John Starks/Daily Herald via AP)

Major League Baseball, in all its backwardness, has identified fun and self-expression as the enemy. MLB recently sent Zobrist a cease-and-desist letter over his choice of footwear, a choice that was meant to pay homage to a time when black spikes were the only kind of spikes. Regulations require players’ shoes to be at least 51 percent of a team’s designated color. In the Cubs’ case, that’s blue.

At first blush, something as trifling as a nonregulation shoe or an outlawed arm sleeve might seem unworthy of attention. But this has the potential to turn into something more and something nasty.

Baseball has had labor peace for the better part of 25 years, but the people running the game seem intent on picking a fight with the people who play the game. It’s a fight MLB can’t win.

The players are the game. The players are the product. The players are the reason the average worth of a franchise is $1.3 billion.

The owners already won the offseason. The free-agent market was frigid, despite the fact that teams were rolling in money. It angered the players’ union, and there were accusations of collusion thrown around.

Before the season, a few players talked openly about a strike.

“I think a strike is the very last thing you want to get to,’’ Kris Bryant, the Cubs’ player rep, said during spring training. “But if it does [get to that], a lot of people have expressed their opinions, so people can put two and two together.”

Why MLB keeps jabbing the golden goose with a stick is hard to figure. Perhaps to commissioner Rob Manfred, this really is about keeping uniforms uniform. To the players, it’s about feeling Manfred’s wingtip on their throats again.

Are those dark clouds on the horizon?

“I think it’s our players’ duty to stand up for what we believe in,” Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said of the shoe flap to USA Today.

Some players’ style choices do cross the line. Cardinals outfielder Marcell Ozuna wears a florescent green sleeve on his right arm for no apparent reason. You can easily make the argument that it could be a distraction to a pitcher. But MLB has not told him to remove it. Ozuna’s sleeve has a Nike swoosh on it, and Nike is an official MLB apparel provider. Would it be wrong to ask if that played a role in his not receiving a letter from MLB? Only if you believe baseball is a nonprofit organization.

Zobrist’s spikes aren’t a problem. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras used to wear an arm sleeve with the Venezuelan flag on it. Who was that bothering? But he stopped wearing it under threat of a fine. Zobrist wore pink spikes on Mother’s Day, as part of MLB’s push to raise awareness of breast cancer. He hasn’t said whether he’ll continue wearing black cleats, as he has during day games since last season. If he does, he will face a fine. He did not speak to the media after the Cubs’ 5-3 loss to the White Sox on Sunday at Wrigley Field.

There’s stupid, there’s more stupid and then there’s what MLB is doing. The sport needs to market itself to a younger audience. That’s its future. And that’s the irony in Zobrist’s ode to the past. He’s showing some flair by going back to a time when there wasn’t flair in the game.

“It kind of takes away from what the players can express and connect with the fans in a way,’’ Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “You can go out there and wear neon arm sleeves, but you can’t wear gray spikes with your away uniform? So there are a few things that don’t make a lot of sense to me.’’

What do kids care about today? Shoes, as the NBA has so clearly and successfully demonstrated. What do they see when they turn to baseball? A sameness. If MLB wants to get a younger audience interested in the game, it sure has a strange way of showing it.

“Guys wear tattoos, guys do earrings. A lot of this stuff that was unacceptable years ago is much more main line today,’’ Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “When I was a young manager and coach, I did not like earrings and tattoos. I thought this was an abomination. [Angels bullpen coach Bob Clear] said, ‘Don’t look. What difference does it make?’ Bob was right. I eventually changed my attitudes on a lot of those things.

“With our game right now, if you’re really looking to attract youngsters, which we are, I think that appeals. It’s an appealing part of what we do out there.’’

Zobrist is an improbable rabble-rouser. He’s a straight arrow, though one with knee-high baseball pants, horizontally striped socks and those black spikes. He criticized MLB on Instagram, calling its threat to fine him “ridiculous.’’

“If you attack something he believes in, I promise you he’s coming back at you,’’ Maddon said. “That’s who he is. He’s very convicted in his belief system.’’

Let’s see how convicted players are on the topic of fashion. This very well could be the other shoe dropping on the labor front.

Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their candid, amusing takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, or via RSS feed.