If you read the Ticker on a regular basis, you’ve probably noticed the semi-regular contributions from Tyler Kepner, who’s the Yankees beat reporter for The New York Times (that’s him above, with his son Michael). I don’t recall exactly when he started writing to me, but I quickly realized he wasn’t like most other beat reporters. He’d start by passing along a uni-related observation about the Yankees, and then he’d add an opinion about his favorite NFL helmet, or his latest NBA pet peeve, or whatever. He had no shortage of opinions, and his observations tended to be good ones. I remember thinking to myself at one point, “Damn, good thing he’s already got a good job, or else he’d have mine.”
When I recently asked Tyler if I could interview him, I figured we’d talk about some of his uni-related faves and obsessions, some of his behind-the-scenes observations, and so on. But I didn’t realize there was also a completely amazing story lurking in his personal background — a story that would be interview-worthy all by itself, even if he wasn’t particularly uni-attuned. Check it out:
Uni Watch: How old are you, and where do you live?
Tyler Kepner: I’m 33, and I live in Wilton, Connecticut.
UW: How long have you been the Yankees beat reporter for the Times, and how did you get that gig?
TK: I started in 2002, so this is my seventh year covering the Yankees. Just to give you a quick résumé: When I was around 13 years old, I started a baseball magazine out of my home in Philadelphia. The Phillies were great to me — by the time I was 15, they let me start coming around to do interviews.
UW: What was the magazine called?
TK: KP Baseball Monthly. The “KP” stood for Kepner and then the other kid who started it with me, but then I just changed it to Kepner Publishing when he left. At the time I had no idea that it was an old army term, like being on KP duty. Kitchen patrol — nobody my age knew what that meant. We had a really cool logo, you would have liked it. My friends and I did it, but it was kind of my show. We got a lot of publicity, because people loved the idea of a kid following his dream and being in the clubhouse and stuff. I did that for 64 issues, up until mid-college or so.
UW: Every single month? You kept up a monthly schedule for that many years?
TK: Except for February. We’d do a combined Jan/Feb issue. On July 8th, 1990, ABC World News Sunday did a piece on us and said [switching to official-sounding newscaster voice], “Tyler publishes 11 times a year, except for February. It’s baseball’s off-season, and he has exams. Back to you, Forest.” We got covered in the Times too, and other places.
UW: Wow, I totally missed the boat on that. I wasn’t aware of it, never saw any of the media coverage you got. How many pages did this magazine usually run?
TK: Usually 22, maybe 24.
UW: You were a zine publisher! Did you have ads?
TK: I think we had one ad during the entire time.
UW: So it was a total labor of love. That’s great.
TK: Well, my parents basically footed the whole thing.
UW: How many copies would you typically print?
TK: Well, it grew. We got two big publicity bounces. One was on, like, November 13th, 1989, somewhere in there, when the Times wrote about us, and then Sports Illustrated for Kids wrote something. After those two articles, we got up to about 600 copies. We had a pretty good subscriber-retention rate, I guess.
UW: Was this, like, photocopies, or mimeographed, or professionally printed, or what?
TK: It was fun, man. We always wanted color covers, but color printing cost a ton, so my little brother would draw a picture, and usually I would spruce it up a little bit. He was pretty good, I wanted it the way I wanted it. Anyway, then we’d color it in by hand.
UW: For all 600 copies?!
TK: Well, that was the thing. I’d have a bunch of my friends come over — maybe a dozen kids — and we’d have a ton of Magic Markers, and I’d say, “Okay, this is Cal Ripken, so everyone carefully fill in the logo, and the lettering…”
UW: So you had 600 black-and-white xeroxed covers…
UW: So each one was individually hand-colored and unique and one-of-a-kind!
TK: Yeah. So we could never have a player depicted on Astroturf, because it would be too hard and take too much time to show the solid green. We had to show them on grass, because it was easier to just scribble up and down to show that.
UW: Sort of a textured green, instead of a solid green, because otherwise it would cut down on your efficiency.
