You could tell something new and strange was happening on the ball fields of America from the way Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon reacted last month when he heard Major League Baseball was considering a crackdown on the studiously grimy batting helmets he and several teammates wear. The thick paste of pine tar, mud, tobacco juice, sunflower seeds and unidentified sports-gunk on Nixon's once-blue helmet nearly rendered the famous white-and-red B invisible--and Nixon liked that just fine. "It's an absolute joke," he snapped when told that the MLB's marketing pooh-bahs wanted to dock his pay for lousing up the valuable logo. "I don't care what they say. I'm not paying any fine."
No one knows who makes the rules of cool, but we live in an age when it is hip to be filthy-hatted. Call it a new era of New Eras. Dodgers closer Eric Gagne wears a sweat-stained cap that could probably jog in on its own from the bullpen. Phillies slugger Jim Thome's helmet looks like it's been sprayed with fertilizer, then dragged across a cineplex floor on a Saturday. Two years ago the Cardinals honored reliever Steve Kline with Dirty Hat Day, handing out grungy gimme caps to lucky fans. (Kangol now sells a pre-dirtied baseball hat for $31.) And check out Vladimir Guerrero on page 74 of this issue: The Angels outfielder sports what appears to be a helmet molded completely out of mud. Upon catching a glimpse--or perhaps a whiff--of the thing earlier this season, Anaheim manager Mike Scioscia observed, "If he ever gets hit with a pitch there, the ball will stick."
Last Friday in St. Louis, Julian Tavarez was ejected from a game after Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon complained that the reliever's hat was oozing pine tar in violation of Rule 8.02(b), which bans foreign substances on uniforms and caps. It was the third time this season umpires have examined Tavarez, who after the game gave a stack of his pristine Cardinal caps to McClendon, his manager--and frequent hat apologist--last season.
Tavarez, who wasn't accused of using the pine tar to doctor the ball, has said hat hygiene is a matter of taste. "Some people like young women; I like old women. Some people like clean hats; I like dirty hats." Others have more method in their messiness. Nixon and Thome, who has worn the same helmet since joining the Phillies before the 2003 season, like the convenience of having a supply of pine tar just a head-tap away. "It's better than putting it on your uniform," Thome has said.
Gagne's hat is soiled from overuse; he can't wear another, he says, because this one has been molded to fit over his goggle-thick glasses. It's an added bonus that the lack of clean makes him look mean, the latest in a long line of pitchers--such as Red Sox reliever Mike Timlin, former Oakland ace Dave Stewart and former closer John Wetteland--to employ darkened caps the way cowboy actors once used black Stetsons.
Make no mistake: A showdown is brewing between the defiant dirtheads and baseball's bareheaded barons of branding. MLB included a clause about the sanctity of uniform logos in the most recent collective bargaining agreement. Nomar Garciaparra has been fined $4,500 and threatened with suspension for removing the MLB logo from the back of his helmet and, in another case, smearing mud over it. Maybe both sides need to take a deep breath--and a lesson from Tavarez, who after being ejected, happily tossed his offensive accessory into the stands, then threw his arm around umpire Ron Kulpa and suggested they go out after the game and have, well, a nightcap. -- S.C.