No more ‘generic Dad Nikes’: How MLB umpires — yes, umpires! — are stepping up their shoe game

    Previously a Staff Writer at Bleacher Report
    Cornell University graduate

“Dad, you’re trending.”

Hunter Wendelstedt started to get nervous. The night before, Wendelstedt — an MLB umpire since 1998 — had manned second base during a Sunday night matchup between the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies. He cycled through the game in his mind, replaying all the calls he had made.

“I didn’t mess anything up last night,” he said to his two teenage daughters.

“No, you’re trending for your Jordans,” Bridget, 19, and Hailey, 18, told him. “They’re like, ‘What’s this old dude doing wearing Jordans?'”

Cameras had caught Jordan 11 Jubilees on Wendelstedt’s feet during the May 9 game, and the image of the umpire quickly circulated across social media. Some fans wondered why an umpire would need to wear the latest sneaker drop while on the job. Others celebrated the flash of style. Suddenly, Wendelstedt found himself getting some extra attention — not for any on-field flubs, but for his fashion.

“The last thing in the world I thought I’d ever be talking about in an interview is my shoes or footwear,” Wendelstedt told ESPN.

Wendelstedt, though, is far from the only ump who’s stepped up his shoe game recently. Through the end of the 2019 season, MLB umpires were contractually obligated to wear New Balance shoes, but when that contract expired and Nike became the primary uniform supplier for the major leagues, the floodgates opened for umpires to switch up their sneakers. This season, umps wearing flashy kicks has become a trend — and both fans and players are noticing.

“The first week we thought that maybe one or two guys started wearing Jordans, but then every single crew was rolling in with sick shoes,” said Chicago Cubs pitcher Trevor Williams. “Even Joe West had Nikes on that weren’t the generic Dad Nikes.”

Wendelstedt runs the Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School in Ormond Beach, Florida, named after his late father, a longtime MLB ump. A couple of offseasons ago, he started receiving snarky comments and jabs from aspiring umpires on his lack of style.

“The 18-year-olds, they were mocking my shoe game,” Wendelstedt said.

Wendelstedt, who’s 49, decided to turn to some younger MLB umpires for advice.

“What are you wearing on the field this year?” Wendelstedt asked Jansen Visconti, 33.

Visconti told Wendelstedt about the Jordan 11 Jubilees, an all-black pair of the iconic sneaker Michael Jordan wore after coming back to the NBA from his stint in the minor leagues with the Birmingham Barons. The sold-out sneakers, which now resell for around $300, align with the league’s uniform policy for umpires, which requires shoes to be either black or white. Wendelstedt downloaded StockX, a popular app for purchasing sneakers on the secondary market that was recommended to him by his fellow umpires, and flipped to the page featuring the Jordan 11 Jubilees.

“He saw them and bought them on the spot,” Visconti said.

Jordans had made their way onto the feet of at least one umpire before the Nike contract — just with some handmade adjustments. Umpire Alfonso Marquez wore Jordan 9 golf shoes while on the job but blacked out the Jumpman logo in order to make them compliant with league uniform policies and avoid raising the eyebrows of New Balance executives. Marquez owns more than 250 pairs of sneakers, which he stores in his garage, and now that it’s kosher, he regularly sports a variety of Jordans on the field.

“It’s just a different something to our game, it just adds a little something,” Marquez, 49, said. “It’s funny to see guys like Hunter, all these guys that are wearing them now. It’s pretty cool to see. We’re trying to get some of our older guys to go out there in Jordans.”

The gradual loosening of rules restricting the colors of cleats in Major League Baseball helped lead to the rise of sneaker culture on the diamond, with flashier spikes becoming a regular sight the past few seasons. That rubbed off on the umpires.

“Once we started seeing some of those, and we started to find the actual Jordan styles, we definitely got influenced,” Marquez said. “We were able to bring them out and not get into any kind of trouble.”

This growing interest in footwear birthed a text chain featuring around 25 aspiring sneakerhead umpires. In the thread, umpires regularly share photos of their latest pickups and group shots of different crews wearing Jordans together. Currently, the only place where umpires can’t wear sneakers is behind home plate, where steel-toe boots are necessary to protect from foul tips. The group, however, is trying to figure out how to get a steel-toe inserted into a Jordan.

“Trust me, we have thought about it,” Marquez said. “And if one of us is able to do it, we will do it.”

A shared love of sneakers now regularly sparks conversations on the field between umpires and players, too. During a recent series, Wendelstedt chatted with Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins about their habits on StockX during downtime in their hotel rooms.

“He’s online, bidding on shoes too,” Wendelstedt said. “And I said, ‘Ah, we might be bidding against each other one day on a nice pair of Jordans.'”

Fans have struck up a shoe conversation of their own — with umpire Jordan Baker. At Angels Stadium recently, a group of fans grabbed Baker’s attention after spotting his Jordan 11 Jubilees.

“I pulled up my pant leg a little bit and showed them some love and they go nuts,” Baker said.

The next night, those same fans returned with a sign. Printed on it: “Air Jordan Baker.”

“Players are coming up to me and going, ‘Bake, you got a sign made for you?'” Baker said. “It’s been nothing but comedy.”

Umpires expressed surprise about the overwhelmingly positive reception they’ve received, given their typical image on the field.

“Everyone thought that the umpires were the black-hearted villains,” Wendelstedt said.

Said umpire Cory Blaser: “People might not look at us as cool or hip at all. That’s not true, and if you’re really into baseball, you know that there are a lot of younger umpires and we’re not grumpy. We’re not grumpy, old, mean guys, and there are some guys that have a little bit of swag.”

Still, old habits die hard. As is natural on the internet, some baseball fans have criticized umpires for wearing high-priced sneakers on the field, noting that Wendelstedt was getting an expensive and hyped pair of shoes dirty.

“They got back to doing what they’re supposed to do,” Wendelstedt said, “and that’s making fun of the umpires.”

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