TK: Exactly. One time my best friend came over, and I didn’t realize he was colorblind. And I’m like, “Why is Robin Yount’s hair green?” So a couple of people out there have an issue of KP Baseball Monthly with Robin Yount’s green hair.
UW: So even though the colors were wrong on those couple of copies, you still sent them out.
TK: We had orders to fill, man!
UW: Right, the show must go on. And now those copies are collector’s items.
TK: We had some famous subscribers, too. I always wanted to be a sportswriter, so I would just mail copies out to sportswriters. That’s how we got in the Times — I never asked for publicity, but I sent copies to George Vescey because I used to read his column in the school library. And he passed it along to his editor, who thought it would make a fun article. Anyway, I got a lot of really important advice from people who then decided to become subscribers. George Will somehow got hold of a copy, and he gave it to the commissioner, Fay Vincent, which was a big thrill for me, and he ended up subscribing. Bob Costas, Jayson Stark — I’d been reading Jayson’s stuff for years, and he became a great friend, giving me lots of advice, telling me about the business. He told me, “You’ll never wear No. 32 for the Phillies, but this job is the next best thing,” and he was right. Bill Lyon, who wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer once sent me a $100 bill and wrote, “Consider this my subscription for life.” I still have that bill, actually — it’s the spare money at my house, in case I have to pay for something and don’t have any cash.
UW: It’s your “In case of emergency, break glass” money.
TK: Yeah. The only person who never responded was Chris Berman. I probably sent issues to him for a year, and he never wrote back. But everyone else was so kind, and so encouraging. And the Phillies were so good to me — I’ll always be grateful. In 1990, I probably got 10 or 12 day passes. By ’91, I would pretty much ask for a pass for a whole series, and after that they just gave me daily passes and then a season pass. And by ’95 I worked for them, getting back to my résumé. I stopped the magazine in January of ’95 and wanted to get an internship, but the strike had just happened and teams weren’t doing internships, so I couldn’t get one. But the Phillies said, “We can’t pay, but if you wanna come down and work for free…” I was living at home, so I said sure. I worked for the Phillies that summer. And they’re such a class act, they ended up paying me a bit anyway. The next year I got a Boston Globe internship, which was very valuable. Same thing the next year at the Washington Post. Then I covered the Angels for a California paper, from September of ’97 through September of ’98. After that I moved up to Seattle and covered the Mariners until December of ’99. Met my wife out there. Then I moved back to New York, joined the Times, covered the Metsies for two years, and now the Yankees.
UW: When you were doing your magazine, were you aware that you were part of a larger self-publishing movement, the zine movement?
TK: No, I had no idea.
UW: But you know what a zine is now, right?
TK: Are they online magazines or something?
UW: No. They barely exist now, because they’ve largely been supplanted by blogs, but they’re basically just self-published, do-it-yourself magazines. They’re usually not about mainstream topics like baseball. That’s how I got started writing myself. They were originally inspired by punk rock — you know, just like anyone can start a band, anyone can start a magazine. And back in the day, a lot of them were hand-lettered. That’s why I really got excited when you said you hand-wrote your magazine — that’s so old-school zine-stye!
TK: I didn’t really know anything about that. I eventually started typing the articles. But even then, I’d still do the headlines by hand. I’d try to make each headline in a different style that matched the team. Like, if one article was about a guy on the A’s, I’d try to do the headline in A’s-style lettering.
UW: Did you have uniform-related coverage in this magazine?
TK: Well, I was very precise about the uniforms on the covers. That was my thing — I wanted to make sure they were accurate. I did a few articles here and there where I’d rank the coolest hats or the coolest logos. And we did a “How to Draw Team Logos” thing. Remember when you were a kid, there were those things like “How to Draw Huckleberry Hound”? It was like that. All my doodling in school and stuff was team logos, so I became an expert on most of them. [I also found this "Create Your Own Uniform" item, and there's some uniform news on this page. -- PL]
UW: Do you still have those doodles?
TK: I dunno. My mom saves everything, so she might still have them. Anyway, I knew, just from doing them, how to draw the logos in stages, and I could tell people how to do them.
UW: My impression is that you’re for more interested in uniform details than the average beat reporter. Would you agree with that assessment?
