A small but persistent company has scored a partial victory after a three-year fight with Major League Baseball over the right to produce pro-style uniforms for youth league players.
Evans Sporting Goods Inc.'s battle with Major League Baseball Properties Inc. in New York ended last week when the Garden Grove company agreed to make royalty payments in return for a license to sell uniforms with big-league trademarks to Southern California youth teams.
The tiff has spilled over onto the playing field, however. Major League Baseball is being forced to reconsider not only how it regulates the youth league teams that picture themselves as tomorrow's Angels or Dodgers, but also how to field criticism that it is alienating its young fans, their parents and sponsors.
"They should be paying us for advertising," said Dick Moran, an executive vice president with Irvine Apartment Communities and president of the South Irvine Little League, whose 650 players have been wearing Evans uniforms for years.
Baseball executives maintain that they are only exercising their legal right to protect trademarks from abuse by companies that aren't paying royalties. And, as part of that effort, professional baseball wants to ensure that youth leagues understand who owns the names.
"We've never had any intention of preventing youth leagues from identifying themselves with our teams," said Don Gibson, an attorney for Major League Baseball Properties. "But we'd never sought any kind of written documentation," Gibson said, that youth leagues have permission to use professional team names.
Shortstops like 10-year-old Matthew Stone, who plays in the South Irvine Little League, don't give a hoot for the fine print on a legal document. Stone views professional team names as part of the game, along with bases, bats and balls.
"It makes more sense to have the names, because you feel better," said Stone, who in his career has played for the Mariners, Reds, Dodgers and Royals. "You feel like you're part of the (professional) team."
Evans' suit highlights the squeeze in which big-league baseball finds itself. Even critics agree that the 28 teams have a right to protect their names, logos and colors, which generated more than $2.4 billion in licensed apparel and product sales in 1993.
"Baseball is in a tough position," said Mike Levine, marketing director for Athletes & Artists, a sports marketing company based in New York. "The (trademarks) are their property, but they don't want to be the bad guys. They don't want to bite the hand that feeds them."
Most league officials wish the licensing issue would just fade away.
"It's an issue between the manufacturers of uniforms and Major League Baseball," said Denny Sullivan, a spokesman for Little League Baseball International, with 2.8 million players on 190,000 teams in 84 countries. "There's no need for Little League to do anything."
Evans hit a home run 15 years ago with its promise of lower prices for uniforms with big-league markings. Not surprisingly, licensed manufacturers looked at Evans as they would a pitcher who tosses an effective but illegal spitball.
"We paid a fee for our license, and (Evans) didn't," said Janet Wells, president and co-owner of Modomania Inc., a Cerritos-based company that has produced baseball uniforms since 1990. "I want them to protect what I paid for."
At the same time that Major League Baseball was pursuing Evans in court, professional baseball was reviewing the decades-old practice of youth league teams appropriating professional teams names.
Professional baseball now proposes that youth leagues sign a licensing agreement that, in return for a $1 token payment, allows teams to continue using Major League names--as long as leagues buy licensed products from manufacturers who are paying royalties.
But with fans now deprived of the annual fall classic, some youth league directors wonder if their big-league counterparts should be charged with an error.
"All we want is to be able to continue the practice of using the Major League's team names, as we have for 43 years," said Abe Key, administrative director of Pony Baseball Inc. in Washington, Pa.
Young baseball players for decades have worn shirts and caps bearing the names or logos of their favorite professional teams.
"When my grandfather was playing baseball as a kid, trademark protection simply wasn't an issue," said Athletes & Artists' Levine. "But then again, my grandfather would never have had to pay $27 for a box seat ticket at a baseball game."
Moran, of South Irvine Little League, said he has no doubt that the uniform review is driven by the same economic force that ended this year's baseball season prematurely--baseball's desire for additional revenue. He said he will continue to buy from Evans because the company provides high-quality uniforms and solid service in addition to good prices.
"I'm a businessman, and anyone who's in business understands the need to earn a profit," Moran said. "But I sometimes wonder if Major League Baseball has the right perspective. The amount of money they're raising (from youth leagues) has to be trivially insignificant."
Major League Baseball maintains that there is a uniform that fits every team's budget in the licensed apparel line that ranges from simple T-shirts bearing a team's name to "replica" jerseys that would look at home on the field in Anaheim Stadium.
And, if a particular league is unable to afford a licensed garment, attorney Gibson said, organized baseball is "willing to work to find an alternative that's reasonable. . . . We do want kids to be able to identify with professional baseball."
But it's the look, not the price, that matters to 11-year-old Johnny Kovacs, who has played infield for South Irvine's Marlins, Padres, Blue Jays and White Sox. Kovacs prefers Major League names and logos, he said, because "Ace Hardware or Home and Garden Center is pretty plain."
Johnny's father, John Kovacs Sr., sees red when talk turns to Major League Baseball's licensing plans.
"These people always want to take, take, take," said Kovacs, whose brief minor league career with the Kansas City Royals was ended by an arm injury in 1971. "These people have to learn that they need to give something back."