Reverse the curse. Cowboy up. Believe in the beard.
In Red Sox Nation, each baseball season is savored like a piece of classic literature. In the best years there’s some defiant rallying cry, some new mythic quality assigned to the team, that bonds fans and players.
This year, it’s the power of beards. Facial hair that would make Bigfoot blush, to be specific. Unfettered from any requirements of a daily shave, the Sox have cruised to the best record in the American League. Their first playoff game is this afternoon.
Forget the bushy faces of TV’s “Duck Dynasty,” the Red Sox are aiming for the World Series and baseball’s first Beard Dynasty.
The wandering whiskers worn by a dozen or so of the players have become a scruffy yet heart-warming symbol of the team’s dramatic turnaround, a year after it finished last in its division. The beards have been embraced by fans and the media as a tangible, pull-able sign of great clubhouse chemistry.
Walk around downtown Portland and you’ll see that longish beards are a growing fashion trend, more common and more varied than ever. Ask any bearded man about the Sox beards and he’ll tell you that after years of being seen as a slightly countercultural facial accessory, the beard is being linked with the good guys.
“It’s probably good for beards,” said Bradford Taylor, 35, a bearded security guard at the Portland Museum of Art. “I reckon any beard press is good beard press.”
The Sox beard brigade has captured imaginations and drawn attention from the likes of The New York Times and ESPN because its creation can be seen as both goofy and spontaneous.
The Red Sox front office noticed the power of the beard, and on Sept. 18, a Wednesday night, the Sox held Dollar Beard Night. Anyone with a beard – real, fake or even drawn on in magic marker – got a chance to buy a ticket for $1. The available tickets, about 5,000, were gone in hours.
“The best promotions we can do are the organic ones, the ones that start with reality, like the players saying they had to ‘cowboy up’ 10 years ago,” said Charles Steinberg, the team’s longtime head of public affairs. “When the players are leading the way and setting the tone, when they are having fun, it invites the fans to join them on the journey, and that’s what makes it a real unified celebration.”
“Cowboy up” was certainly organic, a phrase first uttered by first baseman Kevin Millar, essentially saying the team had to dig in and play better.
“Reverse the Curse” became a rallying cry, too, but it was based mostly on the media-driven Curse of the Bambino. Supposedly, the Red Sox cursed themselves by trading the Bambino, Babe Ruth, so they failed to win a World Series for 86 years, until 2004.
At Dollar Beard Night, the Sox PR folks helped to grow the organic beard phenomenon by posting graphics on social media that showed the shape and style of 12 players’ beards. People could take their cotton, duct tape and markers and fashion their own facial creations based on those of their favorite players.
Steinberg said the beards have helped the fans to have a real impact on this year’s team.
“When players see fans growing beards and wearing beards, everyone’s attitude improves. It allows fans to have an impact,” he said.
By growing a beard, a fan can literally take one on the chin for the team.
Besides, it’s fun to see millionaire ballplayers who can afford the best of everything reveling in unshaven bliss. It makes them seem just a little more like real folks.
“I think it brings the players down to earth a little bit, it helps make it fun to watch them,” said Jeff Carpenter, 72, a bearded optician and Sox fan from Porter. “It’s a symbol of their camaraderie.”
And it’s a symbol of the Sox new attitude, brought by new players.
New outfielder Jonny Gomes sported a bushy beard in spring training, and it caught the eye of new first baseman Mike Napoli and new catcher David Ross. Soon, it looked like somebody had sprinkled Miracle-Gro in the Red Sox lockers and most of the team was sprouting facial hair. Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino and David Ortiz let their chins get covered, to name a few.
As the beards started growing, the team started winning. And they never stopped.
“I think it’s a good symbol of what helped them get where they are,” said Patrick Carey, 32, a bearded computer programmer from Portland. “But it would have been terrible to do this last year – pulling beards while losing all those games.”
The Sox and their fans endured a horrible season in 2012, symbolized by overpriced players (relatively speaking) who didn’t seem to care for each other or, more importantly, for beards.
But this year, the players show up at Fenway looking like members of ZZ Top one day and Rutherford B. Hayes the next, showing that the only thing they care about is winning.
As opposed to the way they look.
People who study the cultural importance of beards say it’s no surprise that they have given the Sox confidence, swagger and a mystic sort of energy. That’s what beards do, they say.
“It’s fun to watch Napoli hit a home run and you see everyone grabbing his beard, like they’re trying to get the magic from it,” said Brendan Cheever, a member of the Boston Beard Bureau, a beard awareness and promotion group in Massachusetts. “You can see how they can use it as intimidation. When you’re a hitter at the plate and you’re facing a whole team of bearded guys, that must be something.”
It’s hard to find another example of so many players on a Major League Baseball team bearding up at the same time. You have to go back to the House of David, a religious community’s barnstorming team that played into the 1950s, to find a whole team of bearded players.
As for beards equaling winning, relief pitchers Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo grew famously bushy beards during the San Francisco Giants’ 2010 championship season. But there were plenty of clean-shaven guys on that team.
You might reason that the Red Sox beards of ’13 are the full-facial-hair equivalent of the mustaches sported by the Oakland A’s of the early 1970s. The A’s were pitiful losers for years before finally fielding a decent team and making the American League Championship series in 1971. But they lost.
The next year in spring training, after initially being furious that slugger Reggie Jackson had grown a mustache, owner Charles Finley paid his players $300 each (players weren’t millionaires then) to grow staches too, as a stunt. The mustachioed A’s would go on to win three consecutive World Series.
Sam Mercer, a bearded movie projectionist and slam poet from Portland, sees the Sox beards as good for baseball. He has no vested interest in seeing them win – he’s an Indians fan.
But like all good baseball fans, he roots heavily against the Yankees and all things Yankee. And the Yankees officially prohibit beards.
Of course they do.
“It’s nice to see that not all baseball is Yankee-fied and full of rules,” said Mercer, 24. “It just makes them seem more like regular guys. Like us.”
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: