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.

The Red Sox aren't the first big-league team to rally around hair. In 1972, Reggie Jackson of the Oakland A's rocked the conservative baseball world when he arrived at spring training sporting a mustache. Several other Oakland players followed suit, and the Athletics were branded as "hippies" and "flower children" by the national media. Owner Charlie Finley, who initially hated Jackson's facial hair, eventually changed course and began offering cash bonuses to players who grew mustaches.

The Red Sox's affinity for weird hair and dirty uniforms is particularly noticeable when contrasted with the policies of their main rivals, the Yankees. In adherence with Steinbrenner's desire for neatness and order, New York players are restricted to well-groomed mustaches, and mavericks are conditioned to quickly fall in line.

In July 2002, the Yankees acquired pitcher Jeff Weaver from Detroit and outfielder Raul Mondesi from Toronto in the span of a week. Without prompting, Weaver shaved his goatee and Mondesi, never known as a conformist, removed an earring. If Steinbrenner could order Don Mattingly to get a haircut and expect David Wells to act like an adult, who were these guys to argue?

"That's been a tradition with the Yankees," Millar said. "When they walk in, you see class. When you walk in to play the Red Sox, you see a bunch of just beer-drinking dudes. We're more the type of ballplayer that the normal fan can relate to."

Boston's players believe it's OK to look the way they want, within reason, because they have the approval of management. When Damon arrived at spring training sporting a beard and flowing locks, Epstein received critical letters from fans who told him if he was doing his job properly, he'd order his center fielder to get a haircut.

But Epstein held firm, under the theory that players are individuals and should be allowed some freedom of expression provided it doesn't get in the way of the team concept and winning games. Epstein actually prefers loose, free-spirited "dirt dogs" in the Millar- David Ortiz mold, because he thinks they'll be less inclined to melt in a pressurized environment like Boston.

"I don't think anyone is doing anything that's disrespectful to the game or to the organization," Epstein said. "I mean, this is a game. You play it as a kid growing up. On some of the great teams of the '70s, every player had Afros. That's the way it is. We're not schoolteachers. This isn't a private school. This game is supposed to be about winning and fun."

The danger in allowing players to look like motorcycle gang members is the message it might send when things don't go well. When the Red Sox went 25-26 in June and July, talk-show callers groused about Terry Fran-coma and complained that the manager was too soft on players who failed to execute fundamentals. Lots of people dwelled on Martinez leaving the season opener at Camden Yards while the game was still in progress. When Francona made excuses for his star pitcher, he looked like an enabler.

Now that the Red Sox are winning, Francona is coming off as Bobby Cox Jr. It's said that his door is always open, and he takes pains never to dog his players in the papers.

"One thing about Terry Francona -- he doesn't front-run you," said Millar, who appreciates Francona sticking with him when he was routinely booed at Fenway. In early August, when Millar complained about a lack of lineup consistency, Francona attributed the comments to frustration and simply let them pass.

As for the hair and beards, Francona claims they're not an issue because he simply doesn't care.

"This is 2004," Francona said. "It's not 1970 or 1980. The big thing when I was a young player was, 'Treat people the way you want to be treated.' But I don't think you can do that anymore. You have to treat people the way they expect to be treated.

"Like Johnny in the spring. Johnny's hair got a lot of play, but it didn't bother me. Johnny plays his ass off -- that's what I care about. If we were running a Cub Scout troop here, I'd have guys shave. But we're not."

Francona says he's not about to tell his players to stop goofing around just because it might not look good for the TV cameras. Before one recent game, the spacey Ramirez ran out to his position in left field, oblivious, while his teammates stayed behind in the dugout and cackled. There are times, Francona says, when the Red Sox are losing and he's in a bad mood, and Millar says something so funny in the dugout that he has to laugh in spite of himself.

"I think you have to realize that we have a little bit of a unique group here, and you have to give them some room," Francona said.

Plenty of room. Leskanic, one of baseball's premier clubhouse clowns, keeps a device called a "coyote caller" in his locker stall at Fenway. It's a form of siren used for hunting that simulates 11 wild animal sounds ranging from squawking geese to a wounded jackelope.

Before a game against Detroit last week, Leskanic pulled the device from his locker, pushed a button, and the wail of a coyote permeated every corner of the clubhouse. Nobody flinched.

"Whether we win or lose this year," Francona said, "I don't think it will be because we got tight."

Jerry Crasnick is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider. He can be reached via e-mail.