Brian Wilson will not be the closer for the New York Yankees in 2014; it’s not because of contract disagreements or poor performance on the field (he came back from Tommy John surgery to post a 0.66 ERA out of the bullpen with the Los Angeles Dodgers), however. He won’t be coming to the Bronx because joining the Yankees would mean that he has to shave his beard.
After George Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973, he instituted a grooming policy that the U.S. military would be proud of – no hair below the collar, and no facial hair below the upper lip (i.e. no beards, only mustaches). It’s time the Yankees end this clean-cut code, and not just because of Wilson; it was a dumb rule to begin with.
Telling a baseball player he can’t grow a beard is like telling a hipster he can’t wear plaid. Forbidding scruff on the diamond is like forbidding blond hair at the Playboy mansion. It’s part of the culture.
Growing a beard is not just a matter of appearance, rather baseball players are some of the most superstitious human beings on the planet. In the ALCS this year, Mike Napoli was 0-6 with six strikeouts when he decided to make an adjustment – not with his swing or his approach at the plate, but with his pant legs.
He had previously rocked high socks, but when he dug in for his third at-bat against Justin Verlander in Game 3, he wore his pant legs down. Napoli then broke his hit-less streak with a home run to left center field and gave the Boston Red Sox a 1-0 win. He proceeded to get five more hits over the next three games, including a 460 foot bomb off Anibal Sanchez in Game 5 – all with his pant legs down.
It may not make any sense whatsoever, but it doesn’t matter. Whether beards are grown as a team like the Red Sox, or individually like Wilson, if a player believes that ditching his razor is helping him succeed on the field, then it is. He has to respect the streak, and so should management.
In addition to the pant leg change, Napoli also rubbed the barrel of his bat on Jonny Gomes’ beard before taking Verlander yard. Wilson did a SportsCenter commercial about how he intimidates batters by staring them down with a burly, jet-black beard. They laugh about it and it all seems like nonsense, but the results are serious: Napoli’s Red Sox won the World Series this year and Wilson’s San Francisco Giants won in 2010 (they also won in 2012, but Sergio Romo had to assume closer and bear-growing duties for an injured Wilson).
The Yankees take winning extremely seriously, and Steinbrenner wanted his team to look professional while they won championships. But outlawing beards has taken away one of the most popular rituals in the game. It’s time for the Yankees to undo this absurd rule.