In every profession, there’s someone who’s been around the longest — the person who’s seen it all, heard it all, done it all.
In the world of Major League Baseball equipment managers — an elite fraternity comprising just a few dozen members — that someone is Steve Vucinich of the Oakland A’s, who’s now in his mind-boggling 54th year with the team. He began working for the A’s as a clubhouse assistant in 1968, the year the team relocated to Oakland from Kansas City, and became the chief equipment manager in 1994. In that time, he’s witnessed the changeover from flannel uniforms to polyester, the evolution of jerseys from button-fronts to pullovers and then back to button-fronts, the rise of BP jerseys, the demise of stirrups, and a lot more.
Vuc, as most folks call him, recently turned 69 and has announced that this will be his final full season in baseball. He plans to work through next season’s spring training, in part to help break in his successor, and then call it a career. He recently spoke to me while enjoying a cigar in his office during a rare summer off-day. Here’s a transcript of our discussion, edited for space and clarity.
Uni Watch: How did you start working for the A’s?
Steve Vucinich: I was 15 years old and growing up in Oakland. The team moved here from Kansas City in ’68. They hired five local kids as batboys, ballboys, clubhouse kids. And as a coincidence, I knew four of the five. The one I didn’t know quit right after Opening Day, and I was told, “Hey, why don’t you go down and apply?” I was working as a vendor here at the time, so I went down and met with the equipment manager. I was talking to him and Joe DiMaggio [who was an A’s coach at the time] walked by. He said, “Hey, kid, what school you go to?” I said, “I go to St. Joseph Alameda,” and he said, “Hey, he’s a Catholic — hire him!” I’ve told that story for years, and it’s a true story. I probably would have gotten the job anyway, but the story makes for good copy.
The next year I kind of took on a role of being over the ballboys and clubhouse assistants, because at 16 I was the oldest one. And you could technically say I was also the assistant equipment manager, because they didn’t have all these full-time assistant positions at that time.
UW: When you started with the team, Charlie Finley was the owner and the A’s were known for having the weirdest uniforms in the game. They used color combos that no other team used, they wore the white shoes that nobody else wore, the coaches and managers wore a different hat color than the players wore, and so on. How did the players feel about that, about looking different than other teams? And how did it feel for you to be working for a team that took such a different approach to its uniforms?
SV: So many of the players had come from Kansas City, so they were used to it by the time I came into the clubhouse. I remember hearing a story that when Johnny Blanchard went from the Yankees to the Athletics in Kansas City, he could not get used to the white shoes. But I think all our players in Oakland embraced it. And me, I won’t say I was a radical or a hippie or whatever, but I like to think that I was always thinking outside the box, so I embraced it too.
UW: Do you feel like the A’s were ahead of their time in terms of colors and thinking outside the box, as you say, and that the rest of the sport eventually caught up with them?
SV: Absolutely. I mean, football and basketball have colorful uniforms, but baseball was stuck in white and grey.
UW: I’m sure there are dozens of things that have changed about your job over the past five decades. What are some that stick out to you?
SV: I remember in ’68, ’69, everybody wore 34/24 pants, with 24 being the length, because we wore the higher socks and real stirrups. I look at an Opening Day photo from 1968 with everybody lined up and everybody had their pants and socks at the exact same height. We just got [infielder Josh] Harrison in a trade. He’s a 31 waist, but a 43 leg. I have never had anybody with a 12-inch differential like that. I’ve had as many as eight and nine inches, but not 12. So I had to scramble to get pants for him for two days, until we could get new ones for him. I went through all the extra pants I take on the road, which is as many as 25 pairs. The only one close to that was [pitcher] Sergio Romo — he was a 32 waist — not 31, which is Harrison’s normal size — but his leg was the right size for Harrison. So I went to Harrison and said, “Please work with me here.” He said, “Absolutely, no problem, I’ll get by with it for whatever time we need."
UW: You mentioned the team photo from years ago where everybody had the pants at the same level, so the uniform was truly uniform. What do you think of the current look, where they wear the pant cuffs wherever they want?
SV: Well, I mean, “uni” means “one,” right? So everybody’s supposed to be in uniform. But nobody ever came out with an edict that you had to wear it this way or that way. I think the owners have basically said, “Hey, let’s keep the players happy. Let them do what they want.” And so you don’t have that complete uniform look. It’s just not going to happen anymore.
