KANSAS CITY, Mo. – At the bottom of Shawn Kelley's locker sat 1.1 pounds of horror. It had giant nostrils and a full set of teeth and frightened brown eyes and a lovely mane. It is the New York Yankees' new good-luck charm.
Last week, Kelley found himself ensnared in the spider web of Amazon.com when he came upon a horse head mask offered by a company called Accoutrements, which also peddles a pickle that yodels, bacon-flavored lip balm and an inflatable unicorn horn for cats. The horse head garnered more than 3,000 ratings and a 4½-star consensus. Kelley, a Yankees relief pitcher, needed no further convincing.
"When I see those things, randomly in a crowd, it makes me laugh," he said. "So I figured I'll do that, and it'll make everyone laugh in the clubhouse.
"And then we went on a winning streak."
Since he debuted the horse head during the Yankees' pregame stretch Thursday, they are 5-0, including a 8-1 shellacking of American League Central-leading Kansas City on Monday night. It is the Yankees' first five-game winning streak in more than four months, and however much credit one wants to give the reinvigorated starting rotation or reimagined lineup, the truth is much simpler.
"Kelley's undefeated with the horse," Yankees center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury said. "I'm never going to go against that."
The mask, according to its product page, is made of latex and an "awesome conversation piece." It continues: "We've discovered yet another universal truth – a person wearing a Horse Head Mask looks downright disturbing."
Several Yankees affirmed this truth.
"At first, I was wondering who it was," Ellsbury said. "And then I wondered why he had it on. And then we got on a little roll, and I figured it doesn't matter what the reason is. We're winning with it."
Since the Equine Era debuted, the Yankees have gained two games in the wild-card standings and 3½ in the AL East. Their postseason hopes, at this point, remain something of a long shot, even with a 68-61 record. Baltimore owns a six-game lead and the Yankees remain 2½ games back of Seattle and two behind Detroit in the race for the second wild-card slot. The Yankees have chased nearly every good stretch this season with a losing streak that negated the gains. They need Michael Pineda – who dominated the Royals on Monday with a fastball that reached 97 mph – to stay healthy, which he hasn't done since 2011. They especially need Masahiro Tanaka, who's trying to rehabilitate a partially torn elbow ligament, to return as a No. 1-level starter.
Should everything go right, the horse head could find itself in Monument Park one day, or at least next to Jason Giambi's rally thong in the annals of the storied franchise. While it's unclear whether a horse-headed fan in Kansas City earlier this year inspired him, Kelley tries to make the performance all his own. He ran around the clubhouse wearing the head after Monday's win and high-fived teammates. He'll bring it on the field before games, looking like a pinstriped Hayagriva.
"You can't help but laugh at a guy in a horse head," Yankees catcher Brian McCann said. "He nails it. When he goes into character, there's no getting him out of it. He's a rock star. That's what he is."
Every animal needs a name, of course, and this one offered tantalizing possibilities. Khartoum? Probably too obscure. Secretariat? Certainly presumptive for a team that at the time sat two games over .500. George? Well, The Boss did own and breed racehorses for years, though were he still around he probably would've fined Kelley and called him a horse's ass for wearing it.
"Seabiscuit," Kelley said. "That's what we're calling him."
It fits. Or fits as well as the underdog tag can for a $200 million-plus team. These Yankees are far from the juggernauts of the past. They've been outscored by 27 runs. To call them patchwork would be an insult to quilts, cobbled together an affront to shoemakers. General manager Brian Cashman kept the Yankees afloat with July deals that overhauled the team and gave it some semblance of stability after injuries wrecked the opening day rotation.
Now, with Pineda pitching well, Brandon McCarthy dealing, Hiroki Kuroda steady and Tanaka on the mend, the Yankees have defibrillated a season that looked flatlined. Following the one-day stopover here for a makeup game, the Yankees shipped back out and headed to Detroit for a huge three-game series. As the clubhouse attendants packed the Yankees' bags, one pointed into Kelley's locker. It was empty except for one item. Kelley was asked if he wanted it packed.
"No," he said, "this one goes on the plane."
Seabiscuit, apparently, gallops up and down the aisles of aircrafts, too.
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