BOSTON – The high-five turned 36 years old earlier this month, and it has not aged well. Whereas the high-five used to be the preferred celebratory gesture of athletes and cool people everywhere, it has lost market share to fist bumps, intricate handshakes, hugs and, most alarming, backhanded fives, or fours, as they should be called, since the thumbs do not touch.
What made the high-five so ubiquitous was its seeming ease and effect; slapping hands with another person takes minimal effort to create maximum noise, a tactile and auditory bonanza. Of course, because everybody could execute a high-five with relative ease, its popularity swelled to the fad tipping point. When nerds embraced the high-five, it lost its cachet and was doomed to the pocket-protector pile.
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Forgive the high-five, then, for doing its own little celebration these days. The high-five is cool again, especially in Boston, where the most valuable player of the American League Championship Series this season rescued it from the geek graveyard.
Koji Uehara, 38, from Japan, is not the likeliest of trendsetters. He communicates with his Boston Red Sox teammates in decent-enough English, but not enough to announce his intentions of his revive-the-five movement. Which, to tell the truth, wasn't a movement so much as a bit of spontaneity that spawned a tradition. Which, in baseball, dare not meet its end so long as it punctuates something good. And considering the Red Sox are one day away from opening the World Series at Fenway Park against the St. Louis Cardinals, and Uehara is riding a 90-mph fastball and disappearing split-fingered fastball to one of the great all-time runs for a closer, this is good like a $4.5 million lottery ticket is good.
Uehara wasn't exactly a Powerball slip for the Red Sox this offseason when he signed for that sum. In his four seasons since arriving from Japan, Uehara had some of the best control the major leagues ever had seen, walking just 29 batters in 211 2/3 innings while striking out 231. Boston penciled him in for a middle-relief role, only to see closer Joel Hanrahan blow out his elbow and replacement Andrew Bailey land on the disabled list, too. In came Uehara, whose reputation for high-stakes high-fives after strong innings grew as he punctuated saves with them.
"I can't really explain why I don't do a hug or a fist bump," Uehara said through translator C.J. Matsumoto. "It's something that came up naturally."
Others around the Red Sox suspect there are physiological reasons behind Uehara's high-fives. Yale-educated reliever Craig Breslow considers Uehara's "long, strong fingers" to make his high-fives especially potent, and outfielder Daniel Nava, a frequent recipient of postgame high-fives, extrapolates the phalange theory out to Uehara's bread-and-butter pitch.
"When you throw a splitter like he does, you need to have very good finger control and dexterity," Nava said. "I would say it's supreme dexterity in the fingers. So imagine giving him a high-five. It's all in the hand control. He hits the spot of the hand perfectly. And you just want to come back for more. It's like an Oreo when you open it up. You just don't know which side to get, and you want to come back for more."
To see Uehara lavish high-fives at all shocked those who knew him in Japan. Uehara played for the Yomiuri Giants, the powerhouse team whose players are expected to conduct themselves as gentlemen. Not until joining the Red Sox, the team whose 2004 championship was won by self-proclaimed "idiots" and whose 2013 unit is in violation of at least two dozen health codes on account of scraggly beards believed to be housing flora and fauna of varying species, did Uehara feel impulsive epidermal friction could prove a proper denouement for a baseball game.
Now, he owns it like a champ. Uehara's high-fives are diametrically opposed to his pitching style: He goes all power on the five, vim and vigor complementing his digital acuity and adding up to the greatest resurgence in high-fives since the short Borat-led renaissance of 2006.
"I can't come up with another player who's doing it," Uehara said, "so maybe I am the best."
Somehow, the novelty has not worn off. Privately, the Red Sox admit that upon Uehara's first high-fives, they wondered what was up with the new guy. When somebody comes into the office and starts throwing around more fives than Abraham Lincoln, he draws stares, maybe even a few whispers. In a clubhouse filled with tattoos and facial hair, Uehara might as well have worn a "KICK ME" sign.
Except he was completely unstoppable on the mound. Since Uehara took over as closer June 26, his numbers don't look real: 44 1/3 innings, 14 hits, two walks, 59 strikeouts, a 0.41 ERA and 20 saves in 22 chances. Uehara pitched five of six ALCS games, going six innings, not allowing a run, striking out nine and telling a national TV audience he was so nervous he felt like he might throw up.
Because of Uehara's honesty, his earnestness and his dedication to perfecting a long-lost craft, the Red Sox not only embraced the high-five but anticipated it eagerly.
"They seem to come at the most opportunistic times," Breslow said.
"When we win," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, often the recipient of the game's first high-five during the congratulatory postgame meeting near the mound. "Every time he high-fives, we're winning. It's a great feeling to get one."
Not for everybody. Uehara noted that Red Sox manager John Farrell "doesn't get too excited when I try to" high-five him. And others are just plain scared by Uehara, who at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds packs a wallop with his five.
In late May, after a scoreless eighth inning, Uehara ran the gauntlet of the Red Sox's dugout, giving out an assorted variety of high-fives: the classic, with his right hand; the gloved, with his left hand; the 10, with both hands; and even one of the rarest there is, the gloved five times two, simultaneously giving five to two people, including one with a gloved hand. It was a masterful, even awe-inspiring, 12-handshake run.
And then Uehara made it to the end, where Shane Victorino, who later would be the hero of the Sox's World Series-clinching win with a grand slam, sat by himself on the bench. His head down, his own business minded, Victorino took a Uehara high-five to the right shoulder. It stunned him out of his previous position, and he laughed, perhaps because he knew if he didn't Uehara's next high-five would be across his face.
Less than two days later, Victorino went on the disabled list.
"It was just the timing," Uehara swore. "Yup. Just the timing."
Didn't matter that Victorino hit the DL for a sore hamstring instead of a bruised ego. Uehara knows the power of his high-five. A shot to the shoulder can shake a man all the way down to his legs when that shot is five fingers of fury from the sultan of skin.
With no plans to discontinue the high-five anytime soon, Uehara is doing for it what the recession did for gold. Should the Red Sox win their third World Series in 10 years, high-five fever could grip New England.
Just one bit of advice. Don't be exactly like Uehara. Make sure to wash your hands. It's about to be flu season.