One by one, the millionaire baseball players make their way through the bowels of Marlins Park to Hugo “Juice” Tandron’s closet-turned-barber-shop, the only one of its kind in all of Major League Baseball.
On the door is a sign: “Headz Up Barbershop.” Just to the left is a lighted barber’s pole. When it’s lit, Juice is in.
The players poke their heads into the 10-by-15-foot room to see if his lone chair is occupied. It almost always is, especially on game days. That chair has become a pregame ritual for the Marlins and a must-stop for visiting major leaguers. Getting into that chair has become almost as difficult as getting a table at Miami’s trendiest restaurants.
Tandron is admittedly “not your typical-looking 45-year-old barber,” with 100-plus tattoos and a long bushy beard. “I look like a street dude, and people are quick to judge me based on my looks.”
Among the stars who have gotten haircuts in his chair: Reggie Jackson, Hank Aaron, Andre Dawson, Tony Perez and just about every Marlins player and manager over the past 17 years. The signatures on his Wall of Fame are impressive. Team president David Samson stopped by late last week for a trim.
“Hugo is the personification of the adage that you cannot judge a book by its cover,” Samson said. “He has this exterior that you would wonder, and then you realize he is a family man from top to bottom who has an opportunity to be involved with the most confidential conversations. He’s become like everybody’s psychologist. I first met him in 2002, went to his shop in Miami Gardens. Here I am this 5-5, 125-pound Jewish boy, and he always made me feel very welcome.”
On this particular day, the Milwaukee Brewers are in town. Five Brewers had come by for cuts the previous afternoon. A half-dozen more and an assistant coach would stop by in the span of two hours. Brewers third baseman Hernan Perez was in his chair for the first time.
“Juice is famous all over the league,” Perez said. “Some guys let their hair and beards grow until they get to Miami because they want him to do their cuts.”
Tandron is telling a chilling story about that late night outside a North Miami night club, the night he was nearly killed when a man pulled out a submachine gun and pointed it at Tandron’s young face. Tandron was 17, and wanted to be “meaner” than all the other kids growing up in Carol City’s Leslie Estates-Cherry Bay housing development — a neighborhood not befitting its idyllic name.
“We got into a big fight with some dudes at a club and I got a TEC-9 put in my face and the dude squeezed the trigger. Hand of God got in the way. It jammed on him, and I took off running,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘I can hide under a car,’ but then I thought he could just sweep with the gun under the car and I’m dead. So, I kept running. I remember hearing a dog barking, far, far in the distance. But when I came back to my senses, I realized the dog was right next to me, just on the other side of a chain link fence. That’s how out of it I was. I was missing a shoe, my jeans were ripped, I had done No. 1 and No. 2 on myself and didn’t even know. Definitely a scary moment.
“I never thought I would get to this age, way I was going. Thought I’d be dead or in prison. I just didn’t care. I feared nobody and nothing. I was fascinated with the bad guys with the Cadillacs and the girls. Everyone feared them. I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to throw the first punch, be the first to break into the car.”
Tandron finishes Perez’ haircut, and his happy customer gives him a firm handshake and a wad of $20s. Brewers first baseman Jason Rogers slides into the chair. Then Domingo Santana. And Khris Davis.
Over the next two hours, “Juice” will make $300. He has no set price. He says he feels “blessed” (the word tattooed in place of his left eyebrow) with whatever his customers choose to pay him.
It varies. Some pay $50. Some $100. He has received a $1,000 tip, a bag of cash. Former Marlins star Dontrelle Willis, who has become a close friend, bought him his dream car — a 1974 Chevy Caprice convertible he calls “Charlie Brown.” Juan Pierre donated a 42-inch flat screen TV for the barber shop.
Willis and Miguel Cabrera have flown Tandron to Detroit to have haircuts. Other clients have flown him to Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix and Jamaica.
“I declare it all, pay my taxes. All legal. I ran out of second chances,” Tandron said. “God bailed me out a lot, never turned his back on me. But at this point, I think he’s saying, ‘No more chances for you, bro. You [screw] up one more time, it’s on you.’ ”
The barber shop door opens, and in peeks Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna.
