Passing through the airport immigration checkpoint on a trip home to the United States from South Korea, Henry Garcia responded truthfully when asked the reason for his travel: He had journeyed thousands of miles to cut a baseball player’s hair.
“The officer was surprised, and laughed at me,” said Garcia, normally the on-call barber at Nationals Park in Washington. “Then he called over another officer and says, ‘This guy goes to Korea to cut hair.’ ”
As one of several barbers catering to a peripatetic clientele of wealthy major leaguers, Garcia goes to great lengths to please his customers. He has become a close friend and confidant, particularly to the many baseball players from the Caribbean. For them, Garcia is a link to the tradition of a weekly visit to the barber shop.
“I tried others before but I didn’t feel comfortable with anyone but Henry,” said Roger Bernadina, a former Washington Nationals outfielder who is from Curaçao and is now playing in South Korea. “It was a no-brainer to have him come over to Korea, too.”
Garcia, 37, who was born and raised in the Dominican Republic but is now an American citizen, said he had made six hair-cutting trips to South Korea and one to Japan, where the Kia Tigers, Bernadina’s team, held spring training. Bernadina, 34, put up Garcia in his apartment and paid for his flight, food and whatever business he missed out on at the barbershop he works at in Washington.
While there, Garcia also cut the hair of a few Dominican players.
“Caribbean hair doesn’t get cut well there,” said Garcia, who cut the hair of a few South Korean players, too. “Their hair is different.”
The bond between the players and their barbers is so strong that Félix Hernández of the Seattle Mariners allows only Jordan López, who is based in the Bronx, to cut his hair. Several times a year, López said, he takes the six-hour flight to Seattle — or meets Hernández on the road — to do so, his airfare and food paid by his well-heeled client. Sometimes López, 39, travels to Seattle and back to New York in the same day.
Many men, no matter where they are from, stick to the same barber through thick (younger years) and thin (older years.) Yet many of the players who are Latino or from the Caribbean say they were raised on the belief that appearances matter, even on the field, and so not just anybody can cut their hair.
During last year’s World Baseball Classic, the Puerto Rican and Dominican teams had a barber travel with them.
“It’s cultural,” said Carlos Gomez, 32, a Tampa Bay Rays outfielder who is Dominican. “In our countries, Latinos go to the barber shop on Fridays and get a haircut. The women in our countries, too, go every Friday or Saturday to the salons. In the U.S., they don’t do it as much.”
For other players, it’s simply a matter of vanity and in some cases superstition, which is prevalent in baseball.
“If we get a haircut with someone else and we have a bad day, we won’t go back to that barber,” the Yankees ace Luis Severino said as López trimmed his hair.
Severino, 24, likes his hair cut before every start. So the day before he started against the Rays in Florida last month, Severino visited López’s barbershop in the Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium. Another Yankees starting pitcher, C. C. Sabathia, followed Severino in López’s chair.
Although Sabathia, 38, does not have as much hair as he used to — and he plays for a team that has a strict policy on it, anyway — he gets his head shaved weekly. Over the past 10 years of playing for the Yankees, he said, only López and the barber at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., have cut his hair.
“When you take off your hat, you want to be fresh,” Sabathia, a Californian, said. “Look good, feel good, play good. There’s a lot to that.”
López’s story shows how these bonds and networks grow. (His real name is José Moisés López, but he has always been known by his nickname, Jordan, inspired by Michael Jordan.)
Born in the Dominican Republic, López moved to New York at age 17. He wanted to be like his mother, a hair stylist, so she enrolled him in barber school after he finished high school.
A year later, López was cutting men’s hair at his mother’s salon in the Bronx. A friend introduced him to a player, Luis Castillo, then a rising star for the Florida Marlins. When the Marlins were in town, López cut Castillo’s hair in the salon or at the team hotel.
Castillo asked López to come to spring training in Jupiter, Fla., the next year to cut his hair, and he met several players and cut their hair there.
López’s network of baseball clients grew from there. He opened his Bronx barbershop in 2000 and another in Manhattan six years ago. (He also has a hair product line, recently opened two restaurants, once was the subject of a reality TV show and has nearly 49,000 followers on Instagram.)
López’s Bronx barbershop now doubles as a baseball shrine. On the walls are framed photographs of him with, or cutting the hair of, among many others, Andruw Jones, Tom Glavine, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, Gary Sheffield and David Ortiz. There is a signed jersey from Alfonso Soriano and a signed bat from Robinson Cano.
Bachata and merengue play nonstop, the television screens tuned to baseball games.
“I’ve just gotten along with these guys so well,” López said. “No matter how big they’ve gotten — from Manny Machado to Carlos Beltrán — they’ve always taken care of me.”
Starting in 2004, Beltrán helped arrange for López to cut hair a few times a week for players at the Mets’ park — then Shea Stadium and now Citi Field. Cano helped organize the same with López and the Yankees a year later.
Most major league stadiums have a similar setup: a room, some more sophisticated than others, for a barber to cut hair for the home and visiting teams. It’s convenient for busy, ever-traveling players.
Over the years, López has become such a staple of players’ lives, chatting about their ups and downs both personally and professionally over the buzz of the clipper, that he travels for them.
For trips to the All-Star Game, players rotate putting him up. This year, in Washington, it was up to Machado, who sported a wacky hair style cut by López.
The listed price in López’s barbershop for a fade and shave is $25, but players give him much more.
López is so connected to players that on a recent day he video chatted with José Bautista and José Reyes of the Mets and Gary Sánchez of the Yankees, encouraging them to come to the shop for a haircut.
Although none of them got one, two Yankees, relief pitchers Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, who pulled up in a black S.U.V. that resembled an armored truck, stopped by. They chatted with the barbers and posed for photos with customers.
Then it was time for more work. López hitched a ride to Yankee Stadium with Chapman — another trip, albeit shorter, for more cuts.