By Michael E. Miller
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Hugo "Juice" Tandron sports about two dozen tattoos and an immaculate Mr. T beard under a bald head. He knows that cutting hair is only half a barber's job. The other 50 percent, says the hulking Carol City native, is the important stuff: "I'm a marriage counselor. I'm whatever you want — an attorney-at-law, free consultations..."
"He's like our psychiatrist," Florida Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla chimes in as he settles into an adjustable chair in Tandron's makeshift barbershop in the bowels of Sun Life Stadium. It's five hours before the start of a Monday-night game against the Cincinnati Reds.
This session lasts 20 minutes. As Tandron crafts the cut he calls "the Uggs" (short on the sides, preppy volume on top, with a hint of a faux-hawk), the low-key slugger talks about his hometown of Nashville, how he waited tables as a young minor-leaguer — "I sucked at it; I couldn't figure out the stupid computers" — and how it makes him sad to witness his 4-year-old daughter Lexi's antics: "I think to myself: Dude, what am I going to do when she gets older and doesn't do that anymore?"
Tandron's demeanor depends on his clients. The subdued mood flies out the window when former Marlins ace — now Detroit stud — Dontrelle Willis sits in the chair. "A crowd usually gathers around to watch," Tandron says, chuckling. "He's acting wild, telling stories, simulating some fight he saw."
The 39-year-old Tandron is the Marlins' official barber. He is almost certainly the only such titleholder in Major League Baseball. Using a barber's cart, shadow-eradicating fluorescent lights, and a wall mirror, he sets up shop in an unused cranny adjacent to the Marlins' locker rooms. The millionaire ballplayers reward him with hundred-dollar tips, and one of them even gave him a car.
He grew up a couple of blocks from the stadium. But Tandron, who now owns a Hialeah barbershop, has traveled galaxies from a former life that included attacking a cop and robbing a liquor store. "Plenty of my friends are either doing long prison bids or six feet under," he says. "Picking up the scissors is the only thing that saved me from that."
Living on Northwest 193rd Street in the 1980s, he was the "one Cuban cat" in Carol City. His parents had defected to Miami in the '60s. His father, also named Hugo, worked for Miami-Dade Water & Sewer. His mother, Zonia, worked as a beautician. Hugo Jr. first cut his own hair at age 12. He was desperate to escape the choir boy trims mom always gave him. "I started experimenting on my own hair," he says. "Pretty soon I was giving fades to every boy in the neighborhood."
His interest in cutting hair aside, Tandron had a real passion: fighting. He was expelled from St. Monica and Carol City high schools and then barely nabbed a diploma from Monsignor Edward Pace. He's reluctant to call himself a gangbanger: "What people call gang-affiliated, we just call hanging with the homies we grew up with. We were hitting the clubs, snatching chains, stealing cars. You do a lot of dumb things when you're young."
At age 18, he got hitched to a Carol City girl named Jacqueline, and they had a son, Willie. (Four years later, Hugo and Jackie, who are still married, would have a daughter, Hayxa.)
The new groom soon found himself staring at serious prison time. In 1989, at age 19, he was charged with assault and battery. Though the case file has been destroyed, Tandron says he was busted for joining an attack on a man who, as luck would have it, was an undercover Hialeah Gardens cop. He was sentenced to two years of probation.
The next year, Tandron was charged with armed robbery. Wearing ski masks, he and two cronies had robbed a South Beach liquor store, he admits. "It's hard for me to say it out loud, because to this day, I swear to my mama that I didn't do it."
Tandron, facing decades in prison, spent a month in jail awaiting trial. He recalls his dad sobbing in the courthouse audience. "Watching my father cry was one of the worst moments of my life," he says. "He's a man's man. He just doesn't cry."
The armed robbery charge was dropped after "a witness didn't show up," Tandron says. Blessed with a second chance, he was determined to never again don an orange prison suit. Cutting hair became his full-time hustle.
He set up shop in the carport of his parent's house. Charging $5 a head, he found a niche.
"Before him, a haircut was all about the old guy cutting your hair," says Carol City rapper U.B., who's had his hair cut by Tandron for decades. He recalls that rap blasted and trash talk flourished — although there were limits: "His mom wouldn't let us play 2 Live Crew, and I remember Hugo knocking a couple of dudes out because they were cursing and being disrespectful."
Later he got his own place and converted a utility closet into a barbershop. Soon he acquired the first name in his thick Major League Rolodex. In 1993, a mutual friend brought then-Marlins infielder and Tampa native Gary Sheffield to Tandron's house for a cut. The young powerhouse was apparently pleased: The next time, Sheffield showed up with third baseman Jerry Browne. Before long, the Carol City utility closet became an unlikely hangout for Marlins such as Charles Johnson, Derek Lee, Edgar Renteria, Livan Hernandez, and Devon White.
In 1998, Tandron began cutting hair in a football-training room accessible to both the visiting and home teams. He has bounced around the stadium ever since. He can tame rotund reliever Renyel Pinto's "Latin Jheri curl." Kojak-domed right fielder Cody Ross periodically needs his head scraped clean. And Tandron became expert at shaping the Dolph Lundgren-esque blond spikes of former Marlins catcher Mike Jacobs, who even had a name for his hairstyle: "the MJ-17."
Tandron never charges a set price for players' haircuts, but they usually take care of him with a few folded 20s. His first $100 tip came from veteran center fielder Marquis Grissom. "That's all for you," Grissom told the barber when he went to make change. "It's a Major League haircut."
The most he has received in cash is $850 from then-Marlins pitcher Brad Penny, who had Tandron drive to his Jupiter apartment before a spring training start. The monster check wasn't even for a full haircut: Penny just wanted his beard trimmed.
The nomadic nature of Marlins players works to Tandron's advantage. Former team members Sheffield, Lee, and Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez have flown Tandron to their new squads' cities to cut their teammates' hair. He has worked in eight Major League stadiums, and during spring training, he makes the rounds in the Grapefruit League.
No player has forged a tighter bond with Tandron than Willis, the gangly Californian who lived in Miramar when he pitched for the Marlins. Willis says he spent "five or six days a week in Hugo's shop," and the two men's families bonded. "I just gravitated towards him. He's from the streets, but no matter what he's been through, he's a very sweet, kindhearted person."
They were such fast friends, in fact, that in 2007, Willis surprised Tandron with a cherry-red 1974 Chevy Caprice Classic. It made the heavily-inked ex-con weep. "That's my baby, dude," Tandron says as he flashes a photo of the gaudy vehicle on his iPhone.
The Major League gifts have helped Tandron's year-round operations gain more gilded environs than a utility closet. He opened Headz Up Barbershop in Hialeah eight years ago and now employs ten barbers including, sometimes, his 21-year-old son Willie, a Florida Memorial University student.
And Tandron has spread his good fortune. One of his barbers is 37-year-old Erron "Bigg Cutt" Evans, who last December returned from a 16-year prison stint for home invasion. In the pen, Evans mastered the art of the fade and the lineup. "I'm not one of those holy-roller types," Evans says. "But it feels like God reached through Hugo to help me out."