Looking back to the future of baseball


Tim Stride

In less than two months from the date of this blog post - Wednesday, October 21 2015, to be precise - Marty McFly will appear in the town of Hill Valley, California. That is, the Marty McFly from 1985, transported 30 years into his future in a time machine fashioned from a DeLorean car. The bewildering, futuristic world that he will experience is, of course, the present day that you and I have become blithely indifferent to: a world of flying cars, teenagers wearing their trousers inside out, and public fax machines on street corners.

Hill Valley 2015
An ordinary street, yesterday.

As the date approaches, there has been much reflection among fans of the Back to the Future film series on the slightly tongue-in-cheek vision of 2015 that the filmmakers of the late 1980s came up with in the second film in the time travel series. Some elements of Back to the Future Part II were firmly rooted in the '80s, like the ubiquity of fax as the primary communications means of the future, which has long since been superseded by email, text messaging, smartphones and social media. The things that were most exciting when the film was released in 1989 - the flying cars, hoverboards, self-tying shoes - are only at the development stage. Some things they got right, like the use of video calling and the current fondness for '80s style.

Cafe '80s in Back to the Future
Café 80s: "It's one of those nostalgia places but not done very well."

Another aspect of the film that has been re-visited, at least among baseball fans (particularly those on the North Side of Chicago) is the World Series reference. When Marty is first checking out future Hill Valley, he sees a holographic billboard announcing that the Chicago Cubs have swept Miami to win the 2015 World Series. This was a reference to the Cubs famously having one of the longest championship droughts in American pro-sports (now 106 years and counting) and some fun at the idea that Miami would have a baseball team (the Miami area did gain an MLB franchise a few years after the film was made).

With the Cubs in the real 2015 having one of their best seasons in several years (at the time of writing they occupy one of the National League Wild Card spots), an Illinois car museum has picked up on the link and will give away a DeLorean to one lucky competition winner if the Cubs win this year’s World Series. On the flip side, the Miami Marlins are running several promotional events this season designed to “#RewriteTheFuture” and see themselves come out on top instead of the Cubbies.

Thinking about this baseball reference and, more generally, Back to the Future II’s now retro vision of the future brought to mind another instance when somebody thought about what baseball in the future would look like. It was a unique Major League Baseball promotion that I had heard about briefly but felt it was now time to look into more. 

MLB fans will be familiar with ‘Turn Back the Clock’ events in which teams swap out their usual uniforms to play a regular season game in a recreated version of a uniform from earlier in the history of the franchise or region. This became a trendy thing to do in the 1990s and has since become a staple of the MLB season. Baseball reveres its own past and besides being a way for a club’s marketing department to add some variety to an 81-game home schedule, these ‘throwback’ games are often used to celebrate a special event in franchise history or simply to have a bit of nostalgic fun with the fans -  check out this great list of the best throwback uniforms by ESPN. 

On 18 July 1998, with the start of a new millennium not far off, the Seattle Mariners put a new twist on the theme by hosting the first ever ‘Turn Ahead the Clock Night’. With the support of the Kansas City Royals, the opponents that night, the Mariners’ marketing team transported the Kingdome and its occupants to the year 2027, which would be the 50th anniversary of Mariners baseball

Both teams wore redesigned ‘futuristic’ uniforms. For practical purposes, they avoided anything too radically different, like wearing Star Trek-style unitards or something, but the Mariners did go with a completely new red, black and silver-grey colour scheme. As this was the ‘90s, it featured a jazzy new font for names and numbers, the logo blown up to fill the whole jersey and everything rotated slightly to give it a quirky, off-beat slant. Apparently, outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. really bought into the idea and added his own elements to the look for himself and his teammates. He spray-painted their shoes and gloves silver and decided that baseball players of the future would wear their undershirts with sleeves cut off and their hats backwards (wacky!).

Ken Griffey Jr in futuristic uniform

Lineup announcementTo really build the atmosphere inside the Kingdome – renamed the Biodome for the night – the pregame lineup introductions were done on the video screen with the lights turned out and an accompaniment of lasers and pyrotechnics. The out-of-town scoreboard included an interplanetary game between the Saturn Rings and the Mercury Fire, and the Mariners introduced a new mascot for one night only: Marty the Martian (who was actually the Astros’ mascot, Orbit, decked out in Mariners colours).

Also, this happened: 

Scotty throughs out first pitch

That’s ‘Scotty’ from Star Trek throwing out the first pitch after being driven onto the field in a DeLorean. The ball was brought on by an actual robot (the garbage can thing behind Scotty). Notice, as well, that some of the advertising banners on the outfield wall were given a futuristic design tweak for the night, such as the Southwest Airlines logo.

Over 42,000 people attended that night, watching the Mariners triumph 8-5 over the Royals, and the whole evening was generally regarded as a success. Major League Baseball was so taken by it that the following season they decided to party like it was 1999 (it was) and rolled out ‘Turn Ahead the Clock’ events across the league. By all accounts, these did not prove as popular as the original as less effort was put into the individual events and most of the uniforms were pretty dubious - and in some cases hideous - attempts at imagining a futuristic baseball outfit. Unlike the ‘throwback’ events, some of the older and biggest franchises like the Dodgers, Yankees and Cubs refused to take part, further weakening the strength of the promotion.

Personally, I think the first Mariners event sounds amazeballs (as we say in the 21st Century) and if I had my own DeLorean I would love to travel back to that night in July 1998 and experience it for myself. Sure, it was gloriously tacky in contrast to a lot of ‘throwback’ games, which tap into either the simplicity and tradition of early uniforms or fan affection for some of the more colourful outfits of the 1960s-1980s. But I think it worked because it was a bit of a maverick idea, a fun one-off and everyone involved went all-in on the theme for one night.

It was harder to repeat the same impact the following year when it was kind of forced on to clubs and, within the limits of budget and what is practically achievable, there are only so many ways you can put on a futuristic baseball game. I can also understand why some of the longer-lived and most famous franchises did not want to sully their 'brand identity' (another thing we say in the 21st Century) with half-baked ‘future’ uniforms, although I reckon with modern design ethos they could come up with more stylish concepts if the promotion was revived today, given a little time and thought, and if they maybe got this guy involved. But, to date, it has never been done again because to do so would be an insult to baseball’s integrity and proud heritage.

But this kind of thing is fine:

Many more images and details of the Mariners' 'Turn Ahead the Clock Night' can be found on this ESPN article from 2008.

tagged under: baseball, mlb, events, history, mascots, uniforms, movies

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