Swap their jerseys for long-sleeved sweaters, and their cleats for skates, and the Boston Red Sox could easily be mistaken for an NHL team a good way down the Stanley Cup playoff road.
They’ve embraced hockey’s beard culture as a unifying element of a never-say-die team that’s surprised baseball by occupying first place in the American League East most of the season.
Outfielder Jonny Gomes seeded the idea by showing up to spring training with a full beard, first baseman Mike Napoli stopped shaving and, six months later, they and several others have what pitcher Ryan Dempster describes fairly as lumberjack beards. (Dempster wears a thick curly blonde outcrop. Others trim their beards fashionably; some have disorganized scruff.)
The beards have symbolized a team-together ideal since February, propelled further by the Boston Strong movement in the city following the Boston Marathon bombing in April. With manager John Farrell mixing and matching a veteran lineup, the never-give-up Red Sox have taken 19 of their 72 wins in their last at-bat to build a four-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays, going into Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Dempster, of Gibsons, B.C., drew a comparison to Stanley Cup facial growths. “[The] beard culture shows we’re really united as a team.”
“We went out to dinner Sunday night [in Toronto] and had 20 guys come,” Dempster said. “You don’t find that, in a lot of places. So if somebody is not going to grow a beard, or at least try one time even if it looks like chicken scratch, we’re going to give him a hard time.”
Left fielder Daniel Nava sports the chicken scratch. Some teammates say his face is incapable of generating full-growth whiskers. Nava, 30, claims he’s adopting the hockey mentality.
“Just saving it for the playoffs,” Nava said.
Outside the visitor’s clubhouse at Rogers Centre, designated hitter David Ortiz crossed paths with lead-off hitter Jacoby Ellsbury on his way to the batting cage. Ellsbury wears a dark, patchy scruff over his jaws and chin.
“Look at this guy,” Ortiz said with a laugh. “He been trying to grow it, but it grows in spots.”
Ortiz, his black beard shaved tight to his face and allowing goatee growth under the chin, said: “The guy you should go and talk to is Gomes. I wish my own could grow like that but I can’t.”
Gomes’s face is surrounded by something akin to a frayed red wire brush. Asked if he appeared at spring training purposely with the beard, he retorted: “I don’t think you can come in with one by accident.”
Gomes played in 2008 with the Rays, who got Mohawk haircuts going into the playoffs, and says the beards are characterizing the 2013 Red Sox as other teams might be known by a postgame handshake ritual.
“Obviously, the hockey-playoff beard is where the idea started, but we jumped the gun with a mid-season beard, and it was kind of ironic the [Boston] Bruins went to the Stanley Cup [this year],” he said. “I didn’t ask anyone to grow their beards, by any means.
“Our beards aren’t going to hit, or throw a slider. It’s just a team chemistry thing. Boston Strong is a big part of it. The Bruins were part of that and the [NFL’s New England] Patriots will run with it too, once they get going.”
Dempster said Napoli’s beard should be on a poster. It’s a full-on cluster of blonde-streaked brown, like bark on marrow.
“I watch a lot of hockey and they grow ’em out pretty big,” Napoli said. Formerly of the Texas Rangers, Napoli became friends with Vancouver Canucks centre Derek Roy when Roy played for the Dallas Stars, and got acquainted with hockey culture.
“Gomes had a beard coming into spring and it was pretty long, so I was like, ‘I’m not going to shave mine for the rest of the year.’ “It’s just some of us though. Not everyone can grow them.”
Who can’t grow one?
Farrell noted some players he wouldn’t expect to have a beard, are giving growth a shot. It’s an expression of “brotherhood,” the manager said.
While beards may be the demonstrative symbol of togetherness, Farrell, Dempster and others referred to the late-inning comebacks as the true, gelling component.
“It’s just the way the mentality of this team is – play 27 outs no matter how much we’re up or down, because anything can happen,” right fielder Shane Victorino said after Tuesday’s 4-2 victory over Toronto, when he threw out Jose Reyes at the plate and drove in the winning runs in the 11th inning.
“Guys are just going out and being themselves, no matter their role. … Who doesn’t want to play every day? But what it takes to become a winning team is each guy pulling for each other. Throw egos out the door. No matter what we’re asked to do, just go out there and do it.”
And if that means itchy chins during a humid New England summer, so be it.