TK: Yeah. Marty Noble, who works the Mets beat, notwithstanding.
UW: Right, he’s very uni-aware.
TK: But yeah, most other guys don’t pay much attention to it, I don’t think.
UW: When did you first become interested in uniforms? Like, did you play sports as a kid, and if so did you take particular care with your own uniforms?
TK: Oh yeah, yeah. I played baseball all the way through the end of high school and summer leagues and stuff, and I was always disappointed because I never played for a team that had belts and button-front jerseys. Always the pullovers and the elastic waistbands. The best thing was making the all-star team, because then you’d usually get your name on the back, and the uniform would be more satin-y, like a double-knit kind of thing, instead of just a glorified T-shirt. I loved the stirrups, and I was always pissed when they’d give you the ones that were just one racing stripe.
UW: The dreaded ribbon stirrup.
TK: Right. That didn’t do anything for me. And they’d usually come off, out the back of your shoe, so I’d tape them onto the bottom. Anyway, I always tried to get the uniform number I wanted, usually 20 for Mike Schmidt or 32 for Steve Carlton. One year I got No. 3, which I didn’t like, because I was a pitcher, and pitchers don’t wear single digits.
UW: Josh Towers!
TK: Well, that’s true, but I didn’t like it. So I tried to make my 3 into 31 by creating a 1 with some green tape.
UW: You added a numeral with tape? Now, surely it must have bugged you that the resulting 31 was off-center.
TK: It was a little off-center, and it was just a plain, straight-up 1 — it didn’t have the little fringe on the top or anything like that. [I believe he's referring to serifs. -- PL]
UW: What level was this?
TK: Middle school.
UW: And what did your coach think about you modifying your jersey like this?
TK: He didn’t care. Anyway, it kept peeling off, so I gave up. I figured Dale Murphy wears 3, so that’s cool.
UW: You interact with big league ballplayers every day. What would you say is the typical ballplayer’s attitude toward his uniform, and especially regarding the types of details we discuss on Uni Watch?
TK: I think most of them are very interested in the fit.
UW: Freedom of movement and so forth?
TK: Yeah. And at least half of them have their own sense of style. You see a lot less of that with the Yankees, though, because there’s so much less room for improvisation. Basically it just comes down to the length of the pants and the kind of socks. I got a kick when Matingly and Guidry were coaches and they wore stirrups, because they played in the stirrup era. I asked the clubhouse manager and he said, “Yeah, we carry the stirrups, but nobody ever asks for them.”
UW: I’ve discovered, as I’m sure you have, that people can sometimes react negatively, or at least with some confusion, when you bring up uniform-related issues with them. Do you every find yourself wanting to ask a player why he wears his uniform a certain way, but then you think, “Nah, I’d better not ask him that” because you’re worried he might think it’s a stupid question?
TK: Nah. Some guys do act a bit puzzled when you ask them why they wore stirrups or whatever, but I’ll still ask.
UW: What about your editors? Do you ever present uni-related material or story ideas to them, and they don’t get it?
TK: No, they like offbeat stuff like that. Last season we did that little article about Matsui’s toe socks and that got a lot of attention, they loved it. I always think I should come up with more ideas like that, but then more pressing things come up, like Joba’s rotator cuff.
UW: Hey, get your priorities straight, man! I gather newspaper blogging has made it easier to cover these sorts of topics, since there are no space limitations. If you don’t have room for it in you newspaper article, you can just put it in “Bats” [the Times's baseball blog].
TK: Yeah, that makes it a lot easier for topics like Mike Mussina’s 1980s T-shirts.
UW: What about other writers? Do you guys ever sit around talking about stirrups, or are you the only one who notices?
TK: That’s pretty much my category. That and ballpark scoreboards are the big thing I’m known for in the press box. I’m always railing against the scoreboards — there’s only a small handful of them that keep a running line score at all times. If someone hits a home run, or if they’re showing commercials between innings, they’ll take the line score down. It drives me nuts. Fenway shows it at all times, and Seattle. Yankee Stadium. I’m always telling the Yankees, “Please, you’ve gotta keep a dedicated line score.” The most important aspect of any scoreboard is to have a SCORE available, but people don’t seem to realize that.
