BOSTON – Long, bushy beards have become the trademark of the 2013 Boston Red Sox, but the most valuable player of their American League Championship Series victory stands out for more than his pitching.
Clean-shaven closer Koji Uehara, MVP of the ALCS, will lead Boston against visiting National League champion St. Louis when the World Series opens Wednesday.
The reliever was given a pass on the team’s unofficial pro-beard policy because most of his teammates thought he was incapable of growing one.
But that is hardly the case. Well before the Red Sox’s shaggy faces entered the national consciousness, Uehara (pronounced way-HA-ra) was a long-standing member of the anti-razor brigade.
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Until January, when he shaved it off on Japanese national TV, Uehara had one of the most famous beards in Japan, a light, Fu Manchu-style scruff with a wraparound beard connecting to his sideburns. He wore it defiantly
for years after coming to the United States in 2009.
He wore it as a member of the Baltimore Orioles in 2010 and during his two years with the Texas Rangers, including three appearances in the 2011 playoffs, when he posted a 33.75 earned run average, allowed three home runs and was reduced to tears in the clubhouse. He was wearing it Dec. 18 when he signed with the Red Sox.
But three weeks later – months before long, outlandish beards became de rigueur in Boston – Uehara went on “Best Sports,” a show on the NHK network in Japan, and had his facial hair removed, to the delight of many fans.
“I just didn’t know where I was going with that beard,” Uehara, 38, said through an interpreter last weekend before the final game of the ALCS. “So I thought it was best to shave it off.”
Without facial hair, Uehara posted a career-low 1.09 ERA in the regular season and had 21 saves.
In the playoffs, he has allowed one run in nine innings though eight games. He has five saves, including the pennant-clincher Saturday night.
Did shaving make him a better postseason pitcher?
“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “I am not sure about that.”
Uehara’s postseason performance has been a radical departure from his struggles with the Rangers in 2011. In three agonizing outings, between Game 2 of a division series against the Rays and Game 5 of the ALCS against the Tigers, Uehara gave up home runs to Evan Longoria, Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Raburn. The Rangers did not use Uehara in their next eight postseason games.
After the third home run, which led to a difficult loss, Uehara sat in the Texas clubhouse and cried.
After the Red Sox wrapped up the ALCS at Fenway Park, Uehara further endeared himself to Boston fans. When he was announced as the series MVP, he was asked if he had been nervous in the games, and he replied as he often does.
“To tell the truth, I almost threw up,” he said.
In one way, it makes sense that Uehara is now clean shaven in the midst of players who look like desert-island castaways.
He grew his beard to stand apart from his teammates in Japan and from Japanese players in the majors, many of whom did not have facial hair.
Now that he is with a rowdy band of bearded Red Sox, he is distinguished in a different way.
“If I had a beard now,” he said, “I would not stand out.”
As long as he pitches the way he has so far this postseason, Uehara will stand out in any game, even if it’s a close shave.