Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Baseball Tradition With All the Trimmings

As Mustaches Return to Fashion, Aficionados Reflect; a 'Lip Sweater' 
 Associated Press
Rollie Fingers, A's, 1973
By Scott Cacciola,
Wall Street Journal
April 27, 2012

John Axford had a career year for the Milwaukee Brewers last season. The 6-foot-5 reliever posted a league-high 46 saves. He was so good, he got votes for the Most Valuable Player Award, a rarity for a closer.

That was all very nice, Axford said. But to him, one of his greatest moments came after the season when the American Mustache Institute named him its Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year. It was an extraordinary honor, especially considering Axford is Canadian.

"I truly believe that a nice, masculine mustache would look wonderful on anyone," he said.

In promoting his self-described "lip sweater," Axford is the latest in a long line of ballplayers who have contributed to one of the game's rich, thick traditions—the mustache. It's been a staple of Major League Baseball for 40 years, curiously resistant to follicle fashion trends off the field. There have been angry mustaches (Al Hrabosky) and handlebar mustaches (Rollie Fingers) and really awful mustaches (Derek Holland).

"I think baseball is such a team game that it's an easy way for guys to express their personalities," said Sal Fasano, a former backup catcher whose burly 'stache was inspired by old samurai movies that he watched as kid. "I also have the advantage of being a hairy Italian."

There's a self-evident truth about ballplayers with mustaches: Ballplayers with mustaches love talking about mustaches. And sometimes they get nostalgic. "I was good friends with Dwight Evans, and he's got a big one," said Dennis Eckersley, a Hall of Fame reliever who now works as an analyst on Boston Red Sox broadcasts. Eckersley hasn't shaved his mustache since 1983, when he broke out his clippers in the wake of a New Year's Eve party. ("One crazy a-- night, know what I mean?") It has since endured because of marital relations. "It's one of my favorite features on him," said his wife, Jennifer.

Getty Images

Dennis Eckersley, A's, 1988
Like many players entering the big leagues in the early 1970s, Eckersley drew inspiration from the Oakland A's—the most mustachioed team ever. A's star Reggie Jackson created a stir when he arrived at spring training with one in 1972, as baseball had been largely devoid of facial hair for decades. The St. Louis Cardinals' Richie Allen appeared mustachioed on a 1970 cover of Sports Illustrated, but it didn't catch on. John Thorn, MLB's historian, said the last mustache he could recall before then belonged to Frenchy Bordagaray in the 1930s.

In any case, A's owner Charlie Finley wasn't enamored with Jackson's fashion statement, nor were many of his teammates, who felt he did it to stand out. "I heard the same thing when I'd be on national television and hit a home run," Jackson said. "People would say, 'Well, Reggie only hits home runs on television because he likes the attention.' If that was the f------ case, I would've hit one every day."

He insists he grew his mustache only because his father had one. But this filial devotion didn't endear him to teammates. Several players conspired to grow their own mustaches so Jackson would blend in. (Take a moment to appreciate that logic: The A's were so annoyed with Jackson, they decided to look more like him.) Then the real twist: Finley, who was never a wallflower when it came to marketing gimmicks, offered $300 to anybody on the team who also grew one. Thus, the "Mustache Gang" was born.

The fact that the A's then won three straight World Series, from 1972 to 1974, shouldn't be considered mere coincidence, said Aaron Perlut, chairman of the American Mustache Institute. "It could be argued that there is no greater performance-enhancing device in baseball," he said. Perlut also claims that mustaches improve good looks by 38%. "That's science," he said.

He has evidence. He cites Jason Giambi, who broke out of a slump with the New York Yankees in 2008 after he adopted what Perlut describes as a "sexually dynamic mustached American lifestyle." There's also Carl Pavano, who went 17-11 with the Minnesota Twins in 2010 after he embraced lower-nose foliage.

One of today's most famous baseball mustaches belongs to Holland, the Texas Rangers pitcher whose 'stache has a bald patch in the middle. "Man, it's a bad mustache," he admits. And yet his numbers have been impressive: He went 16-5 last season. "I don't think it's had any bearing on his performance," said his agent, Mike Martini.

Holland said he plans to shave it in June for engagement photos with his fiancée, but perhaps he should think twice. Consider Rick Ankiel, whose mustache was a source of civic pride when he was with St. Louis. Then he shaved it early in 2009. A city mourned. "The world's a little less hairy: Rick Ankiel's mustache is dead," read one headline on Less than two weeks later, Ankiel slammed into a wall tracking a fly ball and was carted off with a neck injury. "The cushioning that the mustache would have had on impact was largely taken for granted," Perlut said.

Associated Press
Keith Hernandez, Mets, 1984
Ex-New York Mets star Keith Hernandez is attached to his mustache. He still uses "Just For Men" products to color it, though he said his endorsement deal with the company recently ended. Hernandez, an analyst with SNY, said he's shaved it off three times in his life, and each time regretted doing so. He recalled once getting rid of it after a breakup with a girlfriend. "And then I said, 'That's silly. Come on, get over it.'"

Axford, the Brewers' closer, has altered his look this season from Fu Manchu to something he describes as "the evil magician." This goes hand-in-hand with the belief among relievers that mustaches intimidate hitters. "Which is ridiculous," said Thorn, the historian.

Like he did last season, Axford plans to shave his mustache in November as part of a prostate-health fundraiser. Keeping it is worth the occupational hazards, he said: "I was eating a burger last week, and hair kept getting in my mouth."

—Daniel Barbarisi contributed to this article.
Zuma Press
Derek Holland, Rangers, 2012

Associated Press
John Axford, Brewers, 2011

No comments: