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The Balti

North Baltimore’s Lacrosse Mullet, and the Next Big Thing In Hair

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Brett Weiss' balti
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jeffeson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
HEAD SHOTS: Porter Whitman (above) and Riley Bonsall (bottom) of the Boys' Latin Lakers model the Baltimore lacrosse 'do.
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Frank Klein
WASH AND GO: (top, from left) McDonogh School laxers Brad Zink and Ben Bartlett sport variations of the balti; (below) a rear view of Zink's coif.
Frank Klein
STICKS AND STUFF: The Boys' Latin Lakers take the field, balties evident under their helmets.
Frank Klein

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 4/19/2006

On a chilly Friday afternoon in March, the varsity lacrosse team at Roland Park’s private Boys’ Latin School warms up before a game, marching through a precise ballet of stick-work drills. Jefferson Starship’s “We Built This City” blares from speakers above the stands. Several dozen parents and alumni cluster in small groups at a landing above the sunken field. One well-preserved lacrosse mother whispers to another about her 14-year-old daughter’s planned nose job.

Also milling about are students, some younger Boys’ Latin kids here to root for their fellows, and other lacrosse players from competing schools come to scout the highly ranked Lakers as they crush a lesser team from Northern Virginia in an early-season match.

It’s easy to spot the lacrosse boys in the bleachers. Not because they wear their schools’ colors. They don’t. It’s the hair.

“It’s just kind of a, like, thing you have in lacrosse season in Baltimore,” says Brad Zink, 17, a junior from the private McDonogh School in Owings Mills. “It’s a known thing.”

Zink doesn’t require much prodding to discuss his hair. As he talks, the Hunt Valley teenager runs a hand through promiscuous bangs, which form a majestic sweep across his face and then rearrange themselves in neat layers just above his eyes. He also periodically fluffs up the brown locks cascading down his neck. The back of his coif is at least two inches longer than the rest.

“The hair in the back, it’s just like a style that a lot of players like,” explains the member of the 2005 Free State All-Star lacrosse team. “So, it’s just a cool thing to have. The chicks dig it. It’s a big deal.”

Flanking Zink in the bleachers are Ben Bartlett and Greg Bernstein, two other McDonogh varsity lacrosse juniors, both of them with similar hairstyles, though not quite as pronounced as Zink’s. “He’s kind of known for the hair,” Bartlett says, laughing. “All he does is just not take showers.”

Zink takes exception to that. “No, I hop in the shower, and then I kind of shake it a little bit,” he says, shaking his hair a little bit. For maintenance, he visits stylist Debbie Dwyer at Monkton’s Hair Culture salon every fix or six weeks. “Just for a nice trim, not much,” he says. “She’s legit.”

“I texturize it a lot,” Dwyer elaborates later in a phone call about Zink’s hair. “You use a type of shears, and it just gives a little more texture to the look.”

Seated behind the McDonogh boys are Amy Cahill and Austin Campbell. The two juniors from Roland Park Country School, a private girls’ school, eavesdrop and giggle.

“Boys grow it long and it hangs out their helmet,” Campbell says a few minutes later, still giggling. “I think they like it because they think it looks good when they have it in a helmet and stuff.” What does she think? “It doesn’t bother me,” she shrugs, in what may be teenage shorthand for high praise.

Cahill is more effusive with her compliments. “It’s nice,” she says, blushing. “It’s an ideal Baltimore lacrosse look. Most people who have heard of the mullet associate it with preppy Baltimore lacrosse kids.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, which traces the term back to a disparaging Beastie Boys reference from 1994, defines a mullet as “A hairstyle, worn esp. by men, in which the hair is cut short at the front and sides, and left long at the back.”

That a style more commonly associated with Billy Ray Cyrus and 1980s heavy metal heshers is paired in the mind of a well-heeled teenager with a quintessential prep-school sport says something about the insular affluence of North Baltimore, where madras trousers are still routinely worn without irony.

Zink, probably because he has something at stake in the distinction, is a more dedicated student of hair-fashion nuance, and quickly distances his from the one named for a bottom-feeding fish, and which has spawned low-rent synonyms such as “Camaro cut,” “ape drape,” and “Mississippi mud flap.”

“My hair is more like a shag,” Zink clarifies. “A mullet and hockey hair is kind of more, like, sleazy and dirty. Mine’s more like a laid-back style.”

To be fair, no one outside the cultural sphere of influence of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association “A” conference—the group of 11 Baltimore-area private schools that make up the nation’s premier high-school lacrosse league—would likely mistake Zink for a Canadian ice-hockey fan or a Ziggy Stardust impersonator.

If the much-maligned mullet represents, as the cliché goes, “business in the front, party in the back,” the Baltimore laxer mullet is cocktail hour in the front and back, casual Fridays on the sides. Part ’70s throwback, part surfer shag—with a dash of shitkicker mullet thrown in for effect—the overall impression is that of a child’s bowl cut left long enough for the ends to curl up into “wings” that billow out from under a cap or helmet.

“We call it the almost-mullet,” says Jackie Turner, marketing director of Baltimore-based Inside Lacrosse magazine. “It’s pretty hideous.”

Hideous or not, it’s a distinctive enough ’do that it deserves its own name. Apparently, it already has one.

 

“It’s that floppy, almost Beatles cut, where it sweeps from one side across the eyebrows and into the eyes. The sides come over the tips of the ears a little bit. No sideburns. It’s that mop kind of look, where it’s smarmed on their heads.”

That’s Jennifer Law, an insurance underwriter in San Francisco, describing a hairstyle favored by a certain group of lacrosse players at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s, where it was known as the Balti. “It seemed like all the lacrosse players from Baltimore had this hairdo,” Law recalls. “It seemed really isolated to that city.”

D.A. McComas, one of Law’s Penn 1997 classmates, helpfully puts the term in context. “As far as I know,” writes McComas in an e-mail, “the [term] Balti cut (aka Lego hair) was not generally used by lacrosse players from Baltimore. Rather, it was used by non-Baltimorons to describe the look. For example . . . Guy 1: ‘Hey, look at how stupid that guy’s hair is.’ Guy 2: ‘Yeah, and he’s wearing Chucks, too.’ Guys 1 and 2 in unison: ‘That dude is so Balti.’” (The “Lego hair” comment is a “reference to the old Lego men toys who all had the same hair helmet,” McComas, who works for a private equity firm in New York, explains in a follow-up e-mail.)

One of the Baltimorean stars of that Penn lacrosse squad says the word “Balti” was probably first used as an epithet by teammates from Long Island and upstate New York, also regional hotbeds for high-school lacrosse. Unlike Baltimore, the New York lacrosse scene is concentrated in public schools, and is therefore not as suffused with a preppy culture that has long prized longer hair on boys for its polite rebellion against buttoned-down dress codes.

Now a defense attorney in Baltimore, the Loyola High School graduate spoke on condition that his real name not be used, though not out of shame for once rocking a Balti. “I don’t want people who I represent, who want a serious lawyer, reading me talking about hair,” he explains. We’ll call him Paul.

“I think they were making fun of the mullet-type haircut,” Paul says, “But the Long Island and New York guys made fun of us in general, because we talked slow. We made fun of them because they were all dirtballs.”

Ed Hanover, one of those upstate New York dirtballs, who wound up co-captaining the Penn lacrosse squad, cheerfully confirms Paul’s theory. “They called us football players with lacrosse sticks, and we called [their hair] the Balti flop-chop,” says Hanover, who now practices law in Princeton, N.J. “It was long in the front, then crushed off to the side. A gigantic bowl cut going down to the ears, and as long as they could possibly grow it in the back without looking like an inmate.”

In blue-collar upstate New York, lacrosse players wore their hair “high and tight,” Hanover says. That is, buzzed on the sides and a bit longer on top. Which was why the sight of private-school kids from Maryland with mullets—“upstate, that’s what farmers have”—struck Hanover as amusing. It still does. “I don’t know what they put in the water down there,” he says.

The term Balti may have lived and died among a small klatsch of fin-de-siecle Ivy Leaguers, but the hairstyle it describes pre-dates their birth, and may well outlive their children. Preppy Baltimore lacrosse boys from preppy Baltimore private schools have been sporting variations of the distinctive shag for more than 30 years, at least judging by the yearbooks at Roland Park’s exclusive Gilman School, where lacrosse has been the dominant sport since the early 20th century.

The longhaired 1960s came late to Gilman, not arriving until the early 1970s. Though the boys’ bangs become noticeably more voluptuous late in the peace-and-love decade, it isn’t until 1970 that a yearbook actually depicts a graduating senior whose hair peeks behind his ears. But by the next year, the Gilman varsity lacrosse team—though it lost to St. Paul’s School, Loyola, and Boys’ Latin—was distinguished by a number of players whose messy mops would qualify today as bona fide Balties. In the 1972 Cynosure, collar-length hair is already commonplace on campus, and the yearbook notes “the sloven style that has recently hit Gilman.”

Once it hit, it more or less stuck. There is precious little room for popular clothes fashion in a school environment where conservative dress codes forbid the wearing of denim, T-shirts, sneakers, facial hair, or very long hair. In many private boarding and day schools, then, the guiding fashion principle for kids who don’t want to look like miniature versions of their fathers is messiness. “It’s that whole tie that’s barely tied and usually your shirt’s half out,” says Baltimore architect Peter Ratcliffe, who played lacrosse at Gilman in the early 1980s. “I think it’s just that sloppy prep-school look.”

Which may be why, while slovenliness was decidedly out of fashion in the go-go ’80s—think Miami Vice—its currency in places like Roland Park retained its nonconformist currency. And while sloppiness may not have been cool in the ’80s, the mullet most definitely was—again, think Miami Vice—and here may be where the Baltimore version of that unfortunate style took permanent root.

“Lacrosse got big in the ’70s and ’80s,” says Neal Goldman, 23, sales director at Inside Lacrosse, who played lacrosse at Ellicott City’s Mount Hebron High School and Georgetown University, and was recently drafted into the professional Baltimore Bayhawks team. “Maybe the hair just kind of stuck along with how people had their hair back then.”

Maybe there’s something about the sport of lacrosse, too.

 

Most of the 38,000 discussion threads archived on LacrosseForums.com, a youth-oriented message board with more than 12,000 members, are about the game proper. But many are also focused on lacrosse fashion, including a bunch explicitly about boys’ hair. Among the hotly debated topics in these lengthy conversations are desirable hair length, grooming tips, the relative merits of the “lacrosse mullet” vs. the “real mullet,” and the annoying intervention of parents in such decisions (“I wanted to rock a mullet this year but my mom made me get a haircut for senior pics”).

Not infrequently, boys post pictures of themselves and others, and trade feedback on hairstyles.

“Do the curls come naturally for you guys?” asked WarriorLax22 in July 2004. “Does it sort of just lift itself or do you actually have to put some effort into it? I’ve been trying to get a similar style but the curls at the end are impossible.”

The New York poster was immersed in a discussion initiated by a Chicagoan considering replacing his “shag” with short hair. The general consensus was that long hair is vastly preferable. “The shag is shaggy. and hott. oooo its hott!” wrote Laxergirl, in a rare but evidently influential contribution by an ardent female—also known to some in these circles as a “lacrosstitute”—to the discussion.

A Florida boy with the handle BTLaxripper has initiated two other well-trafficked discussions about achieving the perfect lacrosse shag. His problem: thin hair. “Is there any certain way I need to cut it or style it to help it grow out right?”

“To be honest: Thin hair does not bode well shaggy,” replied enjoi from Chicago. “It’s all about the thick hair you can run your hands through, cause all the ladies will be like: ‘Oh Alan Dimitrios, please show me your ZORBA!’ and then we shall dance into the night.”

Thin hair is not the only obstacle to proper lax locks, as joeyp2003 from Connecticut confessed: “I had long hair my hair was a really good feel, and smell haha but it wasnt curly or waivy like [I] liked it, like everyone elses and it made my face look fat so i went back to the old school look w/ the short hair.” He attached before and after photographs.

The most poignant exchange was begun last March by a then 16-year-old boy named Pritom in Northern Virginia, who openly agonized about his fear that he wouldn’t be able to achieve the appropriate hairstyle. A recent transplant from Michigan, Pritom was new to lacrosse and wanted to look like teammates on his public high school’s junior varsity team.

Pritom began the discussion by attaching headshots of two boys, one blond and one brunette. “I want hair like those guys, but my hair is kinda straight,” he wrote. “It’s also pretty short too. Is it just a matter of growing my hair out longer to get that kind of . . . scruffy hair look? Or must I have been born with naturally wavy hair?” His plea was punctuated with a forlorn “thumbs-down” emoticon.

Among the many responses Pritom received were hair-growing tips, commiserations from boys with similar problems, and boasts from those with the desired look. “This is what you want,” wrote Laxholic14 in a post accompanying his photograph. “I don’t do **** to my hair god blessed me with my beatiful locks and sexy looks.”

“Get a perm!!” urged laxgirl45 from Canada. “It seriously works . . . haha that is what a bunch of my friends did . . . ”

ýritom ignored the taunts of some LacrosseForums members who ridiculed his vanity, and appeared to take seriously laxgirl45’s suggestion. “Can someone tell me what exactly a perm is? I hear they put chemicals in your hair to change the hair type or something? I think that would be my best bet . . . ”

Later in the discussion, he hedged away from a perm amid suggestions that tactful blow-drying might yield the same results, but his spirits remained low: “It sounds like I can use a hairdryer. But i know some guys, they can just wake up with that hairstyle, I wish i could do that :( . . . also, i have a question. do i want the back and side of my hair to be longer than the top and front??! Thanks for bearing with me guys . . . ”

He never got a definitive answer to that ever-crucial question. After two months and 78 replies, the web site’s administrators closed Pritom’s thread.

 

Poor Pritom might have fared better under the fleet fingers of Eduardo Cini, co-owner of Mount Washington’s Europa International Salon.

