Time is right for Padres to bring back brown
July, 16, 2012
By Tom Krasovic | Special to ESPN.com
ESPN.com IllustrationThe San Diego Padres reportedly are going to be sold in the near future. John Moores, the Texas tycoon who's owned them since 1994, apparently is prepared to cash out his chips, and the club will introduce a new owner at 19 Tony Gwynn Drive.
We here at Playbook want a fast start for the new boss. To that end, free of charge, we're offering, along with a plate of fish tacos, a piece of winning advice for the incoming millionaire or billionaire.
Show up, good sir, at the news conference wearing a smart brown suit.
Armani or Brooks Brothers, it doesn't matter, just make sure that it's brown. If it's as dark as a cacao bean and set against a frothy white shirt, all the better.
The daring newcomer should then hammer home the message, as firmly as Nate Colbert laying into a plump curveball at old San Diego Stadium.
Tell one, tell all, that you're bringing back the brown.
Eyes and TV cameras will shift to the man known in San Diego as Mr. Padre, the aforementioned Tony Gwynn.
Trust us, he'll be smiling.
"I'd love it," said the .338 career hitter, first-ballot Hall of Famer and Padre for all 20 of his major league seasons. "That's how we started, with brown. I'd love to see brown."
Rich Pilling/MLB Photos/GettyHall of Famer Tony Gwynn picks the Padres' 1985 uniforms as his favorite from his MLB career.
Brown and the Padres, like surf and San Diego, go way back, to 1969 and the franchise's first big league season. The original Padres wore uniforms, logos and caps trimmed with, and sometimes dominated by, brown mated with mustard. As if to distract fans from the team's performances, the club changed its uniforms several times over the next few decades, dabbling with orange, changing the lettering, adopting a rainbow blend and also pinstripes -- but brown, as plucky as David Eckstein, survived until blue arrived in 1991, nearly 15 years after Crystal Gayle first sang, "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue."
Over the years, Padres fans nostalgic for the 1970s and ’80s have lamented the brownout. A passionate vocal minority is how Padres president Tom Garfinkel, in the job since 2009, described the bring-back-the-brown crowd last year.
A club poll of Padres fans, Garfinkel said, showed "a much larger segment of the fan base that was adamantly opposed to the brown."
Appreciation for the brown mystique, however, isn't limited to the more seasoned Padres fan.
"I think it's a great color that's unique," said Padres outfielder Will Venable, 29, a Princeton man and son of former San Francisco Giants outfielder Max Venable. "I'm a big fan, really, of any of the throwback jerseys we wear, especially the brown ones. It's something that myself and a lot of the guys here are happy to wear."
Done right, brown could be a moneymaker for the Padres, who have the smallest payroll in the majors and play in one of the five smallest TV markets in the major leagues. As the only major league team to wear brown, think of the marketing tie-ins with UPS. What brown can do for you.
Instead of continuing to look like the Brewers or the Mariners, two wearers of pedestrian dark blue, the Padres could stand on their own.
"Brown is part of who the Padres are," said Gwynn, who wears black and red these days while coaching baseball at his alma mater, San Diego State, "and it's definitely unique in baseball, because no one else has brown. How many teams have blue? How many have red? But none of 'em have brown."
Peter O'Malley, who owned the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1979 to 1998, has lent his name and expertise to a group that is said to be the leading bidder for the Padres.
When most baseball fans think of O'Malley and a color, they think of Dodger Blue.
Just two years ago, when he visited O'Malley in his downtown Los Angeles office while researching an article about Dodgers ownership, Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins noted the suite's address -- 1988, the last year the Dodgers won a World Series -- and its blue-themed decor. There was a drawing of Dodger Stadium. There was a model of Dodger Stadium. There were photographs of Dodger Stadium during the day and at night and even under construction.
If there's one team that riles up Padres fans, it's the Dodgers.
O'Malley, by choosing brown, could promptly disassociate himself from the disliked blue team 120 miles to the north.
Whoever becomes owner of the Padres surely will promise to build upon the success of the team's farm system, which entered this season ranked No. 1 by ESPN's Keith Law and No. 3 by Baseball America.
Brown is synonymous with Padres scouts finding great players. Each of the franchise's homegrown players enshrined in Cooperstown -- a group comprised of Gwynn, Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield and Roberto Alomar Jr. -- pulled on a brown uniform in his major league debut.
Wearing chocolate brown tops trimmed in orange and yellow, the Padres, in 1984, with Gwynn as their right fielder, brought the franchise its first National League West title. They upset the Cubs in the League Championship Series before losing the World Series, in five games, to the Detroit Tigers.
