I was flabbergasted when I heard the news today, relayed by Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk, that Keith Hernandez was considering shaving his mustache. It's not that facial hair is invariably a good thing, but it does give its wearer additional texture and makes him more interesting. Hernandez's soup-sopper has been a part of his face since the 1970s and has been an iconic representation of the man and what he stands for. Let's be honest, without the mustache, Keith Hernandez would be no more loved and appreciated today than his baseball doppelganger, John Olerud.
Both are undeniably fine ballplayers. Smooth-swinging lefty first basemen with line drive swings, excellent patience, and slick gloves. Heck, they played the same number of years, finished within 60 hits and 15 runs scored of one another, and are separated by one point of OPS+ (Olerud 129 vs Hernandez 128).
But Hernandez is not alone. Indeed, many of baseball's greats are distinguished, not just by their ability on the field, but by the iconic facial folicles that set them apart.
After all, what would Thurman Munson be without his fu manchu? A guy with a .346 OBP and a .410 SLG that had a career OPS+ of 116. A guy who caught for a really good Yankees club that finished above .500 in eight of his ten full seasons and made it to three straight World Series. A lot like Bill Freehan, who had a .340 OBP and a .412 SLG and an OPS+ of 112, and whose Tigers finished above .500 in eight of his 10 first full campaigns, and won one World Series. Munson got 15.5 percent of the Hall of Fame vote in his first year on the ballot (1981), and never dropped off in the 15 years he was eligible. Freehan, whose career lasted four more seasons than Munson’s, and who accumulated better counting stats across the board, dropped off after getting 0.5 percent in his first chance (1982). The difference was clear.
And what did Don Mattingly have that Kent Hrbek didn't? It wasn't a higher OBP; Hrbek has him beat by nine points. It's not SLG either, where Hrbek leads by 10 points. It's not homers, where Hrbek has 293 to Mattingly's 222. It's not in OPS+, where Hrbek stands at 128 and Mattingly at 127. And it's not in World Series rings, where Hrbek has 2 and Mattingly 0. And believe it or not, it wasn't in defense, where Hrbek was surprisingly agile for a big man. So you tell me what the difference was between Mattingly and Hrbek. I'll give you a tip, it's on Donnie's upper lip.
Hell, having intimidating facial hair is practically a prerequisite for being a shutdown closer. Ask Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Mike Marshall, Dan Quisenberry, Jeff Reardon, Lee Smith, Rod Beck, Doug Jones, John Franco, Sparky Lyle, or Dennis Eckersley. But don't ask John Wetteland, Randy Myers, Robb Nen, Tom Henke or Jeff Montgomery, because you've already forgotten about them.
So, while Hernandez can do what he wants these days (the image of him poised, mustachioed, at first base, waiting to charge a bunt or dive toward the line is seared into our memories anyway), the lesson his career teaches us is clear. Grow that beard, that mustache, or those sideburns. Let your muttonchops free. Be remembered forever in all your glory. For in baseball, as in life, most of the accolades go to the peacocks with the most beautiful feathers.