Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Jersey Boys, and Their Obsession With Double-Knit


About seven years ago, the girlfriend of a writer named Paul Lukas grew weary of his eccentric habit of hollering at the television every time he noticed a quirk of sports uniform design. "She got tired of me shouting, 'Look at that guy's socks compared to that other guy's socks!' " Mr. Lukas, a goateed 41-year old Park Slope resident, recalled a week ago. "And she said, 'You know, Paul, I think you need an outlet.' "

That outlet turned out to be a column called Uni Watch, Mr. Lukas's fondly obsessive chronicle and critique of sports uniforms. It ran for four years in The Village Voice, then briefly on, before finding a cult following in 2004 on, where it still appears.

Each week, Mr. Lukas receives hundreds of e-mail messages from a far-flung readership as fascinated as he is with such pressing issues as why the Chicago White Sox don't wear white socks (they did in the franchise's early days), why the uniforms of Canada's 2006 Olympic speed-skating team looked so wrinkly, and the story behind those reptilian-looking batting helmets the Mets are sporting in spring training.

Mr. Lukas has become the high priest of an offbeat subculture of people who didn't know one another. Hoping to foster community, he recently did what few priests do: he invited the congregation to a bar.

Thus was born the Uni Watch Athletic Aesthetics Party. Last Sunday afternoon, about 40 sports-attire buffs convened at Southpaw, a Park Slope nightspot. Some had come from as far away as Denver, and as one might imagine, the decision on what to wear to the event was fraught.

"I thought I was going to be the only jerk here wearing a jersey, but it turns out I'm surrounded by jerks," said Robert McGill, a 40-year-old graphic designer from Hackensack, N.J. Mr. McGill, who was wearing a 1980's Seattle Mariners pullover that had belonged to a middling pitcher named Glenn Abbott, proudly pointed out the "game-worn tobacco juice stain" on his chest.

As period baseball scenes played on a large screen opposite the bar, sneaker heads, patch gurus and color mavens milled about, chatting about uniform arcana. "I have over 22,000 confirmed values of color in my database," said Donovan Moore, the 43-year-old president (and sole member) of the Society for Sports Uniforms Research. "I'm insane."

Tom O'Grady, a sports branding consultant in a 1996 Houston Rockets jersey, replied, "You're frightening, but that's O.K."

Later, five panelists took questions from the audience, touching on matters like "the double-knit revolution," and shared observations like this one from Mr. Moore: "The Carolina Panthers use a different color black from the rest of the N.F.L., and that's important."

Mr. O'Grady then made a prediction to the audience: "When there's 10,000 people in 10 years, like the Westminster dog show, it'll be because Paul started it all." But in a private moment a few minutes later, Mr. Lukas offered a less grandiose take on the day's events: "Everyone was a little less dysfunctional than I expected."

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