Hats off to the Washington Nationals for clinching the National League East. Actually, make that helmets off.
If you’ve watched the Nationals play this year, odds are you’ve seen them go deep, given that their 194 home runs rank fourth in the NL. And if you’ve seen the Nationals go deep, odds are you’ve seen them do that thing they do. That thing where, just as the home-run hitter returns to the dugout, he has his helmet removed for him -- with flair, mind you -- by backup catcher Jose Lobaton.
“It’s just one of the things we do as a team,” said right fielder Bryce Harper, whose 24 home runs are second on the Nationals. “It’s something we have fun with.”
Nobody seems to have more fun with it than Harper, whose Hall of Fame hair turns the helmet habit into high art. While most of his teammates assume a passive role in the round-tripper rite, Harper is an active participant. He bows his head slightly as Lobaton lays both hands on his helmet, then snaps his head back upon removal. The net effect is a high-velocity, highlight-reel hair whip that magnifies the magnificence of the reigning MVP’s carefully coiffed locks, all while pleasing the masses.
Said Harper: “The fans love it.”
They aren't the only ones.
“When you go through the ups and downs every single day, it helps to have those fun moments,” said rookie Trea Turner, whose 12 home runs since the All-Star break are tops on the team. “You’re going to go through some tough times, and things like that definitely bring you together.”
“It’s something special,” said Lobaton, who has Rangers outfielder Ian Desmond to thank for his role as chief helmet-taker-offer.
"He did something special for the team, so he deserves to be taken care of. Give me your helmet. Get comfortable." Jose Lobaton
Back in 2012, Desmond was a power-hitting shortstop in D.C., and veteran infielder Chad Tracy was a fellow member of the clubhouse. After one Desmond homer early in the season, Tracy -- who was new to the Nats that season -- gave his teammate the helmet treatment. Although it wasn’t something that had occurred to Desmond before, he found himself struck by the practicality of the process.
“You come in the dugout, and the helmet rack is right there,” said Desmond, who signed with the Rangers the past offseason after seven years in the District. “But you gotta go and give all the guys high-fives. Once you’re done giving the high-fives, then you gotta turn around and walk back through the whole crowd of people just to put your helmet back up there. So it's just a huge inconvenience to do that.”
Not to mention a health risk.
“If you go in there with your helmet on, everyone starts bamming you in the head," Desmond said. "They don't hit you in the head if you don't have a helmet on.”
From that moment on, Desmond was hooked on helmet heisting.
“I was like, 'Man, that was really convenient. Thank you, Chad, for taking my helmet off,'" he said. "It was awesome. So I decided to start doing it for other people so it didn't have to inconvenience them.”
That pampered feeling is exactly what Richie Sexson had in mind when he invented the lid lift. Known as Big Sexy, the slugger spent 13 years in the big leagues, including four in Milwaukee. During his time with the Brewers, Sexson and teammate Geoff Jenkins were frequent golf buddies. Out on the course, if somebody sank a long putt, instead of walking to the hole, the other guy would save him the hassle by simply tossing the ball to him. Room service, they called it. At some point during the 2001 season, they decided it was time to start offering room service on the diamond, and voila -- the helmet pull was born.
“It was just something fun to do. Something to break up the monotony,” says Sexson, whose Brewers won just 68 games that year, and 56 the next. It didn’t hurt that, at 6-foot-6, Sexson had easy access to everyone’s domes. “I could get up top a little easier. I could do it one-handed and palm it to get it off.”
In 2004, Sexson took his unique talents to Arizona, where the Diamondbacks had a rookie named Chad Tracy. Eight years later, when Tracy became a National, he delivered room service to D.C., where Desmond ate it up.
Desmond spent the next four years as Washington’s head hard-hat remover. He was so good at the gig that there’s a 3-minute, 36-second YouTube montage called, “Ian Desmond Home Run Helmet Pulls Memorial Video.” He feels so strongly about the ritual that he tried to introduce it to his new team in Texas. Unfortunately, because of Adrian Beltre's haphephobia, it didn’t take.
“Adrian doesn't like anyone touching the top of his head, so you can't take his helmet off," Desmond said. "He literally hates it when you touch the top of his head. He’s the jefe, so I stopped doing it. I was like, you guys just take your own helmets off.”
That’s not to say the tradition hasn’t spread elsewhere. On Thursday, Orioles star Manny Machado yanked Hyun Soo Kim's helmet after Kim's dramatic ninth-inning home run against Toronto. Then there's former Nationals infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, who spent part of 2014 in Washington, then carried the custom with him to Tampa Bay last season. This year, his Mets have been spotted doing it.
“I brought it over here,” Cabrera said. “Started it the first day.”
Meanwhile, in Washington the legacy lives on, albeit with a new hierarchy.
Gone are the days when Lobaton was merely an emergency option, called upon only if Desmond was the homer-hitter or otherwise unavailable. Now, the 31-year-old catcher is the go-to guy. Even though he has a new assistant (third baseman Anthony Rendon), Lobaton doesn’t need a whole lot of help. After all, he’s a backup backstop who’s in the lineup once a week and has just three long balls of his own this year. For him, it’s the perfect side job -- or at least, it was.
Earlier this week, starting catcher Wilson Ramos suffered a season-ending ACL tear. Besides throwing a major wrench in Washington’s postseason plans, the injury suddenly made a much busier man out of Lobaton, who will be leaned on heavily as the Nats attempt to replace Ramos -- not that he’s going to let it affect his dugout duties.
“Oh, yeah,” Lobaton said emphatically when asked if he’ll continue his role as the capital’s cap confiscator. “That's my job, no matter what. It's going to be all year.”
That even goes for when he’s on base at the time of a homer, as he was earlier this month when Turner hit one against Atlanta. Rather than let Rendon do the honors on the top step of the dugout, Lobaton took matters (and Turner’s helmet) into his own hands right there at home plate because, well, the situation called for it.
“He did something special for the team, so he deserves to be taken care of,” Lobaton said. “Give me your helmet. Get comfortable.”
According to Lobaton’s predecessor, the only person who can’t get too comfortable is the helmet-taker-offer himself -- especially when the helmet in question belongs to Harper.
“You just rip it off and then give space because he’s gotta do the hair whip with perfect form,” Desmond said. “Oh, and watch out for flying gel.”
-- Adam Rubin contributed to this story.