When should a man stop wearing sports jerseys? When the buttons of his White Sox top finally pop, like rivets on a distressed ocean liner? When the pinstripes of his Yankees shirt have grown wider at the midsection than at the top, as the longitudinal lines on a globe? When the fabric of his Steelers jersey finally cries uncle, mesh yielding to flesh in their long death struggle?
Or is it less a weight limit than an age limit? Should a man follow the Biblical precept to "put away childish things"—his Lakers jersey with BRYANT across the back—when he turns 21? (Or 40?) When Burt Shotton was named manager of the Dodgers in 1947, at age 62, he declined to put on a uniform and wore street clothes appropriate to his advancing years and declining physique. If only you, in your orange polyester Marlins jersey, had the same self-awareness. Shotton managed his last game on Oct. 1, 1950, the same day as Connie Mack, who never wore a uniform in his 50 years in the dugout. When those men went, so did a bit of our collective dignity.
Even Joe DiMaggio, the most elegant athlete of the 20th century, eventually stopped dressing in pinstripes for Yankees' Old Timer's Day and wore instead a regal blue suit. "He knew when it was time to no longer wear a uniform," as the former Yankees p.r. director Marty Appel put it. "How did he know? With the same instinct that he had as a ballplayer." And yet you—you who are no Joe DiMaggio—persist in wearing that Russell Westbrook Thunder jersey, whose number 0 morphs, as it follows the swell of your belly, into one of Salvador Dali's melting clocks.
Why? It's one thing to wear jerseys at games, which fans have been doing in great numbers for 30 years, dressing as if they might be summoned from the stands on a moment's notice to pinch-run. But those same jerseys are now omnipresent on airplanes, in restaurants, in doctor's waiting rooms. The clown colors that capture the eye on TV have become commonplace on church congregants every Sunday, on double-entry bookkeepers every Casual Friday. Where once Americans dressed for ball games as if going to the theater (in jacket and fedora), they now dress for the theater as if going to a ball game (in throwback and snapback).
To judge by a recent week at Disney World, a jersey is now the fashion choice for one in five American grown-ups—if a middle-aged man wearing the name of a 21-year-old power forward on his back can be said to have grown up. On Sundays, those numbers swell as whole families—Mom, Dad, Tyler, Taylor—disembark buses in matching Vikings jerseys like four Norsemen of the Apocalypse.
Children, of course, are entitled to play dress up. But for adults the jersey is nearly impossible to carry off. There are exceptions, of course. But you are not one of them. You aren't Nelson Mandela uniting South Africa by wearing a Springboks jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. You have enough trouble uniting red and sox when struggling to button your Dustin Pedroia jersey.
Grafted onto street clothes and removed from the field of play, jerseys don't even flatter men in their physical prime. Witness any baseball player wearing a uniform top over dress shirt and slacks at a press conference podium. That will be the next sports fashion phenomenon: uniform pants. By 2014 you'll find yourself at an ATM behind a guy in the skintight, tiger-striped trousers of the Bengals. And you won't think it odd. On the contrary, you'll probably think it's awesome.
Is that so wrong? What's the harm in dressing as your hero and wearing his logo on your chest? Men and women attend Comic-Con dressed as Superman and Wolverine, and they seem perfectly healthy, no? (Don't answer that.)
None of this is to diminish the allure of jerseys, many of which are objects of beauty. That blue script Dodgers is God's signature, and the red numbers below it pop like lipstick on a white collar. I myself hung a 76ers jersey, number 6, in a frame on my office wall, an Erving more beautiful than any Matisse. The three-quarter sleeve, number 88 jersey of former Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page (road white, with purple and gold shoulder hoops) is another expression of high art, and when I told Page so, he gave me one. That was 10 years ago, and I've worn it once, this past Halloween. I wouldn't think of wearing Page's judicial robes—he is now a Minnesota Supreme Court justice—in part because I haven't earned them. So why would I wear his jersey, of which I'm equally unworthy?
If this all sounds like a case of protesting too much, it absolutely is. I'm a recovering jersey wearer who can't bear to get rid of the blaze-orange Knicks warmup top that makes me look like James Carville on a highway repair crew. Or the Twins Kirby Puckett home jersey my wife gave me on the day I proposed to her. Or any of a dozen other jerseys in my stash, a candy-colored pile of polyester that throws off a fuzzy nimbus of static electricity whenever I'm tempted to touch it.