UW: The A’s have always mixed and matched their jerseys and pants a little bit. But generally speaking, earlier in your career, you know, there was a home uniform, a road uniform, and an alternate. Now you have — not just for the A’s but throughout the game — so many different alternates, different caps, all this stuff. Is that a challenge for you? Or to put it another way, how much more difficult does that make your job compared to, say, the Yankees’ equipment manager’s job?
SV: It is a challenge. We were the first team to have three different colors, two of which we took on the road. We wore whites at home on Sundays and the second or third game of a series. Then we wore the off-green/off-grey on the road, along with the all-gold uniform. So we always had three [uniforms]. But now, I think, what, the Diamondbacks had nine jerseys a few years ago. It’s crazy!
We have four jerseys right now — white, grey, dark green, and Kelly green. And we’ve got three hats. So it’s more inventory — I mean, we have contracts with suppliers where we get a certain amount of credit, so that helps out, but we always seem to use up all the credit.
You know what makes it more difficult for me, Paul, is just having to carry so much stuff on the road. Fortunately, we have a big enough airplane. And we probably travel as light as anybody as far as personnel, but you have to take so much extra stuff on the road — not just uniforms, it’s trainer’s equipment, strength and conditioning equipment, we’ve got scouting equipment, video equipment. So that’s made the travel worse.
UW: Leaving aside all that other equipment, what do you take on the road in terms of uniforms?
SV: In addition to everything we bring for the guys on the active roster, I have to take a jersey for anybody who could get called up from our minor leagues. And that’s guys on the 40-man roster or maybe even a veteran down at Triple-A who’s not on the 40-man. So I take two jerseys for them [grey and alternate], a BP jersey, and two pairs of pants. That’s five pieces per guy. And then there might be a guy who’s on the injured list but he’s traveling with the team, so there’s another bag or two. And not only do you have different colored jerseys, now you’ve got different colored underjerseys, the sleeves. So now you’ve got two different colors of those. Then there’s two different sets of helmets — and helmets are bulky — and extra helmets in case somebody breaks one or somebody gets recalled. So there’s a lot more to travel with, and that’s the biggest headache.
I’m lucky here, though, because with the Raiders moving to Vegas, we’ve moved into their clubhouse. We have gone from the smallest home locker room to probably the largest in baseball. I’ve got a lot of extra storage space, and our old clubhouse has become our weight room area. That’s been a big plus for us.
UW: Who decides which uniform the A’s will wear each day?
SV: Most of the time for us, it’s the starting pitcher. Now, for Opening Day, I’ll tell the guy, “Hey, it’s a tradition — Opening Day is white.” And if there’s a problem with the jersey that the pitcher might prefer, then I’ll decide what we wear that day.
I prefer our starting pitchers to choose white for day games, because why give the other team a darker background coming off either the Kelly or the dark green jersey? So I kind of push for that. But I do like our Kelly green jerseys. I think that might be one of the better-looking jerseys in baseball.
UW: How did the tradition of the starting pitcher choosing the uniform begin?
SV: When we went to the first alternate uniform back in the ’90s — the dark green — I went to [manager Tony] La Russa and said, “What color should we wear?” He said, “Let’s leave it to the starting pitcher.” You know, if they’re more more comfortable in that jersey, let’s go with it.
UW: Last month you told me that [infielder] Jed Lowrie is the one player you have who prefers the low-profile cap instead of the standard 5950. Are there any other players currently on the team who have unusual special requests like that?
SV: Most special requests are about sizing. Again, getting back to pants, there’s so many different sizes of pants. Jerseys are customized too — out of our 26 players now, I bet half of them have custom jerseys, not just a stock jersey. The differences there could be sleeve length being shorter or longer, or tighter or more space. More taper toward the bottom of the jersey, or extra jersey length.
One problem I had was that [pitcher Andrew] Chafin, who we just traded for, wears his pants so short that I actually had a problem finding long enough green socks. I finally found some old stock from probably five years ago, and those were long enough. I mean, a lot of guys don’t even wear long socks anymore, because they wear their pants so long, so they’re just wearing crew socks.
Every once in a while you get a guy where you just can’t fit them in a hat properly. The one size is too tight and then the next size up is too loose. So New Era has provided us with a stretching machine, and we’ve got hand stretchers too, so sometimes you can stretch out the smaller size, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. So we might have to put slits in it, or use the old trick of using the bigger hat but putting some moleskin in it, which tightens it up a little bit.
