This article is taken from my blog Broad Street Heroes, which can be accessed at http://www.broadstreetheroes.com/. I wrote it a few days ago and apparently Bleacher Report will not let me import it into the site, so, without further ado...
What is a beard? Some might say it's just facial hair. Some argue that it symbolizes laziness or lack of direction. Others just argue that it is annoying and "gets in the way". These people, my friends, don't understand the true meaning of the beard. Since the dawn of time, men have been growing beards. From Moses, to Jesus, it seems that the most prolific people to ever walk the earth sported graceful, majestic, scruffy beards.
In sports, the beard has taken on a meaning unto itself. Back in the early days of baseball nearly every player wore facial hair. The earliest proponent of facial hair that sticks out in my mind is Cap Anson, who compiled over 3000 hits in his major league baseball career, all while wearing a very dignified mustache. On the mound, Rollie Fingers groomed one of the most perfect mustaches ever known to man, and many believe it was one of the main reasons for his success.
Facial hair was prominent throughout the sports world, but the New York Islanders of the early 1980s started a trend that has gone on now for almost 30 years: the Playoff Beard. The Playoff Beard trend has recently come into popular culture, but most lifelong hockey fans have sworn by it for years now.
The theory goes like this: if your team makes the playoffs, you must not shave until your team wins it all or is bounced from contention. This past year, the NHL promoted a league-wide Beard-a-Thon, where fans could grow playoff beards for their teams and raise money for charity.
To analyze the playoff beard theory more closely I want to discuss the Stanley Cup Finals. On one side you had the Detroit Red Wings who sported unbelievable beards. Unfortunately, they were all topped by Maxim Talbot, Craig Adams, the ageless Bill Guerin, who grew beards so majestic, that they carried the Penguins to the Cup. Many people would say Crosby and Malkin were the main catalysts for success, but I beg to differ. The beards were the difference.
Another Stanley Cup Finals that will forever go down in history is the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Calgary Flames. I remember the series because I was trying to forget May 22, 2004, when the Lightning ousted the Flyers from the playoffs in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the last game the Flyers would play until after the NHL Lockout.
Anyway, the Flames came in to the series prepared, with possibly the best set of beards ever assembled. The Flames had many redheads on the team, from Mike Commodore (whose beard appeared when he was a Hurricane during the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals) to Martin Gelinas, to Mikka Kiprusoff, who has the best beard of any goalie, all time.
In Game six of the series with the Flames up three games to two, Martin Gelinas scored what seemed to be the Cup winning goal for the Flames. The officials reviewed and said that the puck never crossed the goal line. In my opinion, the puck clearly crossed the line and the Flames should have been 2004 Stanley Cup Champions, thanks in large part to their beards of greatness, but the referees screwed them.
So, what does a beard symbolize? Beards are a symbol of dedication, toughness, and strength, plus they are downright intimidating if worn by the correct person. For some reason most professions frown upon the untidy mess of hair that is a beard and instead insist on a clean shave. This makes no sense. Some of the best performances of all time have come when people believe in their beards.
The Playoff Beard theory clearly states that if you are on a hot streak you must not do anything to interrupt that streak. Just look at Eric Gagne during his 84 consecutive saves streak (although HGH may have had something to do with that as well). Apollo Anton Ohno, the Olympic Gold Medalist in Speed Skating, believed so highly in his soul patch that he wouldn't dare shave it. What has it earned him? 5 Olympic medals and 1st place on Dancing with the Stars.
Even Kimbo Slice, a bum who fought on the street, used the beard to his advantage. Do you think he would've made millions of dollars if he looked normal? That beard of his was so intimidating it forced ESPN to let it grace the cover of their magazine. The man went from nobody to superstar overnight, and has his beard to thank. Look at Zach Galifianakis. Imagine what his image would be like if he shaved his beard. I bet he doesn't shave it until he hits a string of three or more terrible career moves.
Take Johnny Damon's epic 2004 playoff run. His mane of hair has been enshrined in Cooperstown (as well as the movie Fever Pitch), and most of Red Sox Nation believes that if he had shaved that beard, or if Big Papi changed his facial hair, then the Red Sox would never have broken the Curse of the Bambino (of course now we know he took PEDs along with Manny, but that's for a different article).
In 2007, the Red Sox went the opposite route, shaving their heads in the playoffs, and what was the result there? Another World Series title. The Tampa Bay Rays, a perennial 100 loss team, sported RayHawks, a form of mohawk, during the 2008 campaign. It powered them all the way to the World Series, where they eventually lost to my Philadelphia Phillies.
The phenomenon of the beard can apply to other things besides sports. If you are a salesman and are on a hot streak, don't shave until you miss a sale. If your employer tells you to shave, decline. Tell him or her that you are growing the beard as a commitment to reaching your goals, as well as the goals of the business.
As a fan, I firmly believe in the power of the beard. Believe me, beards are hard to maintain and take endless commitment. They are itchy, they get in the way, and they are unpredictable. I grew my playoff beard for the Phillies last season, and refused to shave it for over a month. I didn't even shave until a week after we won the World Series.
During the playoffs I discussed not shaving until after the BCS National Championship because my Penn State Nittany Lions were undefeated at the time. I decided to shave the playoff beard in the first week of November. In the second week of November Penn State lost to Iowa, ending the perfect season and a chance to go to the National Championship. I still feel that I am to blame because I shaved off the beard too soon.
You might be asking, what prompted me to write such a long expose about the art of the beard? I actually came up the idea while watching Chan Ho Park pitch three perfect innings a few nights ago. His beard is like nothing I have ever seen. Based on the sheer size of the beard, I estimate that it has been growing since early June.
On June 2nd, Chan Ho Park had a 7.32 ERA with a 1-1 record. Since then, Chan Ho has been unstoppable. He is 2-1 in that span with 7 successful holds. In his last 17 outings, Park has pitched 26.1 innings while allowing only 5 earned runs and racking up 29 strikeouts against 4 walks. With the bullpen in shambles, it looks like Chan Ho has become the rock that is keeping them steady.
7/31/2009: To update, after writing this article Chan Ho Park trimmed his beard. What happened in his next outing? Well he let in a run of course. It didn't cost the Phillies, but it just goes to show how powerful the beard really is.