UW: Do you ever mention something like that in the press box, and everyone else kind of looks at you?
TK: Yeah, there I go again.
[At this point Tyler went off on a long-ish rant about the scoreboards in Kansas City (he likes), old Vets Stadium (he misses), and just about every other park (they mostly suck). Too involved to reproduce here, but let's just say he has some v-e-r-y strong feelings about scoreboard protocol.]
UW: Who is the most uniform-cognizant player you’ve ever encountered?
TK: Great question. Let me think. Gary Sheffield would drive the clubhouse people nuts. He had I think 32 pairs of shoes. And then he wanted gray shoes on the road, so he head 32 pairs of those too. He was always getting alterations to his jersey, and they were so subtle, you couldn’t even notice them. He’d want the sleeve brought up a little, or let out a little…
UW: Take a quarter-inch off the sleeve length, that sort of thing?
TK: Yeah. There’s this guy from Riddell or one of those companies — he’s always around the clubhouse, wonderful man. And if a guy gets traded to the team or needs changes or whatever, he fixes them up. And Sheff would give him all this work to do, and it would all get turned around in a day. Sheff, he was the most particular in terms of needing everything just so.
I remember Sean Henn, when he was on the Yankees a few years back, told me how the Yankees had this minor league director or coordinator named Rob Thomson who would go around to all of the Yankees’ minor league affiliates, and everyone knew that they had to look exactly right if he was coming, because he was a stickler. All the minor leaguers had to wear stirrups that showed the white in the front. They were also required to have pant legs that stopped six inches above the top of the white under the stirrup. And the pants had to be pulled up, then folded over and bloused, not bunched up. Also, no facial hair at all, no sideburns below the ear, cap on straight, and only Adidas shoes. Or shoes with blacked-out logo if they weren’t Adidas.
TK: Sometimes you can tell little things about guys when they come in. Like when Kenny Lofton joined the Yankees, I remember he had “K-Lo” written all over his shoes and everything. I mean, who calls him K-Lo? I always thought that was funny. Then you’ve got the guys who just stock up on equipment, and you wonder why. Like Jason Giambi, he’s got like three dozen bats just strewn in there. Guys’ locker etiquette is interesting, too — some guys are messy, other guys are very precise.
UW: You mentioned earlier how you’d tape down your ribbon stirrups to keep them from coming loose. Do you see things like that in the clubhouse, things that the average fan wouldn’t know about but that the average Uni Watch reader would love to see? Taping this, buttoning that, or whatever?
TK: They all wear different T-shirts under their jerseys. Someone will say something like “Attaboy” during batting practice and the next thing you know someone’s made it into a T-shirt and everyone’s wearing it under their gamers. When LaTroy Hawkins came in during spring training, he wore a “Joba Rules” T-shirt, just like the fans — I thought that was really cool.
UW: You cover the Yankees, and the Yankees are always talking about the “mystique of the pinstripes.” Even their players talk that way, especially when someone gets traded and he says, “Ooh, now I get to wear the pinstripes.” Do they really feel that way, or are they just blowing smoke?
TK: I think that’s real, actually, because the tradition is unmatched. They take it pretty seriously. It can get taken too far, though, like when you see a writer write something like, “Xavier Nady wore pinstripes for the first time..,” except it was a road game, so he wasn’t really wearing pinstripes. You’ve gotta be careful with that kind of stuff.
UW: Do you think it bugs the Yankees players that they don’t have their names on their jerseys?
TK: Nobody’s ever mentioned that. I think they think it’s kinda cool.
UW: When the Mets removed the player names in 1999, some of the players reportedly didn’t like it.
TK: Well, the whole Mets uniform thing is…
UW: Let’s not even go there.
TK: When I was in Seattle, Ken Griffey basically ran the clubhouse. So unless you were a veteran starter like Jamie Moyer or Jeff Fassero, Griffey would decide what uniform they wore. Once Freddie Garcia got to 10 wins, he was allowed to decide, too. But if it was someone like Ken Cloude, Griffey would be the one who’d tell the clubhouse guy, “OK, we’re wearing blue today,” or whatever.