“Como estamos?” Tandron asks, smiling.
“Todo bien,” Ozuna replies, and they chit chat some more in Spanish, setting up an appointment for a trim.
Tandron is equally happy schmoozing his customers in English or Spanish. His parents, Zonia, a retired beautician, and Hugo Sr., a meter chief for Miami-Dade Water and Sewer, are Cuban. They were among the only Hispanics in their neighborhood when Hugo Jr. was growing up, so he learned to fit in with people of all colors and nationalities.
But he was always a troublemaker. He mouthed off at Brentwood Elementary School, where he first got the nickname “Juice” because “jugo” (like Hugo) means juice in Spanish. He bounced around middle schools. Left Carol City High and finished at Monsignor Pace, Class of 1988. He dreamed of playing in the NFL but was undersized, and his brushes with the law thwarted those plans.
In 1989, he faced a 10-year prison sentence surrounding an armed robbery of a South Beach liquor store. “Hand of God stepped in again, and the charges were dropped out of nowhere,” said Tandron, who added that seeing his father in the courtroom was cathartic.
“It still bothers me what I made my parents go through as a kid, all the times they had to come get me in jail,” he said. “My dad believed all we did was get into a fight and the judge was like, ‘No, they’re charged with armed robbery.’ My dad started crying. Seeing my dad cry, to this day it kills me.”
He never intended to become a barber. But he was always good with clippers. His mother had them around the house, and when she refused to let him get the hairstyles rappers and local gangsters were wearing, he decided to coif himself.
“My mom said those cuts were for hoodlums and juvenile delinquents — you know, short on top, long curly blonde tail. So, I started doing my own. My friends were like, ‘Yo, where’d you get the cut?’ I’d say, ‘I did it.’ They’d be like, ‘Bro, can you do it on me?’ Next thing you know, guys are paying me five bucks to cut their hair in my utility room.”
He used a hand-me-down pink chair from his mother’s beauty shop.
His lucky break came in 1993, when Gary Sheffield joined the Marlins. He was looking for a barber, and some rapper friends recommended Tandron.
“They told him, ‘We got a good barber, dude named Juice. He’ll take care of you.’ Shef says, ‘OK, where’s his barber shop?’ They were like, ‘Well, he don’t really have a shop. He cuts out of his utility room.’ Shef was kind of like, ‘Whoa, I don’t know about going to someone’s utility room in a bad neighborhood.’ ”
They convinced Sheffield. He loved the haircut and began recommending Juice to his teammates. By 1997, most of the Marlins championship team was getting haircuts in Juice’s utility room.
In 1998, the Marlins called and asked if he could bring his equipment and cut in the clubhouse. The players and coaches were so pleased the team brought him on board and let him set up a makeshift shop in the office of former Dolphins coach Dave Wannstadt.
In 2001, he opened a 1,300-square-foot shop called Headz Up in Miami Lakes. He spends mornings there overseeing 10 barbers and afternoons at the ballpark. His son, Willie, 26, cuts hair at the Miami Lakes shop. His wife of 26 years, Jackie, whom he says was instrumental in his turnaround, helps run the shop. His daughter, Hayxa, 22, works customer service for Publix. He has four grandchildren. He recently removed some gang tattoos, another sign of his transformation.
Samson has always been one of Tandron’s biggest supporters.
“When the new ballpark was being designed, we wanted to make sure he had an area to call his own,” Samson said. “He’s been a part of our family. With Hugo, his personality is so disarming because it’s so gentle versus what he’s been through and the life he’s led. Every time I’m in the chair, he and I have very deep conversations about choices we make as kids and adults.”
Samson said Tandron is the consummate professional.
“Hugo knows personal things about me, just like he knows personal things about players. But I never worry about telling him anything private because I know he would never betray that confidence.”
Tandron has mutual respect for Samson, whom he said “never judged me by my past or my looks. At the end of the day, to tell you the truth, I ask God to forgive me every day for all the bad I did to people. But I thank him for making me go through what I went through because it made me the person I am today.”
Samson was one of the first to sign Tandron’s wall.
“A great story!” is all he wrote.