It’s ironic that the shadow that’s so prominent in Doug DeCinces’ 1978 card belongs to Doug DeCinces and not to the man he replaced. At that time, the story of DeCinces was that he was living in Brooks Robinson’s shadow. For as long as anyone had ever been on one team, Brooks Robinson had been on the Orioles, an all-star game fixture, a mythic October hero, and the most sublime fielder to ever play the position. Then, finally, it was over, and a young player named Doug DeCinces trotted out to take The Legend’s place. You can’t look at Doug DeCinces’ career numbers, even in his earliest years, and say that the changing of the guards in Baltimore was a disaster. But certain players cast shadows so long that they are inescapable, so the story of Doug DeCinces in those years, and even to this day, is that he wasn’t Brooks Robinson.
When he first became the Orioles’ starter at third, he did not yet have the mustache he displays here. In earlier cards it is a thin, scraggly thing, making him look like the haggard, unsmiling, slightly corrupt, sneaky deputy of a more corrupt sheriff in a small southern town. The deputy knows some things he doesn’t necessarily want to know, but what is he going to do about it but go along and try to siphon off a little piece of the illicit pie for himself?
Had he not increased the size and magnificence of his mustache, the shadow would have engulfed him. He would have gotten more and more nervous-looking and beady-eyed, as if the feds had been called in to investigate a case that was tangled up in the small town racket he and the sheriff had going. He would have started grounding into more double plays and sailing more throws into the stands and snapping at reporters and pulling his hamstring more and more because of how tightly wound he and his scraggly mustache were. He would have drifted to an expansion team for a couple unremarkable seasons, then he and the paltry first version of his mustache would have disappeared.
Instead, DeCinces bloomed into a very good third baseman, and I would argue that the staggering improvements he made to his mustache contributed mightily to this. I applaud this mustache as much as I would an MVP season or a Gold Glove award, two honors that narrowly eluded DeCinces in his fine career. It takes guts to sport such a specimen on the middle of your face. It certainly takes someone who is willing to step out from behind someone else’s shadow and start casting shadows of one’s own. Without his mustache, which is, after Rollie Fingers’ creation, the second greatest mustache of the entire unprecedentedly hairy decade, he would have stayed in that shadow, dissolved in that shadow, and the heaven of the cardboard gods would have been a dimmer, more shadowy place.
The present was so disjointed in the 1970s that the past became a craze. The surging Now of the 1960s guttered to the question “what now?” It’s a sparse and scraggly and beady-eyed question. A haunted, hunted question. The answer: escape backward. Happy Days, the Bicentennial, Grease, the 19th Century flat-topped caps of the Pirates, Little House on the Prairie, the Back to the Land movement, The Waltons, and, not least of these things, the mustache of Doug DeCinces, a mustache so rich and entertaining and historical that it seemed to come with a soundtrack of old-timey “pianny,” the kind of thing playing during cowboy fistfights in which guys suffering the immediate effects of haymakers go sliding down the bar or topple backwards through swinging doors and into horse troughs. It’s a mustache with laughs and gravitas. It’s a mustache of wonder. It’s a mustache that will forever cast a majestic shadow all its own.
(Love versus Hate update: Doug DeCinces’ back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)