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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

They're letting their hair down

OAKLAND -- They are baseball's Delta House, the ragtag Pointer Brothers of Yawkey Way. Winning just about every game on their march to the playoffs, the 2004 Red Sox look like they're going on down to Yasgur's farm to join in a rock 'n' roll band.

If TV man/Sox owner Tom Werner needs new talent for "That '70s Show", he can always comb his roster. Tell me Mark Bellhorn couldn't replace Ashton Kutcher.

It all started when Johnny Damon showed up in Florida with a beard and shoulder-length hair. Fans couldn't decide if caveman Johnny looked more like Jesus or Charles Manson.

Then Pedro Martinez, last night's starter, stopped cutting his now jerri-curled hair, believed to be a tribute to a retro-haired Boston Globe columnist who was once labeled "Curly-Haired Boyfriend" by Carl Everett. Manny Ramirez matched Pedro, hair for hair, and along came Bellhorn, who looked like he could play alongside John Travolta in "Welcome Back, Kotter." Meanwhile, Gabe Kapler -- who has been listening to the "Kotter" theme song for 20 years -- shaved his head to make bookend bowling balls with Kevin Millar. A couple of natural born thrillers.

Let's not forget Trot Nixon, currently sporting the Travis Bickle mohawk, and Bronson Arroyo, who switched to blond cornrows (think Bo Derek) after beating the A's Monday. Sadly, Pokey Reese rarely has unleashed his 'rows, creating a bale of hair not seen in baseball since Oscar Gamble held on to his hat.

"I think that's who we are as a team," Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. "It's our personnel. We couldn't do it any other way. I mean, let's say we had a policy requiring haircuts and no facial hair. The benefits would be uniformity, discipline, and perhaps a heightened sense of order. But we'd lose individuality, self-expression, and fun. Given our personalities, our players thrive when they're allowed to be themselves and have fun.

"When we've played our best baseball the last two years, we've looked like this. It's a pack of sloppy, fun-loving renegades. We play our best ball when we're having fun, like when you are a kid."

Back to Damon.

"Theo came up to me the first day in spring training and told me it was okay to keep it," said the captain of Boston's Hair Club for Men. "That's us. We are the total opposite of the Yankees."

Newcomer Curt Schilling didn't like it at first. Schilling is a creature of discipline and the slovenly look of his teammates bothered him.

"I'm more amused by it than I used to be," said Schilling. "Look at the Braves. Bobby Cox has rules. When I was with the Phillies in 1993 and we played them it was like America's Team against America's Most Wanted. Freedom of expression is all fine as long as the bull stops at 7 p.m. When you're winning, it's all great. If we weren't winning, there would be issues. A lot of it is a reflection of the manager."

Which brings us to Terry Francona. Tito has made no attempt to set rules for Bluto and Friends in the Sox clubhouse.

"I don't see the relevance," said the skipper. "I care about what I care about. Nobody respects the game more than me. Our guys may look a little goofy, but they try hard to play the game right. If this were the Boy Scouts, maybe we'd try to get medals by having them cut their hair or tuck their shirts in. But this is their personality. Why take it away?

"I will say this, though," Francona added. "I looked at Bronson yesterday and I thought he'd lost his mind. It's the first time I ever looked in the mirror and was glad I was bald."

It's not strictly about the hair. More than most teams, the Sox have little regard for uniformity.

"We are sloppy," admitted Epstein. "Look at us during batting practice. Guys wearing six different kinds of hats. Four different uniform tops. We are a mess. That's the way we are. I hear it from other teams' scouts all the time, and when we are losing, people say that's one of the causes."

Here's another clue for you all: secretly, the Sox like allowing players to express themselves because of the natural contrast with the staid Yankees, a team dressed and polished in the image of Richard Nixon.

"The Yankees are all clean cut," said Millar. "They wear helmets during batting practice. When Schilling first came over here, he'd say, `Look at them. They look like pros.' Over here, we're not. You see guys during BP wearing sleeveless shirts or parachute tops, no hat, game hat, red-and-blue hat. We look like sloppy, no-discipline dirtbags.

"I know Schilling didn't like it at first, but I like it. We're like a family. We don't worry about that small stuff. Johnny Damon's hair has nothing to do with how well he can hit. So who cares? We're a bunch of clowns, but when we compete, we're a team. Never mind all those rules. It's hard enough for this team just to get on the 4 o'clock bus."

That's the Red Sox bus. The Magic Bus.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com. 

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