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Nightengale: MLB Union, Players at Odds over Wristbands

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Cincinnati's Scooter Gennett wears a Mims Bandz wristband in a game against Arizona in 2017. Photo: David Jablonski / Dayton Daily News

You will see names like Swaggy T, Lawnmower and Tommy Two Towel on the back of major league players’ uniforms throughout this weekend.

Players will be adorned in bright pullovers and contrasting sleeves, wearing zany caps, crazy-looking socks, and even custom-painted cleats, to go along with colorful bats and gloves.

Major League Baseball will suspend its stoic veneer for the inaugural MLB Players Weekend, inspiring individuality in ballparks across America. Teams are encouraging players to be as silly as they want, expressing themselves however they choose, in a three-day event that was negotiated between the league and the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Yet, even as individual expression is celebrated, a conflict is unfolding behind the scenes that pits the union against several of its current and former high-profile members.

See, the only article worn by players that will look exactly the same this weekend are the custom wrist bands players have worn for three decades, the ones with images of their own face. They are called Mims Bandz, created by Los Angeles native James Mims, and worn by players ever since Dusty Baker, now manager of the Washington Nationals, put them on in 1986 with the Oakland Athletics.

You’ve seen them all over the baseball landscape the last 31 years. Hall of Famers Andre Dawson, Cal Ripken Jr., Reggie Jackson, Gary Carter, Barry Larkin, Frank Thomas, Ozzie Smith, Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray, and Tim Raines all wore them. So did All-Stars Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Eric Davis, Darryl Strawberry, Fred McGriff, Torii Hunter, Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Joe Carter, and Mike Scioscia.

Former Major League Baseball players Eric Davis, Darryl Strawberry and Andre Dawson all wore Mims Bandz wristbands. Photo: classickicks.com

Take a look now, and on any given night you’ll see them worn by Todd Frazier of the New York Yankees, Josh Harrison of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Troy Tulowitzki of the Toronto Blue Jays, Scooter Gennett of the Cincinnati Reds, Dee Gordon of the Miami Marlins, Nolan Arenado of the Colorado Rockies, Howie Kendrick of the Washington Nationals, Brandon Phillips of the Atlanta Braves, and Brandon Crawford and Denard Span of the San Francisco Giants.

These are the wristbands the MLBPA doesn’t want you to know about.

They are the wristbands the union doesn’t want their players to wear, but doesn’t have the power to stop, manufactured by the man they want to go away.

James Mims is considered by his clients as a virtual godfather for this creative weekend; many of his wristbands include inspirational messages similar to those you’ll see on the officially sanctioned gear.

Yet, instead of enjoying his status as a pioneer of style and swag, he finds himself as an outcast to baseball.

Mims is being sued by the Major League Players Association in California Superior Court; the union seeks a cease-and-desist order for his small operation.

Mims, 54, refuses to cooperate, saying this isn’t about money, but principle, and will stand up for his rights.

“There is something fundamentally wrong here,’’ Mims tells USA TODAY Sports, “spending the players’ money to sue a company whose product they’re endorsing. It’s discrimination, too. I’m the only black-owned company dealing with MLB players, and now you’re trying to exclude a black-owned manufacturer. This is a big corporation stepping on an individual.

“I really believe in my heart of hearts that I’m right, and that I’m standing up for my equal rights, and when someone tries to take that away, I’m going to speak up. I’m not going to let them do this to me, and neither are the players. They were shocked when I told them what was going on.’’

Certainly, Mims has never gotten rich off his product. He says he has earned $18,000 since 2014, and no more than $30,000 in his career. His wristbands were always distributed for free to the players. Now, they’re being sold for $8.50 on his website. He receives $1.50, and the players are entitled to $3.

It makes no difference how much he makes, the union says, Mims is violating their licensing agreement. He’s permitted to have two or fewer players wear his wristbands without an agreement, but any more is a clear violation.

“I reached out to speak with James Mims directly,’’ says Tim Slavin, chief of business affairs for the players union, “and told him, ‘Look, there’s a process. We have to protect our intellectual property like every other licensor in the world. You have to follow the rules just like everyone else. You can’t keep doing this.

“We’re not trying to get sideways with anybody, we want to work this out, but this has become a one-way street. What he’s doing is a violation of rights – plain and simple. After trying many times to work with Mims, including when he went back on an agreement to end this dispute, we had no other alternative but to commence a formal lawsuit.

“And we will win.’’

Mims, who hired an attorney a month ago, refuses to back down, insisting he’s within his rights, with the players all having provided their consent.

