Can a black glove and “Fear of God” make baseball cool again?
Children crowded against the doors, squirming for an hour or more, waiting for a glimpse of their favorite players. If the kids were lucky, a player could pull over on their way out of the parking lot and sign a few autographs.
Shawon Dunston emerged. In a noisy moment, Steve Friend’s life found a direction.
On his baseball card, Dunston was twice an All-Star shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. That day, at least for Friend, Dunston was also a style and fashion icon: wearing a gold chain, with the music blaring from his Mercedes.
âSeeing this version of what I would call hip-hop in baseball – which I had never seen before – blew me away,â Friend said. “It confused everyone.”
Three decades later, Friend is taking small steps to disrupt the corporate giants that dominate baseball glove manufacturing. You’ve heard of Wilson and Mizuno, and certainly Rawlings, who is the âofficial gauntlet of Major League Baseballâ in part because the league owns a stake in the business.
Friend calls his sole proprietorship Steelo Sports, the first black-owned company to supply gloves to contemporary major league players. As MLB officials focus on reversing the decline in black baseball participation, Friend would like to help ensure the league doesn’t overlook the larger image of attraction to black fans and young fans in general.
Said a friend: âHow do you make baseball transcend sport? How do you make baseball appealing to the skateboarder? Are you a streetwear enthusiast? The basketball player? The artist? The graphic designer?
âRight now, as a glove company, it seems like a very difficult task because there doesn’t seem to be a correlation. But part of my mission is to help transcend sport into a whole different aspect of lifestyle culture.
The holy grail in four words: make baseball cool again.
Friend grew up in the era of Ozzie Smith’s backflips, the almost cartoonish exploits of Bo Jackson, the royalty of Rickey Henderson, the bluster of Barry Bonds, the flair of Dunston and, of course, the back cap and of Ken Griffey Jr.’s smooth and gentle swing.
In a 2016 article in GQ – a style and fashion journal, and not so much sports – author Jack Moore wrote, âWe all wanted to be Junior. Why? Because he made baseball fun.
Friend played the infield, for as long as he could, a black athlete who included No.42 in his first email address as a tribute to Jackie Robinson. He played at the College of Charleston, on a team with current New York Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner, then a season in an independent league.
He worked a decade for others – including e-commerce for sporting goods, fashion and cannabis companies – before launching Steelo.
âI always came back to baseball,â he said. “Baseball is my passion.”
Friend has recruited a dozen players from the Steelo roster, including three with major league service this season: Chicago Cubs pitcher Pedro Strop, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jonathan Davis and Toronto outfielder Jonathan Davis. Houston Astros Ronnie Dawson.
Biggest Name: Cincinnati Reds pitcher Hunter Greene, second pick in 2017 Draft. Greene, who starts in the doubles A this season, graduated from Notre Dame High at Sherman Oaks.
âMy mom has amazing handwriting and taught me calligraphy when I was in college,â Greene said. “I am also an artist.”
Greene designed his own glove, right down to the colors and piping, and included his signature and personal âHGâ logo. A man’s glove might not make baseball cool, but it’s a start.
In 1990, the year Dunston made his second All-Star team, Henderson was the American League’s most valuable player, Bonds was the National League’s most valuable player, and Smith won his 11th Golden Glove. consecutive.
Cecil Fielder hit 51 home runs and Vince Coleman stole 77 goals. The top six players in the OPS were Black: Henderson, Bonds, Fielder, Eddie Murray, Fred McGriff and Kal Daniels. All-star power was provided by Darryl Strawberry, who hit 37 home runs, and Jackson, who hit 28. Griffey, at 20, made the first of 13 All-Star appearances.
In 1991, the percentage of black players on major league rosters amounted to 18%, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. This figure fell to 13% in 2001, 8.5% in 2011 and 7.6% in 2021.
In response, the MLB launched urban academies, development programs for black top prospects, and youth baseball and softball programs – and not just to produce major leagues.
The best indicator of whether someone will become a fan, as Commissioner Rob Manfred likes to say, is whether they played sports as a child. And, in January, Manfred hired Griffey himself, as an advisor in planning strategies to attract a new generation to the sport.
Authenticity is more important to this generation than authority. When Greene spoke about marketing players off the field, to portray them as fashion and lifestyle icons, he didn’t say he wanted to work with the league. He said he wanted to work with Jerry Lorenzo, the streetwear designer behind the “Fear of God” label (and the son of former major league manager Jerry Manuel).
In an effort to reach non-traditional fans – or, for that matter, non-fans – the league has engaged in collaborations with select lifestyle brands, including Fear of God; Born X raised; and Kith. On the pitch, however, it wasn’t until the 2019 season that the league gave players the freedom to wear any desired stud design.
By allowing players to express themselves and show their personalities on and off the field, Friend said, baseball can make inroads into an audience it struggles to reach. The average age of a fan watching TV is 57 and streaming a game on mlb.tv is 44, according to the league. MLB attracts the youngest fans to its social media channels.
âIt’s more about how you take something that’s traditionally thought of as baseball only and make that aspiration, make it transcend baseball,â Friend said. “How do I make this popular with the kids lining up at a streetwear store for Jordans or for a Kanye West clothing outlet?” This is what could really tie baseball more to culture.
It’s now a clichÃ© to say that the NBA does a better job of promoting its players than the MLB, but that’s also the culture of the league.
For a league that ran ads with the slogans “Let the kids play” and “We’re playing hard,” it’s a little incongruous to suspend Cincinnati Reds outfielder Nick Castellanos for flexing his muscles on a fallen player. . It’s a little odd promoting San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. as a face of the game while wondering if he should swing on a 3-0 field.
The NBA flourished when a generation of kids wanted to âbe like Mikeâ. If MLB really wants this generation to be like Tatis, let the kids play loud and dress loud too.