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Baseball Superstitions Mirror Our Own

October 7, 2017

 

The other day I was watching a re-run of ESPN 30 for 30 on the Buffalo Bills four Super Bowl losses. During the 1991 season, QB Jim Kelly and his back up Frank Reich used to have lunch at the same diner in Old Orchard, NY at the exact same time on Fridays before games. They would always sit in the same seats at the same table. They would order cheeseburgers and the same milk shakes - chocolate for Kelly, vanilla for Reich. The restaurant sent the tables and chairs to Minneapolis so Kelly and Reich could carry out their ritual before Super Bowl 26. The story reminded me that superstition is not limited to baseball. Take for instance LeBron James' pre-game chalk toss ritual or Sidney Crosby not letting teammates touch his stick.  Baseball superstition enjoys the limelight, but superstition exists everywhere.

 

What makes superstition synonymous with baseball is that it's more noticeable. The slower pace of the game is more conducive and there are 162 regular season games per year. Over more than 600 plate appearances you get to watch Aaron Judge chewing two wads of Double Bubble sugar-free bubblegum at the plate, Mike Trout plucking blades of grass between innings, a Jobu figurine in the Dodgers bat rack (taken straight out of the Tribe's playbook) and Rangers base runners swiping the "Texas" on their chests -- not to mention players' ever-evolving facial hair. Players in clubhouses endure teammates wearing the same t-shirt, socks, or unwashed cap night after rancid night. For our book Haunted Baseball, Hall-of-Famer Al Kaline told me that the stench of one such teammate's boxers was so unbearable that after one game when that player was showering, Kaline and teammates shred the skivvies with scissors.

 

What makes baseball unique (and what I love most about it) is that because of the slowness of the game and the slow-motion unfolding of the season, you get to learn each player's individuality and quirks in a way that mirrors the idiosyncrasies of ourselves and the people around us - our likes and dislikes, behavior and habits, rituals and superstitions. Watch closely and you will see the player who hops over the baselines, steps on a base as they return to the dugout, touches the letters on his uniform, touches their necklaces, touches the dirt by home plate, smooths the batters box dirt, smooths the mound, relocates the rosin, taps their bat on their cleats, taps home plate, blinks excessively, re-adjusts their helmet and batting gloves after each pitch, sits everyday in the same spot in the dugout or bullpen, bows in respect to the ball field, etches the initials of a deceased teammate or loved one in the infield soil, or points to the sky. I consider myself as non-superstitious as they come, but put a camera on me for six months, and you will see that I avoid multiples of thirteen when I set my alarm clock or use the machines at the gym. I shake my foot when I'm writing, pull apart paper clips while I talk on the phone, and sit at one of three favorite spots at the library. A younger version of myself kept in my backpack an omamori, a protective amulet in a brocade pouch that most Japanese ballplayers have on their equipment bags for good luck.

 

Last year the Kansas City Royals played the last third of the season with a praying mantis. The Royals were 51-56 when one flew into the dugout. Outfielder Billy Burns playfully placed it on his cap. The Royals won that night and 18 of their next 22 games. During that times players kissed the enclosure holding their good luck charm and fans wore praying mantis masks and finger puppets. There was even a praying mantis seating section similar to the Judge's Chambers. This year the Cardinals sought to adopt a "rally cat", a stray kitten that had run onto the field at Busch Stadium during a game on August 10th. Immediately following, Yadier Molina clubbed a go-ahead grand slam. A local animal shelter captured the kitten and refused to surrender it to the Cards out of concern the team would exploit the cat rather than look out for its interests. In Field of Screams, former pitcher Dyar Miller shared the story of the Orioles keeping a turkey in their clubhouse during the 1976 season. A similar chapter in the book tells the story behind Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Robin Ventura taking turns wearing a leopard-print thong.

 

Some of these rituals are in fun, but mess with their rituals and you mess with their mojo. Just ask Mike Timlin about the stuffed parrot they had in the Red Sox bullpen in 2007. When it disappeared during the celebration of their 2007 ALCS victory celebration, Timlin took to the airwaves. "It started out as a little joke type thing - 'Oh, we need him back,'" he told WBZ TV, "but we really need him back. He's an integral part of what 's going on out there." 

 

In his seminal article Baseball Magic, cultural anthropologist and former minor leaguer George Gmelch concludes that superstition in baseball arises from the high level of uncertainty and chance in the game. He notes that ballplayers carry out preparatory rituals before pitching or hitting, and not before fielding, where players have greater success and control.  Drawing from social science, he compares ballplayer superstition to the magic rituals that Trobiand Islanders perform when fishing out in dangerous sea or WWII soldiers carrying amulets in dangerous situations and preparing for battle with fixed rituals much the same way that ballplayers prepare for games. So as you settle in for the game tonight in your favorite baseball or grid iron jersey, be aware that you are among many reaching for magic over a game you have no control over, and that's par for the course.

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