May 1, 2013

Hair for the duration

Bruins’ Smith stays grizzly for baseball team's good luck

TUNNEL HILL — Originally, Northwest Whitfield High School senior center fielder Brandon Smith grew a beard simply because he wanted to.

Then the Bruins enjoyed their best regular season in six years.

You don’t mess with success.

Smith has far outgrown a five o’clock shadow and moved into full beard territory. In turn, Northwest has outgrown the days of old when another team was winning the region championship.

Northwest (21-5), which went 14-1 in Sub-region 7B-4A play this season, has enjoyed a 14-game winning streak and hasn’t lost back-to-back games since last year. Last week, the Bruins beat Sub-region 7A-4A champion Cass in the best-of-three region title series by rallying to win the second and third games.

Northwest will need to take five more series to win the Class 4A state title, and the first test is Friday at Richard S. Chumley Field against Atlanta’s Grady, the No. 4 seed from Region 6. The teams play a doubleheader at 3 p.m.; if necessary, a third game would be played at 5 p.m. Saturday.

Because Smith’s facial hair has been along for the entire ride — he hasn’t shaved since before baseball tryouts, around three months ago — his teammates gave him a mandate.

“‘Don’t shave until we lose a series,’” Smith said. “That’s what everyone tells me.”

Seth Pierce, the Bruins’ right fielder and ace pitcher, agreed with that request.

“He won’t shave it until we lose something big,” Pierce said.

But why? What do a player’s extended whiskers have to do with winning?

“We love the beard,” sophomore Aaron Ball said. “It’s good luck.”

Superstitions are part of some baseball teams. Northwest coach Todd Middleton said “most baseball players are a little superstitious.”

“Whether it’s wearing the same clothes during a winning streak or sticking with the exact same pregame routine, you find something that works and don’t want to mess with it,” he said.

It works for postgame routines, too. As has been the routine under Middleton, the Bruins players did short sprints in the outfield after each game this season, whether they won or lost. After winning the league championship, when the time appeared more celebratory, Northwest stuck to the same agenda. Ball even encouraged his teammates toward it, saying, “It’s tradition.”

But does Middleton view Smith’s crumb catcher as a superstition?

“I don’t think he considers it like that,” he said. “I think he just hasn’t shaved in a while, and it works for him.”

However, in his 11 seasons leading the program — which includes region titles in 2005 and 2007 — the coach hasn’t seen any player with a beard quite like this one.

“I don’t think we’ve had a beard like that,” Middleton said. “We’ve had some hair, some crazy hair, but never any beard like that. Most of these kids can’t even grow it that much.”

A hunter by hobby, Smith enjoys watching “Duck Dynasty,” A&E’s reality series featuring a Louisiana family that has enjoyed success in the duck call business. All of the main male stars of the show have sizable kiss-killing beards. Smith admitted the series deserves part of the credit for inspiration to grow his own Abe Lincoln.

“Last year was probably the first that I tried (to grow one),” said Smith, who started some in center field as a junior.

However, last year’s version wasn’t as large and in charge as this year. Aside from trimming, washing and conditioning, he lets his facial hair live free.

“I don’t know if it’s grown into its own thing, but I don’t think it would be me without it,” Smith said.

Andy Whisenant, the Bruins’ junior left fielder and No. 2 starting pitcher, admits he wouldn’t recognize his teammate right away if Smith shaved.

“Honestly, it would take me a few seconds,” Whisenant said.

But he sure enjoys having him in center field. Both he and Middleton raved about Smith’s defensive prowess in the spot normally reserved for the team’s outfielder with the most range.

“When I’m on the mound and a ball is hit into the air for a good while, I know he’ll catch it,” Whisenant said. “I have that much trust in him. He covers a lot of ground out there.”

Middleton said Smith’s errorless play this season gives pitchers and the coaching staff “peace of mind.”

“As a center fielder, he’s one of the best we’ve had in a long time,” he said. “He makes plays out there.”

As the team’s leadoff hitter, Smith’s task is to get on base. And he does a good job there, too.

Smith has an on-base percentage of .471, tied for third on the team, plus a batting average of .372, also the team’s third best. He leads the Bruins in runs scored (35).

“Last year, with it being my first year, I didn’t really know anybody,” said Pierce, a sophomore. “Me and him became great friends. Brandon, this year, has played amazing. Every game, he’s had a hit or gotten on base at least once.”

The Bruins would like more of the same from Smith in the postseason. They also want to keep the beard alive for as long as the season lives.

Smith is happy to oblige.

“It stays until the season ends,” he said.

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