Gwynn, reporting to spring training in Yuma, Ariz., four months later, pulled on a new uniform and cackled with pleasure. Gone were the chocolate tops, which could be murderously hot in the summer. The new duds lined with pinstripes were Gwynn's favorite of the several uniforms he wore over the 20 seasons, and a reason for first baseman Steve Garvey to take a bow that March.
"Garvey used to brag how he designed the '85 uniform because we were being called the 'taco team' in the '84 series, and we got beat, and the very next year we got the new ones," Gwynn said.
It's possible that Gwynn, who is on the team's payroll as a consultant, will be asked by the next Padres owner whether to reclaim brown for its color scheme. O'Malley, for one, is known to have expressed interest in employing Gwynn should his group's bid prevail. When the overture came, however, Gwynn was aligned with another bidder for the club, Hollywood movie mogul Thomas Tull.
Brown isn't necessarily a popular choice among younger Padres fans who may associate blue with San Diego's teams that won division titles in 1996, ’98, 2005 and ’06. (The '98 team, after setting a franchise record by winning 98 games, reached the World Series despite wearing blue jerseys that the team's pitching coach, Dave Stewart, a former major league ace, likened to pajamas.)
Diamond Images/Getty ImagesRandy Jones rocked this uniform en route to the 1976 NL Cy Young.
When the Padres polled Little Leaguers in San Diego about a variety of uniforms worn by the Padres over the years, the children preferred the team's camouflage uniforms, which are worn at Sunday home games. "You could incorporate brown into the camouflage, and I think it would still look good," Gwynn said.
From the Little Leaguers, all of the blue-themed uniforms drew more votes than the various iterations of brown, but Gwynn, who's not beholden to the past, isn't interested in trying to sway the skeptics of brown, either young or old, by re-introducing a Padres uniform from the 1970s or ’80s.
He'd like the Padres to put a 21st century spin on brown, using the color as complementary hue to a fresh design. His overarching message: Be smart and creative about it.
"You've got to make it look good," he said. "You can't just be throwing something together. It's got to be right."
He gave one example: "You could make it a white uniform with brown letters and orange trim, and make it sleeveless, where you wear brown sleeves underneath. You could do a whole lot of different things. I think people would love it. And I would bet some of these young kids would want it because it's something different."
At least one prominent baseball lover would applaud the Padres for modernizing the brown look. Baseball writer Tyler Kepner of the New York Times cheered for the Padres as a boy growing up in Philadelphia, in part, he said, because of their brown-and-yellow uniforms.
Kepner was 9 when the "taco" Padres went to the World Series. By then, he'd taken to wearing a brown long-sleeved shirt under a yellow jersey. He liked the team's "incongruous" look contrasting the familiar uniforms and storied ballparks of its two postseason opponents, the Cubs and Tigers.
"It was cool to me that there was something that was outside of the traditional mindset," he said. "I just thought there was something neat about that. I just thought it looked beautiful. More than just beautiful, I liked the sentiment behind it of, 'This is who we are.'"
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesHall of Famer Roberto Alomar dons the most recent incarnation of the brown Padres uniform from 1990.
Even after the Padres lost all five games in ancient Wrigley Field and Tiger Stadium, Kepner never forgot the colorful team from the distant land of endless summers and palm trees, and he appreciated its protecting the honor of his favorite team, the Phillies, by knocking off a Cubs squad stocked with turncoat ex-Phillies.
A brown footnote: The Phillies played a role in the brown shoes worn by several Padres teams. Because sporting goods manufacturers weren't willing to supply the entire team with brown shoes in the early 1980s, Gwynn said Padres players and clubhouse workers achieved the brown look by applying brown polish to shoes of other colors, and maroon Phillies shoes were a popular choice. "When you put the brown on the maroon, it looked good," he said.
Kepner's affinity for the Padres’ brown garb has persisted into adulthood. The writer, who owns a Padres shirt bearing the oafish Swinging Friar logo and a brown cap with an orange "SD" logo, was deflated by the Padres' most recent tweak to their uniforms, in 2011, because the colors remained navy blue and white.
He believes the Padres succeeded only at getting more bland and called it a missed opportunity.
"I think a team loses something when it tries to look like someone else or tries to go after some ideal," he said. "The Padres, ever since they dropped the brown in '91, it looks to me like they're kind of pretending. They should just go all out and be who they are. The Padres should look like the Padres."
If brown poses an artistic challenge not easily met in a baseball uniform, or for that matter any sports uniform, it also offers a chance to reclaim the franchise's uniqueness.
"I'm just an old-school guy who coaches college baseball," said Gwynn, "but, again, you're talking about the only team in all of baseball that would wear brown."
Tom Krasovic is a San Diego-based sports writer who writes too much about the Padres, who -- without meaning to be -- are as funny as Ray Romano. He’s a creator of West Coast Bias -- sports as seen from the West. Follow him on Twitter at @tomkrasovic and read his blog, Inside the Padres.