Scenes From A Depilation: Talking To Ted Berg About Keith Hernandez's Stache-Shearing

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"It's been a while since the sun has visited that lip," Mets play-by-play announcer Gary Cohen said to Keith Hernandez in the booth during Thursday's Mets game. "That lip," of course, is Hernandez's upper one, which has—for the last couple decades and change—been home to one of the most transcendently reliable and existentially, cosmically right mustaches in the history of sports. The mustache was there during Hernandez's days as a star player in New York, and remained as he transitioned into a fusty, fundamental-obsessed beat poet/color commentator on SNY. Hernandez has sighed and free-associated and generally amused himself and others through desultory Mets losses and the occasional win, all with that mustache steadfastly in place and, somehow, palpable even when offscreen. Even after Hernandez shaved it on Thursday afternoon, in exchange for a $10,000 donation from Schick to a children's charity in his mother's name. Even afterwards, though, the mustache was oddly present in its absence, thanks to the pale upper lip that, as Cohen mentioned, has been innocent of sunlight pretty much since Ronald Reagan was President. 

Ted Berg, who does all kinds of things at SNY and still finds the time to keep an excellent blog there about the Mets and sandwiches, was at the de-mustachery, and hosted the live videocast of the event. You can add sarcasto tone quotes to the word event at your discretion; it was an event to me, for reasons I touch upon in my Hall of Nearly Great essay on Hernandez and reasons that are obvious to anyone familiar with Hernandez's work on the field, in his "Just For Men" ads, or on Seinfeld. We talked to Ted about what he saw at the depilation.

For those who were unable to witness the actual act of de-mustachery, either on video or in person, could you please describe the scene at Citifield during the event? What was the mood? . 

The best thing I could compare it to is the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island on the Fourth of July—obviously not on that scale, but it was that type of event. There were a shocking number of fans and media gathered around the stage, clearly excited for the novelty of seeing Keith Hernandez without his mustache for the first time in 25 years and the joy of seeing Keith Hernandez do pretty much anything. But—and maybe I’m projecting this—it felt, much like with the hot-dog eating contest, that there was a collective understanding we were participating in a rather grim spectacle. I mean, it was a hell of a mustache.

You've done plenty of work in front of a camera in the past, with such uncompromising types as Bob Ojeda and Jack From Jack In The Box. How do those challenges compare with this one? What is, after all, the appropriate tone to take when a famously mustachioed baseball player has his mustache removed, in public, for charity?

Look: I vernacularized the phrase, “we’re jonesin’ for sum’thin’ diff’rent” in my work alongside Jack, but that was a decade ago now. I’ve got to evolve as an on-camera personality, so I can’t exactly announce that the world is jonesin’ for sumthin’ diff’rent on Keith’s face. I tried instead to capture the solemnity of the occasion—parting with a familiar friend—while presenting some hope that the mustache could return or maybe it would turn out Keith looked really cool without the mustache.

You went with "Keith Hernandez's mustache... is history" as your call. Did that just come to you, or did you have some sort of Jack Buck-ian punch-list of possible phrases?

The gravity of the moment overtook me. If you say I said that, I believe you. But I was operating on pure adrenaline.

Keith, for his part, seemed pretty bemused by the whole thing, although there were some moments during the shave itself in which he seemed almost distraught. He does seem to take his mustache seriously, as of course he ought.

I don’t work with Keith every day so I can’t claim to know him intimately, but every interaction I’ve had with him suggests he understands his own Keith Hernandez-ness as well as anyone. And if you’ve paid attention to the build up to the event, Keith’s mostly been either downplaying the importance of the mustache or going with the jokes. But there was a moment, between his photo opportunity after the shave and his on-camera interview with me, when he said, “I still haven’t seen it.” I thought that was funny, since he was de-mustached on video in front of a huge crowd but nowhere near a mirror. Now this thing that’s been on his face for a quarter century and has become very much a part of his identity is gone, and thousands of people have seen what he looks like without it before he has. Oh, to be Keith Hernandez.

If the Mets win the rest of their games after Hernandez gets rid of his mustache, do you think tabloid Mets-trollers will cite clubhouse sources expressing passive-aggressive displeasure that he didn't shave it earlier?

Probably, but that was a winning mustache.

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