Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Importance of Facial Hair: Why the Yankees May Never Beat the Red Sox Again

As it stands tonight, the Yankees are 10.5 games behind the once-lowly Tampa Bay Rays for the AL East lead. They are 6 games behind their hated rivals, and defending champs, the Boston Red Sox. Baring an historic collapse by either one or both squads, it's pretty safe to say that the Yankees won't make the postseason, and may not make the postseason next year either. Some would say the Yankees have been crippled by age and bad contracts, and I think there's certainly a degree of merit to that argument.

However, the Yankees showed some life this year in the form of 2000 AL MVP and steroid poster child, Jason Giambi. Giambi has been pretty much a bust since coming over from Oakland to New York in 2002. Although he still has produced decent power numbers, his batting average has dropped off preciptiously since joining the Yankees. Since the 2004 Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years, Giambi has hit only .243, and many are quick to assume that this decline is due to his involvement in the steriod scandals sweeping MLB. And these arguments certainly had merit when Giambi opened the season as the starting first baseman, and could barely muster a .200 batting average.

Giambi tried different things to break out of his slump, including wearing a golden thong at one point (seriously). When that didn't work, he decided to grow what appeared to be a mustache. In reality, it looked less like facial hair and more like a dead caterpillar lying rigor mortis on his upper lip. However, that certainly seemed to have the desired effect b/c Giambi raised his batting average almost 50 points, the Yankees went on an early summer tear, and for a moment, it appeared that they could actually catch the Rays and Red Sox. Even more, the mustache took on a life of its own, and began a nationwide, albeit media-stirred craze. The Yankees started giving out fake mustaches at the gates to the kids. Rival fans even took to wearing the fake 'stache when the Yankees were on the road. The guy who was once villified for cheating his way to an MVP award was being cheered b/c of his ridiculous look, and the fact that he was so successful w/ it.

But still, the injuries started to mount for the Yankees as the All-Star break neared. The losses began to look insurmountable, and Giambi shaved the mustache. It certainly appears that unless two historic collapses happen in the next five weeks, the Yankees have conceded the playoff race. It will mark the first time in 14 years the Yankees will have missed the postseason. Most baseball fans aren't particularly heartbroken by this news, and perhaps Giambi's mustache will simply be a footnote of a rather lackluster season from sports' most-hated franchise. That said, though, I thought it warranted a more careful examination of why the Yankees lost this year, and will likely keep losing. And why the Red Sox will keep winning.
Jason Giambi came into the league as a long-haired, tattooed Southern California kid. Johnny Damon won a World Series in Boston looking like the mutt-child of Jesus Christ and Bob Seger. Randy Johnson won a World Series w/ Arizona, against the Yankees, with a flowing mullet and scraggly goatee that only a West Virginia trucker high on crystal meth could love.

Giambi once laid claim to a phrase, "Hit like All-Stars, party like rock stars and hammer like porn stars." Damon laid claim to describing his team as "a bunch of idiots," even naming his autobiography Idiot. Johnson laid claim to his own nickname "The Big Unit," easily the most unsavory nickname in all of professional sports.

Giambi arrived in New York and was told to cut his hair and shave his goatee. Damon arrived in New York and was told not to grow his beard back nor have long hair. Johnson arrived in New York was ordered to cut the mullet off and trim back his goatee. After all, they were now Yankees, and Yankees had a professional image to live up to. This was the franchise of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra and Jeter, and no one could be a Yankee looking like they did.

So all three complied, and all three massively underperformed in pinstripes drawing the ire of the New York faithful and the Big Apple media. Randy Johnson departed the Yankees, and went back to Phoenix where he grew out his mullet, and helped Arizona win the NL West last year. Damon has been moved out of center field entirely due to his defensive liabilites. And, of course as previously noted, Giambi has struggled mightily in his 5+ years as a New York Yankee.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, have reeled off two World Series titles in four years with a menagerie of ballplayers that pretty much look however they want. Damon infamously wore his beard and long hair in center field. The recently departed Manny Ramirez wore flowing dreadlocks in left field looking like a power-hitting Bob Marley. Kevin Millar had a hair style that changed daily. Kevin Youklis shaved his dome and grew an unkempt goatee that only Randy Johnson and ZZ Top would dig. Josh Beckett, meanwhile, looks like a Yankee: A clean-cut kid from the Houston suburbs, the antithesis of all of the loonies he shared a locker room w/. The Red Sox have been one of sports' most successful franchises of this decade, and the Yankees certainly started out that way, but haven't had anywhere near the level of success that the Red Sox have enjoyed, especially over the last five years.

It's certainly true there are other factors in play. The Yankees over the last five years have certainly valued the superstar more so than they should. The Yankees also have not recognized that the idea of a great baseball team is to have 25 guys working towards a singular, collective goal, and not just a bunch of Alpha Dogs duking it out amongst each other for statisical supremacy. It's also true that they signed a collection of ballplayers that were past their prime, but were still big-name draws for the media attention. One could even argue that Randy Johnson was like this, and only reverted back to his superstar form once he got back to a very weak division.

However, I think it would unjust not to suggest that the Yankees are also playing by a set of rather anachronistic rules. It may be the franchise of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra and Jeter, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we live in the era of any of those ballplayers, with the exception of Jeter, obviously. We live in an era, not just for athletes but people in general, where the idea of a great team still holds form, but so does the idea of individuality. We live, and will continue to live, with MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. The idea that we can function as a unique individual apart from a cohesive school, job, team or fraternity is intrinsic to modern-day life. Corporate America is considerably more lenient about hiring people with tattoos. In fact, I've had two bosses in the last two years with visible tattoos, and ironically, they are both friends of mine on Facebook as well. Neither individual has had any issue with adapting to a corporate environment despite the obvious tell-tales signs of non-conformity.

The Yankees are not only getting beaten routinely by their chief rival, amongst others, but the Yankee way may be a thing of the past as well. The Yankees are asking people to conform to a rigid, autonomous style of business rather than the business working with their employees to provide a work environment that suits the collective needs of both parties. Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Randy Johnson were all brilliantly talented baseball players before coming to New York. Johnson regained his old form once he left the pinstripes behind; Damon hasn't regained his old form from his days w/ the Red Sox; Giambi recaptured a brief bit of lost glory when he regrew some of his old facial hair. It's a shame that the Yankee way will never let Damon and Giambi go back in time to when they were still very successful ballplayers, and allow them that degree of comfort they had with their former employers. But it's also the players fault for accepting the money and an environment that wasn't going to suit their own personal tastes.

Maybe the Red Sox can resign them on the cheap, and see what happens when they let them grow their hair back.