UW: What are you favorite uniforms?
TK: So much of this is wrapped up nostalgia, but I always thought the Padres’ brown uniforms were so cool. The Brewers’ old logo, which they still wear on Fridays or whatever, that’s great. And I loved the original Expos cap, which looked like a beanie — I always liked that. The Braves have screwed up their look so much, with the red jersey and all, but their plain white one is nice, with the double lines down, uh, what do you call that?
UW: The placket.
TK: Yeah, the piping down the placket. I don’t like much about the Braves, but I do like that uniform. The Dodgers are classic. You can’t go wrong with the Detroit Tigers. Oh, and the Pirates’ vest — I love that, and those great numbers they use.
UW: It’s such a sad-sack franchise that nobody takes them seriously, but they look sensational, I agree. What about least favorite?
TK [unhesitatingly]: The Blue Jays. The Blue Jays are a disgrace. And I’ve gotta watch them 19 times a year. It just drives me nuts! And I was friends with this guy who worked for them when they changed over [to their current look], and I’d say to him, “You can’t go black — you’re the Blue Jays! You can’t have black Blue Jays, it doesn’t make any sense!” And he’d say, “Oh it’s marketing, people like to buy stuff in black,” and all that. And the numbers are weird, all tilted, and the lettering on the back is silly. I’m not crazy about the Brewers either, because the name on the back is hard to read, and the uniform is so boring compared to what it should be, which is just the old version that they now use as a throwback — they should wear that every day. But the Blue Jays are by far the worst. Are they gonna wear those weird gray ones anymore?
TK: Well, that’s good. But I could go on about the Blue Jays — their look just really offends me. Any team that wears black unnecessarily. Oh, and the worst example of that is probably the Oakland A’s, with that black jersey.
UW: Especially since their basic look is really good.
UW: Is that one you can draw really well?
TK: Yes, I can draw that one perfectly.
UW: And can you tell other people how to draw it?
TK: I don’t know about that. It’s a tough one. A lot of steps. But that is my all-time favorite logo, and I wish they’d use that more, because their basic logo is so boring — that brings nothing to the party. And right near the press elevator, they have the elephant logo, but instead of standing on a baseball, he’s standing on a globe, and it says, “World Champions 1989,” and I think it’s the coolest championship logo.
UW: What about other sports?
TK: I’ve always liked the Boston Bruins’ uniforms, for some reason, because they’re so simple. I’m a Flyers fan, but they really screwed up by going to black. My favorite helmet is the Bengals. Coolest helmet ever, if you ask me. Which you are. The stripes are so neat. When it came out in ’81 or so, I was just starting to follow sports, and I didn’t even know they used to have a helmet with just the word “Bengals” on it. Very stark-looking helmet. I don’t know why they ever would’ve gone that. Their uniform is a bit weird now, but I love the helmet. Football helmets are even cooler than baseball hats, because it’s like an open template to do whatever you want. You know what’s really neat, when the 49ers wear the Montana-era jerseys. You look at them now, and it doesn’t seem like it would look that different, but then you compare them side-by-side and the Alex Smith-era jerseys are so ugly. I liked in ’94, when they wore that throwback uniform all the way through to the Super Bowl. That was kinda gutsy. I was gonna say, “ballsy,” but that wouldn’t be good.
UW: That’s OK, on my blog you can say that.
TK: It was cool — “We’re winning with this, we’re gonna keep wearing it all the way to the Super Bowl.”
UW: Only Super Bowl winner not to wear TV numbers.
TK: Really? Wow.
Well, at least I got to slip in one factoid Tyler wasn’t already aware of. Big thanks to him for making time for me in his busy schedule, and for sharing some old copies of his magazine — really, really special stuff.
