Hats off to the Golden Boy
After a glorious run of almost 10 years I guess it was the smell that finally convinced me the end was well-nigh upon us. And so, in a very special Flem File this week, we explore the one thing every sports fan dreads but must eventually find the courage to face: having to get rid of your favorite baseball hat.
In 2009, after what was probably the greatest Super Bowl of all time, I spent close to two hours underneath the stadium and on the field in Tampa interviewing players, coaches and front-office types from both Pittsburgh and Arizona. When I finally dragged myself back to my spot in the press area, my messenger bag was gone. Laptop. Binoculars. Notebooks. Power cords. Sunglasses. Car keys. Everything, gone.
At the end of an exhilarating, exhausting day I slumped down on the concrete stadium steps staring into the empty end zone where both James Harrison and Santonio Holmes had just made history. And all that was running through my mind was: Golden Boy is gone.
Most of us have favorite baseball hats. Most of us have one that has some special meaning or connection, one that we think holds special powers or extra luck, like some kind of personal talisman. It fits perfectly, with a kind of comfort and confidence that's, well, soothing in such a mad world. It's always there for us, through thick and thin, when one more tap of the snooze button means there won't be time for a shower. And after years of working and reworking, it usually has a brim with the kind of perfect, sublime arc that nearly does away with the need for sunglasses.
As with Doc Martens, franchise quarterbacks and grills, when you find the perfect lid, well, most of us hold onto that thing as long as possible.
I sure did.
Golden Boy was 9 -- which is, like, 216 in hat years -- when I lost him at the Super Bowl. Even then he was faded, frayed and starting to get a tad funky. But I still spent a miserable day traveling after Super Bowl XLIII thinking my favorite lid was gone for good and that a good portion of the world no longer made sense. But by the time I returned home there was an e-mail waiting for me from a Good Samaritan who had picked up my bag, thinking I had forgotten it in all the excitement at the end of the game. This guy found a business card inside and promised to mail me the bag provided I could ID the major and most important contents therein.
Sure, I wrote back, it's a faded blue Miami of Ohio baseball hat, cotton, size 7 3/8, made in China by something called Twins Enterprise, smells a little like the wet floor mat of a car and has a tiny smudge of paint on the left side from my daughter's nursery that looks a little like the Sabres logo. There's a laptop and some other stuff, but to be honest, all I really care about is the hat.
I found Golden Boy in the spring of 2001 after I was invited to speak at an event on the campus of my alma mater, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. My advice to the neurotic, overachieving students was: Good lord, chill out, relax, life is supposed to be about so much more than your job. I don't think it was exactly what the school had in mind, since, ya know, I haven't been invited back since.
The trip wasn't a total wash, though. Before leaving campus I went into the school's bookstore looking for a keepsake from my triumphant return. And that's when I saw him: Golden Boy. (A moniker I've blatantly stolen from "Seinfeld.")
The only question was, would GB fit all of my extreme, semi-irrational and non-negotiable criteria for potential hats?
1. He had to be fitted, no Velcro or snaps or brass clips, no visors or bandannas or stretchy, elastic, one-size-fits-all bands that feel like straitjackets for your brain.
2. He had to be made of stitched cotton, because of the cool, unique patina created as the natural fibers break down over time. Although, in a pinch, classic wool can work and occasionally I will make an exception for sports mesh, like the sweet hat I received a few years back from Pottsville High School -- but never, ever, ever trucker cap-style plastic weave, denim or straw.
3. The design had to be meaningful and personal but in a subtle, simple, elegant and understated way, with no loud patches or messages on the temple, under the brim or on the back.
4. His brim had to be made of high-grade plastic in order to withstand a lifetime of nonstop brim massaging without creasing or buckling the way cheap cardboard does.
