By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

Whatever happens in the World Series, everyone knows the Red Sox are the unquestioned kings of baseball this year when it comes to flamboyant hair styles. Look a bit closer at the players' heads, however, and you'll see that the Sox also lead the league in a more esoteric category.

Uni Watch is referring, of course, to players who smear pine tar all over their batting helmets. The Sox feature several charter members of this club, led by Manny Ramirez, who often spreads the gunk so thick that you can barely see his helmet logo. Other Bosox pine barons include Trot Nixon and Kevin Millar. And just to corner the market, the Sox made mid-season trades this year for longtime helmet-smudgers Orlando Cabrera (whose pine tar acumen had been honed with the Expos) and Doug Mientkiewicz (whose tar-smeared habits go back to his days with the Twins and the 2000 Olympic baseball team).

It isn't clear who started the tar trend, although the first such player Uni Watch recalls seeing was Craig Biggio, back in the 1990s. In any case, the idea is to turn the helmet into a surrogate pine tar rag, so the player can simply touch his helmet during an at-bat to access the sticky stuff. (Note that several of the pine partisans, including Mientkiewicz, Jorge Posada, and Vlad Guerrero, are also among the small contingent of big league hitters who don't wear batting gloves.) This essentialy makes the pine tar crew the spiritual heirs of NFL legends Lester Hayes and Fred Biletnikoff, who were notorious for slathering themselves with so much adhesive goo that they essentially were walking stickum factories.

Although the Sox get the nod as Team Tar, Uni Watch's vote for MVP (that's Most Voluminous Pine) goes to Guerrero, who clearly has baseball's skankiest helmet. Players who stand next to him look shiny and fresh by comparison, as his former and current teammates have discovered. So thick is the tar cloud perched above his head, even his happy moods seem to beg the question, "Why is this man smiling?"

Helmet customization, incidentally, is nothing new. Back in 1963, Earl Battey of the Twins created the first makeshift earflap by attaching a metal plate to the side of his batting helmet. Brooks Robinson insisted on wearing a mere stub of a visor (he had problems with glare from the underside of the full-size brim), and Carl Yastrzemski preferred an oversized earhole.

But none of those alterations did anything to obscure the helmet logo. That's a no-no, which is why there was some chatter this summer that Major League Baseball might fine some of the more heavily-tar-encrusted Red Sox players. Nobody would comment about that on the record (as you can well imagine with such an explosive issue, the pine tar situation is very hush-hush), but don't be surprised if the MLB honchos enforce a stricter policy next season.

Manny Ramirez
When it comes to pine tar, Manny's one of the best.

Could that set the stage for an entertaining spectacle such as George Brett's infamous pine tar bat imbroglio? Uni Watch can only hope.

Meanwhile: Speaking of helmet customization, several readers have complained to Uni Watch about the NFL's recent treatment of Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, who risked the league's ire by wearing a "40" helmet sticker in honor of Pat Tillman, who died fighting in Afghanistan.

Some quick background: All NFL players wore this same sticker during the season's second week. But Plummer, who played with Tillman at Arizona State and on the Cardinals, wanted to keep wearing it, even if the NFL fined him for violating the league's uniform guidelines. After a public standoff, Plummer agreed to remove the sticker; and in return, the Broncos are adding several tributes to Tillman to their stadium.

Sorry, gang, but Uni Watch thinks the NFL got this one right. Once you let players start freestyling, even for a well-intentioned cause, it tends to get out of hand. Major League Baseball learned that the hard way in 1999, when players started inscribing their caps with little handwritten tributes to injured teammates. Soon, they were adding notations about their kids, pro wrestling, Wayne Gretzky's retirement, and a lot more. MLB honchos eventually had to put the kibosh on the whole thing.

It's a safe bet that something similar would happen in the NFL -- imagine Plummer's tribute being trivialized by some linebacker giving a helmet-borne shout-out to his girlfriend. Kudos to the league bigwigs for not letting Plummer take them down that road, no matter how nit-picky it makes them look.

Update: Uni Watch's recent examination of retired numbers gained a bit of extra resonance this week when Jerry Rice was traded to the Seahawks. Rice has worn uni number 80 for his entire career, first with the 49ers and then with the Raiders. But the Seahawks retired that number in 1995, in honor of Steve Largent. Given Rice's recent temper tantrums regarding playing time and the loss of his consecutive-game reception streak, how would he react to having to wear an unfamiliar number?

Not to worry. Calls were made, permission from Largent was requested and received, and Rice will be wearing number 80 after all.

Contest Update: Thanks-a-plenty to the scores of readers who've submitted uniform designs for the relocated Expos. (For submission details, see the end section of Uni Watch's previous column.) Entries will continue to be accepted until next Monday, Oct. 25th, with the winners announced sometime in November.

Paul Lukas, much like the NFL, has never been afraid to appear nit-picky. Archives of his pre-Page 2 "Uni Watch" columns are available here and here. Got a uni-related question or comment for him? Send it here.