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October 4,2003

Silk-screening a dream
Every spring, Rick Roth, owner of Mirror Image in Pawtucket, receives a contract for the elusive Red Sox World Champions T-shirt. "I just laugh and throw it in my drawer and say, 'That's never going to happen.' "


PAWTUCKET -- Rick Roth grew up as a Yankees fan.

He cried when Bill Mazeroski hit his famous home run to beat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. He was at Yankee Stadium when Mickey Mantle homered in the ninth inning to beat the Cardinals in Game 3 of the '64 Series. He was in Fenway Park when Bucky Dent's infamous home run helped New York beat the Red Sox in the 1978 playoff game.

So Roth laughs at the irony that his T-shirt company, Mirror Image, is in line to print the shirt that Red Sox fans have waited for since 1918 -- one commemorating a World Series championship.

Every spring, Roth receives a contract in the mail, calling for him to print the elusive T-shirt.

"I just laugh and throw it in my drawer and say, 'That's never going to happen,' " he said.

Roth, whose company printed T-shirts around the clock after the New England Patriots won their first Super Bowl, in 2002, says that the demand for a Red Sox World Series shirt would be off the charts.

"We'd be printing for a month," he said. "It would probably be in the hundreds of thousands. People would be walking around New England with Red Sox shirts for two years. If you figure the average fan's laundry cycle is two weeks, you do the math. It's a lot of shirts."

As the Red Sox launched their latest World Series quest this week in Oakland against the Athletics, Roth kept one eye on the scoreboard and another on his printing presses in Mirror Image's headquarters in an old brick factory building on Exchange Street.

Before the first pitch, he called a meeting of his workers, many of them long-suffering Red Sox fans, and told them, "Even though I'm a Yankee fan, I'm rooting for the Sox to go all the way."

Not that Roth was surprised by the bad karma and inherent weaknesses in this Boston team exposed by its opening two losses in Oakland.

"I'm not clearing any warehouse space for T-shirts yet," he quipped last night.

Should the Red Sox turn things around and advance deeper into the playoffs, Roth will call the VF Corp., an apparel giant in Tampa, Fla. VF holds the Major League Baseball license to print playoff apparel, and contracts with printers such as Mirror Image.

"Last week, when it was apparent that the Sox weren't going to fold in the wild-card race, VF called to make sure we were still on board," said Roth. "Now, as the playoffs progress, if the Sox are doing well, they'll see what kind of demand there is from retailers."

If the Red Sox get past Oakland and make it to the American League championship, orders could start coming in for a league championship shirt -- especially if Boston's opponent is the hated Yankees.

"But with Sox fans, they only want to win it all," said Roth.

Some professional sports teams are superstitious, delaying the approval of championship art work until the last possible moment so as not to jinx their chances. But in the T-shirt business, where "hot off the press" can translate into big dollars, printers have to be ready to roll the moment the game ends.

Roth learned that in 1997, when Mirror Image was hired to print Super Bowl championship shirts for the Patriots. The silk screens were in place, the presses ready and thousands of blank T-shirts stacked on pallets on the factory's worn maple floors.

"But then the Green Pay Packers run a kickoff back for a touchdown, and we all go home," recalled Roth.

Afterward, Roth would occasionally wear a prototype shirt indicating that the Patriots had won, prompting people who saw it to say, "No, they didn't." (Roth still wears a Boston Celtics Eastern Conference championship shirt from a few years ago, even though the Celtics lost to New Jersey, canceling that job. But nobody notices, he says.)

In 2002, with the Patriots back in the Super Bowl against the favored St. Louis Rams, Roth and his workers were ready again. This time, the Patriots won when Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining.

"We jumped up and celebrated, then ran into the other room and started printing shirts," said Roth. "We printed for 18 straight hours (churning out tens of thousands of shirts). We called in former workers and had people working in shifts, taking naps on couches. In St. Louis, some T-shirt manufacturer probably had 60,000 to 80,000 shirts ready to go, then had to send everybody home."

The T-shirts can be returned, leaving the printer out a few thousand dollars for the cost of the ink and the screens.

Roth grew up in Wethersfield, Conn., where he was a standout baseball player until a broken ankle ended his senior season. At Colgate University, he was cut by the baseball coach, who didn't like his long, red ponytail. Roth, who turns 50 next month and still has his ponytail, remains active playing softball and over-30 baseball in and around Boston, where he moved in 1976 to attend Harvard Divinity School.

It was during those years -- lean years for the Yankees -- that Roth frequently attended baseball games at Fenway Park, wearing his New York cap. He flirted with becoming a Red Sox fan, he confesses, "but then the Red Sox traded Bill Lee for Stan Papi. That ended my romance with Boston. Lee went on to win 15 games [for the Montreal Expos] and Papi got two hits, one of which I saw."

Roth eventually left Harvard and began working with drug addicts and juvenile delinquents in Boston. One project involved training troubled youths in screen printing, which helped lead Roth in the T-shirt business.

Mirror Image, which has more than $2.5 million in sales annually and employs 23 people, moved from Cambridge, Mass., to Pawtucket in 1999. Roth has used his business to promote a variety of social causes, from Amnesty International to Farm Aid to Students For A Free Tibet. Recently, he was named CEO of Sweatx, a Los Angeles-based company started by Ben & Jerry's founder Ben Cohen to promote union-made textiles.

Roth also has collaborated on a book of haiku (Japanese poetry). Last week, he met the Dalai Lama in New York. Named one of five maverick CEOs by The Counselor magazine in 2002, Roth once wore a T-shirt that paraphrased a quote from Socialist Eugene Debs: "While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free. While there is a Tigers game, I am in the bleachers."

He smiled philosophically when asked if he'll root for the Yankees if they face the Red Sox for the American League pennant, with all those World Series T-shirts riding on the outcome.

"The Yankees," he quipped. "Because even if the Red Sox make it to the series, you know they'll blow it."

Later, however, Roth allowed that this is a more likeable Boston team than past editions, one that plays hard and is fun to watch.

Then, he smiled and said, "For the sake of my workers, I guess I'll have to root for the Sox. This is business -- people's livelihood. The rest is sports. But I could root for the Yankees, because that's not going to change whether they win or lose."

The only thing more unbelievable than a Red Sox championship, said Roth, would be a World Series pitting Boston against another perennial loser, the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908.

"Cubs-Red Sox, seventh game of the World Series," he said, grinning. "That would be the ultimate game, from a printer's point of view."

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