Miami's colors -- as any fan of elite college hockey knows -- are red and white. So when I saw a fitted cotton hat with Miami's winged, roman-column block "M" in navy blue, well, my contrarian heart skipped a beat. Trying not to get my hopes up, I put it on. Ahh, perfection: tight enough to make it feel tailored and uniquely mine and loose enough not to give me one of those dreaded hat headaches.
Then, slowly, I cupped my hands ever-so-gently and placed the outside of each thumb over my temples until my fingers met in the middle of my forehead. I held my breath and squeezed. The brim instantly formed a flawless arc. It didn't crease into a triangle. It didn't bend twice on the outside like aluminum flashing. It wasn't overbent into a Cletus-like horseshoe or underbent into a Grampa-likes-NASCAR lazy parenthesis. Instead, it conformed, with ease, into the shape above the head of Da Vinci's perfect Vitruvian Man.
(Of course, the perfect brim, like wisdom and true inner peace, is impossible and unattainable. But that's the whole point, right? It gives you something worthwhile and noble to strive for and fiddle with during TV timeouts, waiting to tee off and while stopped in traffic.)
From Feb. 15, 2001, until, well, yesterday, Golden Boy and I were inseparable.
He has been used as a pitching mound, a touchdown marker, a hockey post and an ultimate Frisbee end zone cone more times than I can count. I've trained for two half-marathons in it. I have used it to hold, grip and unhook trout and fend off an entire swarm of yellow jackets. I have cried and bled on it and my kids have barfed into it (twice). It's covered with dots of blue paint, dots of red clay and dots of blood -- all of which, over time, became indistinguishable from one another.
And even though I have one of those fancy satellite watches for runners, I prefer to instantly measure the intensity of my workouts by checking the level of sweat against the rest of the high-water marks behind the "M" on my trusty hat.
Look, I'm not a car guy. I don't claim any superiority based on my collection of electronics. I find jewelry on men, besides watches and wedding rings, to be -- let's just say a bad idea. But for some reason, Golden Boy always made me feel cooler, smarter, better-dressed and taller, even.
Women use shoes to size each other up. They use haircuts, watches and tie-knots to judge us. Dudes? We use baseball hats. Think about it. If I'm anywhere beyond 100 miles of New York city and I see a Yankees cap, that little voice inside my head screams two words ("Front-runner! Phony!") Doesn't matter if it's true or not.
If I'm at a party or a pee wee soccer match and you walk up wearing one of those form-fitting dry-fit skull hats with a Nike swoosh or an adidas logo on the front, I know it's only a matter of time before you tell me all about some totally awesome workout you just crushed.
If you're wearing a Raiders, Cowboys, Steelers or Notre Dame hat? I'm just gonna go ahead and assume you have an extremely atrophied sense of humor and you are very interested in my opinion about your team's prospects so long as it conforms, perfectly, with what you already think.
But -- if you're repping a lovable lost cause on your melon, like the Lions, Cubs or Maple Leafs, or you're wearing something with some heritage, forethought or underdog appeal, like something from the Brooklyn Dodgers, Colt 45s, Butler Bulldogs or the Milwaukee Brewers (I just found out their awesome old mitt logo actually contains the initials "M" and "b" -- genius!) it makes me think stop and think "Hmmm, ya know, here's another human being who I don't think I'd totally hate after 30 seconds. I wonder if he wants to help me make fun of that Man Bonnet wearer over there."
You're aware of this recent, incessant, horrid hat trend, yes?
I've said it before and it's worth repeating: a brand new cap with an un-creased brim worn straight out of the box as some kind of fashion accessory isn't a baseball hat at all; it's a Man Bonnet.
Man Bonnets are why I usually end up feeling sorry for the jocks who have just been crowned world champions. You work your entire life to reach the pinnacle of your sport and then some PR intern hands you a commemorative cap fresh out of the box with the stiffest, straightest, dorkiest bill this side of Microsoft. And with no time to properly work the brim (there should be a law), you're captured for all posterity looking like K-Fed.
