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Over there, a Yankees cap isn't about baseball power

No longer just an icon of athletic strength, the ubiquitous headgear has become a many-colored fashion statement.

October 12, 2003|Erik Lundegaard | Special to The Times

When I told friends I would spend spring 2002 backpacking through Europe, many who knew me expressed the same doubt: "But you'll miss the start of baseball season."

I shrugged. "I've been to Opening Day. I've never been to Paris."

In truth I was tired of baseball. In 2001 my team, the Seattle Mariners, trounced everyone during its record 116-win season but was trounced in the championship series by the New York Yankees. So instead of the Mariners getting to their first World Series, the Yankees played in their 38th, and the next spring the Yankees appeared poised to make it a Jack Benny-esque 39. Who wanted to be around for the start of that?

Like many dispirited romantics before me, I went to Europe to forget.

But Europe wouldn't let me forget. I spotted my first Yankees cap an hour after landing in Amsterdam.

A New Yorker, I assumed, eyeing him hotly. Then I saw Yankees caps on the heads of obvious locals, people who don't watch baseball. Was this some kind of post-Sept. 11 sympathy? A new Amsterdam link to what was once New Amsterdam?

Curious, I approached a Dutch teenager sporting a red version of the cap.

"You a Yankees fan?" I asked.

He looked confused.

"Your cap," I pointed. "Yankees. Baseball." I mimicked swinging a bat. "You like baseball?"

He began to blush and shake his head.

"Then why wear it?" I wondered aloud. "Is it because of some rock star?"

He got excited and almost shouted, "Limp Bizkit!"

I nodded sadly. Once again rock 'n' roll was warping the minds of a younger generation.

In Paris it only got worse. I saw the Yankees cap on a pretty woman walking along the Boulevard Saint-Germain, on a young Frenchman holding hands with his girl in the gardens of the Musee Rodin and on a high school kid on a field trip in the Catacombes. It appeared on a surly German teenager sitting at the base of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and on an old Frenchman playing boccie ball in the coastal town of Cassis, France.

None had any clue about the Yankees and their winning ways. It was just a cap to them. It was available.

Occasionally I'd see a cap from another team -- the White Sox or Braves -- but these sightings were rare. At a hostel in Brugge, Belgium, I ran into a guy in a Mets cap, but from the way he was lounging I could tell he was American.

"You hear if the Mets won?" he asked after we began talking baseball.

Three thousand miles away, I realized, it was Opening Day. Together we shook our heads over the prevalence of the Yankees cap in Europe.

"It's one of the reasons I wear this," he added, tapping his noggin. "To balance things out a little."

If it had been some other American icon, I might have let it go, but I'd been waging a war against the Yankees cap for years. People attempting to wear another team's cap into Yankee Stadium take their lives into their hands, while Yankee fans wear theirs with impunity into enemy ballparks across the country.

It's always represented a kind of oppressive tyranny to me. It's the cap of the bully. You could even argue that the Yankees are to major league baseball what the United States is to the rest of the world: a hugely successful, uncouth entity that, even if it's not bullying anyone at the moment, can't help but incapacitate by its sheer size. There's nothing less European than a Yankees cap. Europeans might as well be wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

In Barcelona, in the cheap shops along Las Ramblas, the Yankees cap mutated into a variety of patriotic rock 'n' roll colors: Limp Bizkit red, P. Diddy white, Paul McCartney blue.

I asked one shopkeeper if he had any caps besides the Yankees ones and, enthusiastically nodding and motioning, he led me into a backroom where I saw ... more Yankees caps. Another shopkeeper confidently assured me he could get me the cap of any team I wanted, any team. But when I suggested the Seattle Mariners, he became dubious.

"No, no, no, no."

"Didn't you say any team?"

"Any team, yes!"

"OK, the Seattle Mariners."

"No, no, no, no."

It was in Florence, Italy, that I finally discovered the missing link: an American supplier.

Walking through the Piazza della Signoria, I spied a trinket-selling North African wearing the white Yankees cap, and rather than ask why he was wearing it -- a question that had gotten me zero results since the Dutch kid -- I asked where he got it. He pointed north. Words formed and, after a moment, coalesced into a familiar phrase.

"Foot Locker?" I asked.

"Foot Locker," he agreed.

Sure enough, two blocks down, in Foot Locker Italy, the Yankees cap was available in a dozen variations behind the busy cashier counter. In the middle of them all, incongruously, sat a St. Louis Cardinals cap.

It reminded me of our presidential elections. You can vote for any Yankees cap you want, or you can waste your vote on this St. Louis Cardinals cap that nobody wears anyway. Very few Europeans were wasting their votes.

It's all about fashion. MTV star wears it. Kids want it. Foot Locker sells it.

The baseball cap is no longer associated with baseball, and an American icon is no longer associated with America.

Erik Lundegaard is writing a book about backpacking through Europe for the first time at 39.

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