UW: What about undersleeves? It seems like there are so many different versions.
SV: We provide short sleeve, three-quarter sleeve, and long sleeve. Some guys will want to take the long sleeve and cut it, so it ends up three-quarters, but it’s their three-quarters.
UW: One thing I’ve noticed over the last two or three years, and definitely with your team, is much greater variety of belts. It used to be that everyone had the same belt, and nobody even thought about it. Now you’ll see one guy wearing this color, his teammate has that color, plus there are different buckles, some guys have their uni number on the loop. I think you guys had, like, the pitchers were wearing yellow belts and everyone else had green, or something like that.
You know, again, it goes back to uniform uniformity. In the poster that Major League Baseball sends out on how to wear a uniform, it doesn’t mention the color of the belt. So the players take advantage of that.
UW: Let’s say the team is doing a throwback game. Is that a fun thing for you, or is that a pain in the ass for you?
SV: As long as we get enough notice, I like doing it. I mean, it’s more work, but it’s not a pain in the ass. It’s a pain in the ass if all of a sudden you trade for players a day or two before and you got to make up jerseys for them. So the big thing is, don’t ever do a “turn back the clock” game a day or two after the trading deadline. Can you imagine if the Nationals or the Cubs did that this year, after all the trades they made?
UW: What about players? How do they feel about a throwback game, aside from Chris Sale that one time?
SV: I’ve had one or two players who are like, “What the hell is this?” or “Why do I have to dress like this?” But you know, I actually think 99% of them enjoy it, just because it’s something different.
UW: So many teams in recent years have gone with either the matte-finish helmet, or the 3D helmet logo, or both. Have you guys considered that? And what do you think of that trend?
SV: We had a prototype made up, and matte green just does not look good, especially if you have a yellow bill.
UW: What about the raised logo?
SV: I’m okay with it. We just never made the decision to go that way.
UW: What’s the transition been like from Majestic to Nike? I realize it’s the same factory, and so far it’s the same tailoring cut, although I know that’s going to change next year. But in general, has the changeover affected your work?
SV: Not at all. The people at Fanatics, and formerly Majestic, do a wonderful job for us. They’re on top of things. I mean, when a trade is made, I’ve even gotten a phone call from them before I had a chance to email them. So they’ve been great to work with.
UW: What do you think of the City Connect program so far?
UW: Are you guys going to be part of City Connect next year, or the year after?
SV: I think we’re the year after. I’ve already made a couple suggestions to them. They’ll probably do “The Town,” which got to be big with the [NBA’s Golden State] Warriors.
UW: That’s interesting to hear that you have input into that kind of thing.
SV: Only because we have a lot of people in marketing who are relatively new on the job, so they ask me sometimes. Our president, Dave Kaval, loves talking about it. He’ll come to me with suggestions or we’ll talk about things. I mean, I was involved in the Kelly green [alternate uniform]. So I’m proud that I’m probably one of the few equipment managers who has some influence that way.
UW: For each of the basic uniforms that you guys wear — home white, road grey, dark green, and Kelly — how many jerseys, pants, and caps does a typical player go through in a season? I know some players may be superstitious and want to wear the same cap or whatever, but for the typical player, how many of each uniform component will they go through?
SV: Let’s start with the jerseys. I order two jerseys of each color for every player. They only have one of each color in their locker, because I keep one of each color in a trunk in case something happens. I also order two pairs of pants for everybody in each color. But for the guys who I know slide a lot and rip them more — a Matt Chapman, a Stephen Piscotty, a Sean Murphy — I will order, like, six pairs right away, just to start. A guy like Chapman will probably go through about 10 pairs of pants in each color in a season.
UW: What about caps?
SV: Well, that depends. They don’t use too many at home, because we don’t have the high humidity and high temperatures here in Oakland. You get it more on the road, where a player might say, “Hey, this hat’s really starting to stink.” But I would say for most players, maybe two of each cap over the course of the season. Maybe more for pitchers, because they’re sweating more on the mound.
UW: Have you had superstitious players who want to stick with the same cap, or the same whatever?
SV: Absolutely. So now for postseason, we’ve got patches ready to go on the existing hat, in case the guy doesn’t want one of the new hats that they issue.
UW: Let’s say the A’s trade for a new player. What process kicks into gear for you when that happens?
