Teams wear throwback jerseys so often that the practice has become largely unremarkable. Everyone now seems to recognize what's at work here: Teams honor their history and, of course, sell additional forms of memorabilia to their fans. Red Sox fans accustomed to the contemporary blue cap might be moved to buy a red 1970s era lid. Or Baltimore fans acclimated to the plain black bird might be prompted to buy the smiling Oriole lid of years past (perhaps as a reminder of when the team was more relevant).
If you're a Tampa Bay Rays fans, however, your historical options are rather limited, since the team only came into existence in 1998. Which brings us to this weekend.
The Rays' organization has over the years turned to throwback jerseys from minor league teams with connections to the area, including the Tampa Tarpons and the St. Petersburg Saints. Instead of widening the web to include, say, great high school teams of yore, the team is wearing a uniform on Saturday to honor the Tampa Bay Smokers, a minor league team that won a championship in 1951.
The Smokers, you might have guessed, were not named after outdoor grills used to "smoke" meats. Rather, they were named after people who enjoy smoking tobacco. Namely, cigars, which used to be manufactured in great numbers in Tampa and led to the nickname Cigar City. You might not be able to glean that connection from the uniforms the Rays will be wearing Saturday, however, as the cigar has been removed in deference to contemporary attitudes toward smoking.
"We have chosen to wear the Smokers jersey to celebrate the rich heritage and traditions surrounding baseball in Tampa Bay and this version of the logo is intended only to be a slightly more contemporary version of that wonderful history," the Rays said in a statement.
This falls in line with Bud Selig's stance on tobacco; he wants it banned from major league baseball.
Only one problem: The Rays warmly invite fans to visit the Cuesta-Rey cigar bar in their home field, which is advertised by the Rays' own website thusly:
"The only cigar bar at a Major League ballpark. Watch the game on TV from leather chairs and sofas while you savor cigars that aficionados recognize to be among the finest produced. A great place to meet before, during or after a game, it's on the upper level of Center Field Street across from The Batter's Eye Restaurant."
When asked about this seeming inconsistency, Mark Vaughn, the Rays' head of communications, responded via email: "Thanks for your interest. We will have no further comment on the throwback uniforms. Thanks again."
Cork Gaines writes about the team for Rays Index, and he says removing the cigar is a disservice to the history of his home city.
"The city of Tampa was kind of built on the cigar industry. If you’re gonna honor that heritage and history, then it seems kind of half-hearted to take the original logo and alter it. What they call 'modernizing' it, I guess. That’s just silly. If the idea of the cigar bothers you and you don’t want to promote smoking to children, then maybe they should have just honored a different team with a throwback. I mean, you still have the word 'Smokers' on the front of it."
Jonah Keri, author of The New York Times bestseller about the Rays called The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, says he can't fault the team for trying to market memorabilia in a way that's more appealing.
"It's a visceral thing," Keri says. "When you market a jersey, a lot of it's for kids. And I just don't know if parents are going to buy a jersey for a kid if it's got a cigar on it. Whereas if it's just a name, there might be some cognitive dissonance there. I don’t see it as a big deal necessarily. It's a way to try to make parents feel a little better about it."
If historical accuracy has to suffer for the team to make money, Keri says he's fine with that.
"Honestly, the Rays have revenue issues," he says. "And if this is a way to raise revenues…short of doing something illegal or blatantly immoral, I don't have a problem with them doing anything to raise revenue. Go for it."
Gaines, for his part, doubts the removal of the cigar would prompt parents to buy the jersey.
"If a parent has a problem with a cigar on the front of it, he or she is gonna have a problem with the word 'Smokers' on the front of it," he says. "Besides, 'Smokers' just opens you up to a whole litany of other possible things beyond cigars. For the Rays organization, it might have seemed like a great idea at the time (to remove the cigar), but they kind of screwed it up, I thought."
For fans who want to see the cigar omission as another example of political correctness gone amok, the evidence is there. For fans who simply want to light up a stogie at Tropicana Field and watch the Rays play the Cardinals on Saturday, well, sometimes a jersey is just a jersey.