When the Red Sox held “Beard Night” last month and filled every seat at Fenway Park, Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes joked that they should ask the team for a share of the profits.
Back in spring training, when Gomes showed up with scraggly whiskers and Napoli decided he would stop shaving just for kicks, nobody guessed that baseball players with hairy faces would become a cottage industry complete with T-shirts and posters.
But the thing about the beards that gets missed is that it’s not really about the beards. It’s about what they represent.
For the better part of two years, playing for the Red Sox had become a chore. The September collapse in 2011 led to the team losing 93 games in 2012. Most every move the Sox made failed, particularly the hiring of unpopular manager Bobby Valentine.
The enduring image of last season was a photograph of Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Nick Punto smiling as a private jet whisked them away from Boston after they were traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Several players left behind privately admitted they were envious. Boston had become a franchise to escape from.
The Dodgers trade helped general manager Ben Cherington renovate the roster with players who would improve the talent level of the team and change the Eeyore attitude of the clubhouse. But until the group assembled in spring training, the chemistry component was uncertain.
“Every team needs something,” Gomes said. “We all knew what the big picture was, what we were trying to do. But there had to be something to bring people together.”
Gomes was on playoff teams in Tampa Bay (2008), Cincinnati (2010), and Oakland (2012). In all three cases, teams with losing records the previous year became winners.
Gomes noticed that all three teams had little rituals that helped the players bond.
“That stuff is totally irrelevant to baseball,” he said. “But if everybody gets on the same page, maybe it does help. Good teams seem to have certain music or ways they celebrate. Quirky things can bring people together.”
So when Napoli started growing a beard, Dustin Pedroia and David Ross joined him. When Mike Carp was obtained from Seattle and arrived a few days into spring training, he put his razor away.
“It just seemed like the thing to do,” Carp said. “I had a good feeling about this group of guys.”
David Ortiz and Ryan Dempster, who already had neatly trimmed beards, were part of the group. Others joined in.
Manager John Farrell, smooth of chin all his life, never raised an objection.
“It’s a signature for this team,” he said. “It’s a bonding element. You have to have ways to have fun sometimes. It takes the focus off the daily grind.
“We wanted talented guys who were good teammates. If this is how they express being good teammates, that’s fine with me. You need to provide a boundary of what is acceptable. But within that there is room for individuality.”
The beards might have vanished had the Red Sox started slowly. But winning 12 of the first 16 games almost mandated that no changes would be made.
The team further bonded on April 15, the unforgettable day of the Boston Marathon.
The Sox learned of the bombings near the finish line just after winning a game against Tampa Bay at Fenway Park. As the city reeled, the Sox boarded a flight to Cleveland to start a road trip.
That night, as news of the tragedy spread, about 20 players gathered for dinner, an unusually large group. The following day, they hung a jersey with “617” on the back in the dugout in support of the victims.
For Farrell, that moment was telling.
“We saw some things come out of the individuals that spoke to their understanding that they were in a special place and showed some character at a very difficult and unique time,” he said.
“Whether that was the galvanizing moment for this team, I can’t say that. But it was a moment in time where guys showed a different side of them, that this was a special group.
“What the performance was going to be, the total number of wins achieved, we didn’t know. But there was a character that showed through in that moment that was special.”
The Sox never faltered, staying in first place for the bulk of the season. They became the first team since the 2005 St. Louis Cardinals not to lose four games in a row and won the American League East. For the first time since 2009, the Sox are back in the postseason.
On Friday, when the Red Sox host Game 1 of the American League Division Series, nearly every player on the field will have a beard. Even baby-faced holdouts like Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew, and Daniel Nava have joined in.
“It’s funny. We talk about combing our beard or putting conditioner on them,” Napoli said. “You get ‘pillow beard’ if you sleep the wrong way. I had to blow dry it the other day.
“It’s funny that we talk about beards. But the biggest thing is that we’re together then and we’re together on the field. We’re all having a good time.”
The Red Sox have other rituals, too. Unlike previous years, when there was a relaxed dress code for road trips, most of the players favor starched shirts, carefully knotted ties and tailored suits when they travel.
Napoli looks like an investment banker for a motorcycle gang. The starting pitchers, even the notoriously unkempt Clay Buchholz, also go all out sartorially.
Ortiz strolled into the visitors clubhouse in Baltimore Sunday wearing a crisp white blazer, black slacks, a red pocket square, and designer shoes from France. He was strutting more than he ever has after a home run.
Many of the players also have three lines shaved into the back of their heads by a clubhouse barber, a style usually favored by high school kids.
Jake Peavy, who was obtained from the White Sox July 30, sported the look three days later.
It’s all a little silly. But playing for the Red Sox is a joy again because of it. That’s really what matters.
“It’s been a blast. This is the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball,” Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “It’s not because of me doing well. What’s great about this team is we root for the next guy.
“It’s a bunch of us enjoying the game, talking about baseball. The beards are just part of it. It’s being a team and talking about things and having a ball doing it.”
Gomes, the playoff whisperer, laughs at what he innocently started.
“You never know what it will be that makes a team click,” he said. “But we found it and we’re going to ride this thing as long as we can.”