SV: If it’s during business hours, I will call Fanatics and get the player’s uniform sizes. Or I can call the equipment manager for the team we’re acquiring the guy from. And you know, we also have a database — not all clubs use it 100%, but with some teams I can go in there and see all the stuff like what size batting gloves the guy wears, all stuff like that, so that helps.
The first thing is to get the jerseys, and then worry about the pants later. If we’re home, it’s easy enough to get the jerseys numbered and lettered. If we’re on the road, I bring extra numbers and letters with me. Every city’s got a place to get them sewn on for us.
Then I usually call the player and go over what number he wants. Then we go to the pants. What pants do I have that maybe will fit the new guy? If I call Fanatics on a Monday, there’s an outside chance I would have the new pants on Tuesday, or Wednesday for sure. And then you find out what size helmet does he wear, does he wear the C-Flap — or it’s the R-Flap now, for Rawlings — things like that. Then we talk about undergarments, hoodies. There should be a checklist, and I should have come up with one a long time ago, but it’s in my head, top to bottom.
UW: The most intriguing thing you just said, at least for me, is that you actually call the player directly to talk about his uniform number.
SV: Yeah, almost always. When we got Chafin from the Cubs, he said, “Can I have No. 39?” That would normally be out, because I had a guy on the 40-man roster — Vimael Machin — who’s been with us the last two years who usually wears that number. But Machin wasn’t up [with the big league team] currently, and he probably won’t be called up now that we also traded for Harrison, so I said okay. So I give Chafin 39, and now I also have to change Machin from 39 to his new number, 31. I mean, he doesn’t even know this went on. And then when I eventually change the number on Machin’s jersey, I can’t just swap out the “9” to a “1,” because then it’ll be off-center, because a 9 is wider than a 1.
UW: So when you hear about a trade, are you instantly thinking about which numbers you have available, which numbers the new player might want, and all that?
SV: I actually keep a list in my briefcase on the road with my laptop, and in a trunk which numbers are available right now. The funny thing is all the requests for No. 13. The Venezuelan players love that number.
SV: Absolutely. I’ve had more Latin players ask for 13. The last non-Latin player I had wearing 13 was Jerry Blevins. He was with us for five or six years, so he kind of blocked that from the Latin players.
UW: We’ve all seen players with serious dirt stains on their uniforms, or clay stains, grass stains, pine tar stains. How do you keep the uniforms so clean?
SV: Believe it or not, that’s the most frequent question I get all year long. And I know the uniforms look white, but the truth of the matter is, if you got up close, you might see a stain somewhere. But you’re not gonna see it from the stands, or even on TV.
There are different compounds that we use. There’s this stuff called Slide Out, which is a two-wash process. My laundry guy washes the uniform and if the stain doesn’t come out, he sprays the stuff on it that makes it look purple, and then he washes it again. Everything disappears and turns out white. A lot of teams only use Spray ’n Wash or an oxy product. And there’s an energizer you throw in to start to wash. But like I said, if people were up close, you’d see that they’re not really as white as they look.
UW: Wow, a dirty little secret. Literally!
SV: That’s right.
UW: The A’s have won four championships in your time with the team [1972, 1973, 1974, and 1989]. So do you have four World Series rings?
SV: I didn’t get the one for ’72. The other ones, yes. I’ve got an All-Star ring, too [from 1987, when the A’s hosted the MLB All-Star Game]. I’ve also got the ring that the Major League Baseball Equipment Managers Association gave me for 50 years of service. It’s a beautiful piece. That’s what I wear the most now.
And there we have it. Big thanks to Vuc for sharing his stories and expertise, and congrats to him on a great career. With the A’s currently well-positioned for the postseason, here’s hoping he gets a shot at one last World Series ring.
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Podcast appearance: I appeared as a guest on the latest episode of Sox Degrees, a podcast hosted by White Sox broadcasters Len Kasper and Jason Benetti. We spent an hour geeking out over all sorts of uni-related topics (not just White Sox stuff), and I can honestly say it was one of the most enjoyable podcast discussions I’ve ever had. Len and Jason, aside from being first-rate broadcast professionals, are also great guys and very into uniforms. If you’d like to listen to this episode, you can check it out here.
Paul Lukas has been writing about uniforms for over 20 years. If you like his Bulletin articles, you’ll probably like his daily Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook, and check out his podcast. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.