Red Sox proving they can win ugly

BOSTON -- Doug Mientkiewicz is hitting .245 with the Red Sox since arriving from Minnesota in late July. He has dinged up his left shoulder, taken some shots at Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and watched Cuba win the Olympic baseball gold medal while wistfully reflecting on the 2000 Sydney Games, when he and Tommy Lasorda were the heroes.

Mientkiewicz also has fended off some unwanted advances -- not from Red Sox groupies, but from overzealous teammates with an Edward Scissorhands fetish.

"We have a lot of free spirits in this clubhouse," Mientkiewicz said. "They do their own thing, that's for sure. I get propositioned to shave my head every day. I keep telling people, 'When Johnny Damon shaves his head, I'll shave my head.' "

Mientkiewicz can look in any direction in the Boston clubhouse and see a Kafka-esque parade of screwballs, wingnuts and fun-loving frat boys who are fixated on hair as a means of self-expression. Many of the Boston players sport three-day biker growths, and while Damon is the team's resident tonsorial renegade, he's hardly alone.

Who knows how many field mice might be hiding in Manny Ramirez's hair? Pedro Martinez's new 'do, some Sox-watchers have noted, makes him look like Randy Watson, the lead singer in the band Sexual Chocolate in "Coming to America." Pokey Reese has the cornrow demographic all locked up and Trot Nixon is now sporting a modified Mohawk.

Then there's Kevin Millar, who changes looks more than Cal Ripken Jr. changed batting stances. When Millar was hitting .264 in mid-June, he dyed his hair a fluorescent shade of blond. Then he took the shears to it. And then, when he got tired of being bald and clean shaven, he grew a beard that made him look like a refugee from a Norwegian salmon trawler.

"I think George Steinbrenner would have a heart attack if he had this team," Mientkiewicz said.

With 16 wins in 19 games against sub-.500 competition, the Red Sox are finally making a move in the American League East. They've pulled within 3½ games of first-place New York, and they lead Anaheim by 2½ games in the wild-card race.

Boston's recent run, of course, isn't just follicularly based. Starters Curt Schilling, Martinez and Tim Wakefield are a combined 42-18, and the Sox lead the majors with 749 runs scored. General manager Theo Epstein removed a source of tension and clubhouse negativity when he traded Nomar Garciaparra at the deadline, and he added speed and upgraded the defense by acquiring Orlando Cabrera, Dave Roberts and Mientkiewicz.

But over a long baseball season, there's something to be said for forging identities. Last year the Red Sox bonded by shaving their heads en masse and embracing Millar's "Cowboy Up" slogan. This year they've assumed an insurgent mentality through shared slovenliness. They have a certain 1993 Philadelphia Phillies feel to them.

"I just think there's a bunch of earth pigs on this team," said reliever Curtis Leskanic, who signed with Boston in June after being let go by Kansas City.

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