“I’ve been doing this for 31 years, and now they have a problem with it?’’ Mims said. “I told [Slavin], I never heard once from you guys. I never heard from [former union executives] Marvin Miller or Donald Fehr. The players never heard anything from you. And now I’m hearing from you?

“What bothers me the most is that I grew up with Curt Flood Jr., whose dad was everything the union stood for. Jim Gilliam, Jackie Robinson’s roommate, was like a second father to me. There would be no way on God’s green earth that I would disparage the union. Jim Gilliam would be rolling over in his grave if I was going against something they stood for. Dusty wouldn’t let me fight back against the union if he didn’t believe me.

“I am not in the wrong.’’

While the union has the financial clout, and certainly the power, Mims is not only relying on the legal system, but also the support of his clients.

“It doesn’t make sense to me, or any of us, that James has been in the game for 30-some years now,’’ says Gennett, “and all of a sudden there’s a problem. It’s not like he’s taking advantage of us, or doing anything inappropriately. And the big thing he owns the patent for the wristbands.

“So to come out now and say it’s a big deal, that’s messed up. It is wrong. It’s not about making money. It’s about being part of something special. This is a way for us to express ourselves so we can raise money for charities of our choice. It’s an honor to wear them.

“I would like to see this go away, not just for his sake, but ours.’’

Gennett, who was wearing Mims’ wrist bands when he tied a major-league record June 7 with four home runs, says he gives away his wristbands to young fans. He even has an inscription that reads: Play for Him, with a sign of a cross.

“This is a way for people to know our beliefs, and things that will drive us,’’ Gennett says. “It’s important for young kids to know there’s something important to us other than just the game.’’

Says Baker, who met Mims through Gilliam: “I don’t wear these wrist bands because I need to see my face on there. I wear them to give to the kids. The kids love these wrist bands. And when the players wanted to put a saying on it, or a biblical verse, I thought it was a great idea.

“I don’t see how this is an infringement on the union’s rights. I just don’t understand it.’’

Sheffield says: “This isn’t Nike we’re talking about, it’s a boutique shop, run by an owner who happens to be black. I was always proud to wear those wristbands.”

Eric Davis, who played 17 years and is now a special assistant in the Cincinnati Reds’ front office, is one of several former and current players who plans to testify on behalf of Mims. And he challenges every player to join him.

“I was a player rep for 12 years, and for the union to try to stop this,’’ Davis says, “makes no sense. These wristbands represent you as an individuals. It’s not a threat to anyone else or a corporation. Everything players do today is to express themselves, whether it’s their hair, dance or social media to express their true individuality. So why can’t I represent me by wearing wristbands. I am the product. I have the right to wear me.

“I know you have a union to protect workers, but if I’m a worker, and I say it’s OK, why should you have a problem with it? I totally get the licensing, but this one, I don’t understand. It’s wrong. It’s been part of this game for 30 years, with some of the greatest players to ever play this game wearing them. If you’re saying wearing a wristband with my own face on it bothers you, then you don’t respect me as a person.

“Whoever is behind this should be ashamed of themselves.

“And for any player who doesn’t stand up for themselves, shame on them.’’

The union insists this simply is a matter of protecting its own property rights, claiming that no matter the size of Mims’ company, he must be a licensee like any other. If Mims is permitted to make his wrist bands without paying licensing fees, union officials say, what will stop others? Yet, since Mims Bandz has existed for 31 years, and every player has granted his consent, Mims and his attorney argue no rule has been violated.

David Rosen, Mims’ attorney, filed a demurrer 10 days ago, arguing Mims has not violated Civil Code Section 3344, and that every player who has ever worn his wrist band legally consented to the use of their names and likenesses. Judge Elizabeth Lippett set a court date of June 22, 2018, with a trial scheduled in November 2018, giving enough time for both sides to provide written contracts and agreements, with players even summoned for depositions.

“They sued under California’s right to privacy act that you cannot use a personal name or likeness without their consent in a commercial way,’’ Rosen said, “but this is entirely different. This isn’t a situation where somebody is stealing the names and likenesses of players making T-shirts and selling them on street corners. We’ve had more than 100 players who have expressly told James that you can go ahead and make a Mims Bandz.

“How can you have a guy who’s been running a business for 30 years, and now have the Players Association essentially with their hand in the cookie jar, trying to take money from James Mims? Why are you picking on this guy all of a sudden? To me, this is just a classic example of excessive greed.

“It’s not like he’s getting rich off this. It’s just a labor of love. This guy is a very, very small fish in a gigantic pond. He wants to stay involved with baseball, and this is his connection, so why should they want to take it away?’’

We won’t know the resolution of this case for perhaps a year, but on a weekend in which baseball celebrates its individuality and creativity, we also will be reminded that true independence can still have consequences.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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