Raffle Reminder: I’m raffling off a copy of the excellent new book Remember the AFL. Details here.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Two good spots by Andy Chalifour: First, here’s Jim Essian wearing not just a brimless helmet, but a brimless helmet with the A’s logo. And speaking of logos, look at the batting glove on Ozzie Guillen’s left hand — much older than the uniform design he’s wearing. … David Stoops reports that Youngstown State (DI-AA) has new uniforms this year. … “The SEC has either required or requested that schools put the round SEC logo on their fields,” notes Patrick Campbell. “The logo is placed on both 25 yard lines, just inside the numbers. The interesting thing is that instead of using the SEC colors (light blue and yellow) for the logo, the conference is allowing the use of school colors for each field (much like MLB allows team colors for their logo on MLB caps and jerseys): Auburn used navy blue with an orange border and white letters, Mississippi State‘s logo is maroon with white border and white letters, and Alabama has crimson with white/crimson border and white letters.” … Good restroom sign at Citizens Bank Park in Philly. Note the stirrups (with thanks to Matt Brukman). … There was a quick helmet modification during Sunday’s Steelers/Browns game, as a Pittsburgh staffer remove the stripe from a helmet and inflated the helmet’s inner bladder. Ryan Connelly captured the sequence here. … John Muir reports that the Oilers’ rookies have been wearing 30th-anniversary patches on their shoulders. The same design is at center ice. … Jon Cannella notes that the Charlie Manuel’s Wikipedia entry includes the following: “At a game against the Lotte Orions on June 19, 1979, he was hit in the face by a pitch from Soroku Yagisawa. The pitch crushed his jaw. … To protect his bruised jaw, Manuel wore a helmet equipped with a football face mask.” Intrigued, I poked around and found this and this. … Tulsa will be wearing throwbacks this weekend (with thanks to Tod Meisner). … Craig Bates has put together a slideshow of photos of his jersey collection (a mix of football, baseball, and a bit of hockey). Lots of good stuff, including some close-ups of interesting tags and patches. … The new Ernie Davis statue at Syracuse depicts Davis wearing a swoosh-emblazoned jersey, even though Nike didn’t even exist when Davis played (with thanks to Jeff Landset). … Odd observation from Jared Simon, who writes: “I’ve noticed in the last two Packers games that Mike McCarthy has had a red pen tucked into the back of his hat during the first half and then it switches to a blue pen when he comes out for the second half. Has he always been doing this or has it been just a coincidence?” … Brian Bennett was cleaning up around the house and came across some uni-related posters from the early 1990s, apparently produced by Kellogg’s. There’s a small slideshow of the full posters and some detailed views here. … Ugliest rugby uniforms ever? Could be (with thanks to Dave Inman). … And people wonder why I don’t like purple (courtesy of Tom Konecny). … Latest schools switching to the System of Dress: Oklahoma State (with thanks to Brian Ray) and Illinois (here’s another view). … Remember Jason Hillyer, who wanted (and received) a Uni Watch membership card as a wedding gift from his bride, Alison Cherubini? The two of them recently took a behind-the-scenes tour of Cooper Stadium in Columbus (aka “the Coop”), which is soon to be replaced. They took a buncha pics of banners, jerseys and other stuff (you can see a slideshow here), the most interesting of which was this one. Jason explains: “The modern day ‘Safe’ and ‘Out’ signals were developed for the player seated just to the left of the man with the bat (kind of in between front and back row), William Hoy. He was deaf, so when looking to the umpire for the call for a play at a base, the ump would motion Hoy off the field with his thumb if Hoy was out, or tell Hoy to stay there by making a palms down motion with both hands apart, a motion that morphed into the ‘safe’ sign we know today.” … Here’s something I’ve never seen before: an audio style guide of the triple-A Oklahoma Redhawks’ new logos and uniforms, narrated by the designer. Further details here. … It was gray vs. gray again at Miller Park yesterday. … Tom Hedrick notes that Delwyn Young’s uni number on his helmet was upside-down last night. … “What looks more rinky dink than having a SNOB (sponsor name on back)?” asks Caleb Borchers. “Having such puny corporate sponsorship that each player gets a different SNOB.” … The Pedro porthole was closed last night (with thanks to Phil Hecken, who also came across this really cool old Bruins photo — anyone know the players and/or year?).