Cini, who’s been cutting prep-school hair in Baltimore for 25 years, says he’s recently observed a surge in boy-perms among area laxers. “They want a very soft perm,” Cini says of several recent teenage lacrosse clients. “Because their hair is very straight and it doesn’t do it like the other boys.”

“It” is the vaunted “flip” at the ends of the hair, explains the stylist, who has noticed a marked increase in vanity among his male prep-school clientele.

“They’re more self-conscious now than they’ve ever been,” he says. “So much that sometimes they compete with each other for who has the best-looking hair. They become like women. There are boys who come in here and they have their eyebrows plucked. Quite a bit of them, they have them waxed and they’re not shy about it.”

Older generations of Baltimore lacrosse boys react with uniform horror when they hear that open metrosexuality has finally hit North Baltimore.

“That’s amazing,” says Jim Stieff, who graduated from Boys’ Latin in 1971 and then played on a Washington and Lee College team packed with bemulleted Baltimoreans. “It must be because they’re after the girls.” He pauses. “Or they’re after the other boys.”

“That’s what they talk about?” asks Jarrett Leeb, a 1993 Boys’ Latin graduate who sported a Balti through his freshman year in college. “Oh my God, get out of here. In all the years I ever went to private school and knew all the public-school kids, not once do I remember discussing hair. Sounds like they’re trying too hard.”

Trying too hard, of course, is a cardinal betrayal of the very aesthetic that gave birth to the styles these boys covet. As the satirical The Official Preppy Handbook pointed out in 1980, “nonchalance” and “effortlessness” are integral components of “the Prep value system . . . an unspoken code that is, nevertheless, as solid as the rock on Mummy’s engagement ring.”

(Lisa Birnbach’s legendary guide to the country club set is remarkably up to date a quarter century later, a testament to the consistency of preppy culture, though it wants revising in one key area. “Under no circumstances,” the book warns, “may a man’s hair be combed down-and-across in front, covering the forehead.”)

One person who’s not at all surprised at the penetration of metrosexuality into the lacrosse set is Savas Abadsidis. “I’m no expert on this, but I think, first of all, that lacrosse players in general tend to be a lot more vain than a lot of other athletes,” he says. “I think it has to do with the kind of guys that play it. Very upper-middle-class, white prep-school boys. It’s really emblematic of preppiness.”

Abadsidis may not be a lacrosse expert, but preppiness and vanity he knows. A magazine consultant in New York, Abadsidis edited the controversial Abercrombie and Fitch hybrid catalog-magazine from 1998 until it folded in 2003. That publication, along with the fashion retailer’s other sexy and frequently homoerotic advertising, is substantially responsible for turning A&F into a saucy Gap, and seducing middle-class mall rats everywhere into coveting collared shirts and khakis again.

“I also think most lacrosse players tend to be a lot more attractive than [athletes of] most other sports,” says Abadsidis, which is why lacrosse hair—whether a bowl shag or a Balti mullet—is an aspirational cut for so many boys who yearn to be hott. “It’s a very body-conscious sport,” he says. “It’s intensely physically, but it doesn’t require putting yourself in harm’s way, in the way that football or [ice] hockey would, in a way that might damage your face.”

And since preppiness has once again traveled the predictable fashion loop from upscale to downmarket—witness the explosion of lime green and pink stripes at Old Navy stores this season—Abadsidis thinks “lacrosse is the perfect sport for this generation.”

Which also swoops us right back to the laxer mullet, perhaps the only hairstyle that Baltimore can properly claim as its very own (with apologies to John Waters, the OED etymologizes the beehive to East Berlin). And if lacrosse is indeed the perfect sport for this generation, isn’t the North Balto Balti its perfect haircut? Frankly, the logic is so compelling it’s enough to make one believe that Charm City will one day inspire associations not only with homicide and heroin—but also hot-boy hair.

The stars appear to be so aligned: Despite the recent furor surrounding rape allegations leveled at Duke University’s team, lacrosse is more popular than ever; preppiness reigns strip-mall supreme; Michael Mann’s film remake of Miami Vice opens later this year, starring Colin Farrell’s massive mullet; and hipster ironists will any day now abandon the neo-new wave for early-’90s grunge, and finally yield the 1980s to the earnest masses to whom it truly belongs.

Oh, and Kimmie Meissner likes it.

We begged WBAL-TV reporter Kate Amara—who’s been on the Kimmie beat since the Olympics—to find out what the 16-year-old world champion ice skater from Bel Air thinks about the Balti. Here’s what Amara found out:

    Amara: What do you think of athletes at your school with what we call “lacrosse hair”?

    Kimmie: I think sometimes it depends on the color.

    Amara: But do you like how it looks?

    Judy Meissner [Kimmie’s mother]: You do like the floppy look, Kimmie.

    Kimmie: Yah, I go for the floppy look.

She goes for the floppy look. Hear that, America?

You will, too. Believe.

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