Any self-respecting dude understands that you simply don't buy the perfect hat, you create it -- over time by catching fouls balls with it and using it as first-aid gauze. Like the raw spots where the lacquer has worn off the top of Bruce Springsteen's favorite guitar, what makes a baseball hat cool are the stories it tells.
What I discovered is that this philosophy has one major flaw: While it's easy to throw out an old, nasty hat, it can be awfully hard to dump all those memories.
My Miami hat kept my head warm when I tossed a football around with Ben Roethlisberger while standing atop the Swiss Alps peak of Jungfraujoch overlooking a glacier that is 22 kilometers long. It was with me when I followed Tony Gonzalez to the tiny Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende, where the El Gato Negro bar featured an aqueduct-like urinal that ran under the entire length of the bar. Golden Boy has been inside Old Trafford and close enough to both The Edge and Eddie Vedder that they could have swiped him right off my head.
In 2009, when Miami's hockey team blew a 3-1 lead against Boston University in what would have been our first-ever NCAA championship in any sport, I pulled Golden Boy out of my bag, massaged him way down low on my scalp and walked the five blocks back to my DC hotel with my head held high.
Looking back, I should have retired him right then and there. Maybe even hid him somewhere inside the Verizon Center. That would have been the perfect end to our run together. Instead, like an idiot, I just blissfully carried on as if nothing would ever change.
But too many trips into the ocean and the pool had turned him from dark, bold blue to smoggy and gray, like the colors at the bottom of an ashtray. The entire rim of the bill had frayed and torn away. The stitching between the lid and the cap went next, exposing the hat's discolored and disorganized innards like a dead deer on the side of a highway.
It's a fine line, you know, between an old hat making you look cool and making you look like you can't afford to buy a new hat. And then, when I got him back after the Super Bowl scare, I noticed that a horrid smell had seeped down into Golden Boy's very DNA and it wouldn't wash out. It was a putrid mélange that I just hadn't noticed before; one that, on the aroma scale, fell somewhere between old hockey gloves and wet floor mats in an old car.
The smell left me no choice. One more wash cycle and GB would literally have disintegrated in my hands like tissue paper.
I couldn't have that.
After almost a decade of service, Golden Boy deserved to die with dignity.
I kept thinking surely, sooner or later, I'd witness a hat trick in person and have to heave him onto the ice. He'd understand that I wouldn't have a choice, my hand forced by years of hockey tradition. Never happened. This summer he popped off during a white-water rafting trip. A funeral at sea? Perfect. I could live with that. But our quick-thinking, gratuity-starved guide fished him out with a paddle.
I realized then that I had been in this position before with my old Lab, Scoop. I loved that giant, goofy, sleepy, loyal-to-a-fault polar bear. So much so that I couldn't stomach the thought of putting him down and, selfishly, probably kept him around a little longer than I should have. After his hips gave out and I finally manned up and carried him to the vet's one last time, my only comfort was Golden Boy and his perfectly formed brim that gave me just enough cover to freely bawl my eyes out.
Eventually, with Golden Boy, I had to call in Hat Hospice: my wife. She had tried at least a half-dozen times before to donate him, lose him or drop him in a campfire. But this time was different. I was ready.
She tugged him, gently, out of my hands, then marched right to the dumpster in our garage, lifted the lid and tossed him in.
Just like that, after 10 years it was over.
I lasted about 10 minutes before I snuck out to the garage and opened the lid for one final look. Golden Boy's spirit was gone, but his shell remained behind. It was wedged about halfway down the side of the trash can. And as I stared at him down there -- covered in coffee grounds between some pineapple rinds and an empty Lunchables carton -- I caught myself pondering one of life's great mysteries:
I wonder what's the respectable amount of time that needs to pass before I can, ya know, head on over to the mega-mall in search of Golden Boy II?
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. While covering the NFL for the past 16 years at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, he has written more than 30 cover stories and two books ("Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys"), and his work has been anthologized in "The Best American Sports Writing."