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Self-expression doesn't bother Bosox
by Jerry Crasnick
BOSTON—Baseball fans in this city have a knack for making even .240-hitting first basemen feel welcome. Heck, Doug Mientkiewicz just joined the Red Sox from the Twins on July 31, and a majority of Bostonians can already pronounce his name correctly.
Mientkiewicz has learned a couple of other valuable lessons since arriving in Boston. For instance, yielding the right of way at rotaries is an excellent way to avoid unwanted hostility and stray middle fingers. And it's wise to beware of teammates carrying shears.
"I get propositioned to shave my head every day," Mientkiewicz says. "I keep telling people, 'When Johnny Damon shaves his head, I'll shave my head.' "
Mientkiewicz can look in any direction in the Boston clubhouse and see a Kafka-esque parade of screwballs, wingnuts and fun-loving frat boys who are fixated on hair as a means of self-expression. Damon is the team's resident tonsorial renegade, but many of his teammates look as if they've just pulled in from the Sturgis Bike Rally—or a field trip to the Wild Oats Natural Marketplace.
Who knows how many small rodents are hiding in Manny Ramirez's hair? Pokey Reese and Bronson Arroyo are splitting the cornrow demographic, and Pedro Martinez's new 'do makes him look like Randy Watson, the lead singer in the band Sexual Chocolate in "Coming to America."
Then there's Kevin Millar, who changes looks more than Cal Ripken changed batting stances. When Millar was hitting .264 in mid-June, he dyed his hair a fluorescent shade of blond. Then he took the clippers to it. And then he grew a beard that made him look like a refugee from a Norwegian salmon trawler.
"I think George Steinbrenner would have a heart attack if he had this team," Mientkiewicz says.
Over a long baseball season, there's something to be said for forging a team identity through commonality. Last year the Red Sox shaved their heads and embraced Millar's "Cowboy Up" slogan. This year they've assumed an insurgent mentality through shared slovenliness. They're the 1993 Phillies redux.
"I just think there's a bunch of earth pigs on this team," says reliever Curtis Leskanic, who signed with Boston in June after being let go by Kansas City.
The Red Sox aren't the first major league team to rally around hair. In 1972, Reggie Jackson rocked the conservative baseball world when he arrived at spring training with a mustache. Several other Oakland players followed suit, and the A's were branded as "hippies" and "flower children" by the national media. Owner Charlie Finley, who initially hated Jackson's facial hair, changed his mind and began offering cash bonuses to players who grew mustaches.
The Red Sox' affinity for weird hair and dirty uniforms contrasts with the policies of their main rivals, the Yankees. In adherence with Steinbrenner's desire for neatness and order, New York players are restricted to well-groomed mustaches, and mavericks quickly learn to fall in line.
In July 2002, New York acquired pitcher Jeff Weaver and outfielder Raul Mondesi by trade in the span of a week. Without prompting, Weaver shaved his goatee and Mondesi, never known as a conformist, ditched his earring. If Steinbrenner could steer Don Mattingly to a barber chair and expect David Wells to act like an adult, who were these guys to argue?
The Red Sox, in contrast, are Linux to the Yankees' Microsoft.
"When the Yankees walk in, you see class," Millar says. "When you walk in to play the Red Sox, you see a bunch of just beer-drinking dudes. We're more the type of ballplayer that the normal fan can relate to."
Boston's players believe it's OK to look the way they want, within reason, because they have a note from the general manager. When Damon arrived at spring training sporting a beard and flowing locks, Theo Epstein received critical letters from fans who told him he should order his center fielder to get a haircut.
But Epstein held firm, under the theory that players are individuals and should be allowed some freedom of expression as long as it doesn't undermine the team concept. Epstein actually prefers loose, free-spirited "dirt dogs" in the Millar-David Ortiz mold because they'll be less inclined to melt in a pressurized environment like Boston.
"I don't think anyone is doing anything that's disrespectful to the game or to the organization," Epstein says. "I mean, this is a game. You play it as a kid growing up. On some of the great teams of the '70s, every player had Afros."
The danger in allowing players to look like motorcycle gang members is the message it sends when things don't go well. When the Red Sox went 25-26 in June and July, talk-show callers groused about Terry Fran-coma and complained that the manager was too soft on players who failed to execute fundamentals.
Now that the Red Sox are winning, Francona is coming off as Bobby Cox Jr. His players say his door is always open, and they appreciate the way he goes to such great lengths not to disparage them in the papers.
"One thing about Terry Francona—he doesn't front-run you," says Millar, who never lost the confidence of his manager even when he was routinely booed at Fenway. In early August, when Millar complained about a lack of lineup consistency, Francona attributed the comments to frustration and simply let them pass.
As for the hair and beards, Francona claims they're not an issue. He has too many other concerns to make grooming a priority.
"Johnny Damon's hair got a lot of play in spring training, but it didn't bother me," Francona says. "Johnny plays his ass off—that's what I care about. If we were running a Cub Scout troop here, I'd have guys shave. But we're not."
Francona isn't about to tell his players to stop goofing around just for the TV cameras. There are times, he admits, when the Red Sox are losing and he's in a bad mood, and Millar will say something so funny in the dugout that he has to gnaw on his lip to avoid laughing.
"We have a little bit of a unique group here, and you have to give them some room," Francona says.
Plenty of room. Leskanic, one of baseball's premier clubhouse cutups, keeps a device called a "coyote caller" in his locker stall at Fenway. It's a form of siren used for hunting that simulates 11 wild animal sounds ranging from squawking geese to a wounded jackrabbit.
Two hours before game time, Leskanic takes the device from his locker, pushes a button, and the wail of a coyote permeates every corner of the clubhouse. Nobody flinches.
"Whether we win or lose this year," Francona says, "I don't think it will be because we got tight."
Jerry Crasnick is a contributing baseball writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.