From the Windup: Superstition and Baseball Go Hand-in-Hand
"I'm not superstitious. I am, however, a little stitious." - Michael Scott, The Office
With the opening of baseball season, the masses were recently reminded, once again, how insane baseball players can be when it comes to seemingly silly superstitions. Tim Lincecum, the reigning two-time Cy Young award winner, has worn the same hat for every major league start he's ever made. All 91 of them, many through the dog days of summer. Dude, that's a lotta sweat.
It's no secret that superstition is tied to all sports, or even all walks of life, but nothing else seems to even remotely compare to the absurdities that we see in baseball. Lincecum's case is a mild one.
This is a sport where fans believe certain franchises had (or have, in one case) long championship droughts due to alleged external factors. No, it wasn't that only one team wins a championship per year, or that it's hard to win a championship, or that bad management prevented a title for long stretches. Instead, it's a ghost (Babe), something that happened in 1919 (Black Sox) and a freaking animal (Billy Goat) that had (have) prevented a championship for long stretches.
• It's an unwritten rule for fans and players alike to not mention a no-hitter or perfect game. If you do -- even if you are watching from the comfort of your own home, it's your fault when someone knocks one in the gap and ruins the gem.
• Some players believe stepping on the foul line when taking the field defensively is bad luck. Turk Wendell, in fact, famously used to leap all the way over the dirt surrounding the foul line. Wendell's actually a pretty unique animal in his own right. He chewed on four pieces of black licorice while pitching, would spit them out once returning to the dugout and then brushed his teeth. Once he went back out to the field, he repeated the entire cycle.
• Many believe you can "jinx" something, meaning if you say, "this guy hasn't hit into a double play in a month," said dude will promptly hit into a double play.
• Anything involving hair. You can't get a haircut until something happens. You shave your head if something needs to happen. You don't shave your face, or do, depending on something.
• Any number of mannerisms ... whether it it's Nomar Garciaparra's OCD batting glove love in between every pitch, Mark Fidrych's manicuring of the mound, Al Hrabowski's "Mad Hungarian" routine, Jose Valverde's ridiculous theatrics on the hill or Craig Biggio needing to keep a metropolis of pine tar on his helmet all season. More? OK: pointing to the sky, kissing a necklace, wearing certain gold chains, not washing socks, jocks, shirts or re-using the same hat until it's tattered to the extreme. Oh, and did you know Moises Alou urinated on his hands before every game? The list here goes on and on.
I've seen my share of things first-hand, at a much lower level, where it all begins. I've seen a guy believe he can't get a hit unless he takes a shower before the game. In high school, a teammate and I used to give a "pound" (a.k.a. fist bump) to a picture of a football coach we both respected before every one of our baseball games. Only it went further than that, as about halfway through the season we realized the few times we'd forgotten were our only losses. We ended the season 23-6, and I swear on everything holy we gave that picture the pound 23 times, and forgot six times.
This is either mocked or glorified in movies -- depending upon your point of view. Pedro Cerrano believed he needed to sacrifice a live chicken before the big game in "Major League," in addition to keeping his bat warm with a golf club head cover and using spirits to help shake the "fear" out of his lumber. Nuke LaLoosh wore a woman's garter and breathed through his eyelids in "Bull Durham." Roy Hobbs only liked using his "Wonderboy" bat that he'd made as a kid.
I think one thing the naysayers may need to realize is that it's not like any of these professional athletes really believe these things are necessary for success from a karmic standpoint; it's actually more a comfort thing. If you perform a set routine every single day and feel comfortable within the routine, the chances of success are greater, from a mental standpoint.
A few of my collegiate teammates and I grabbed the exact same sandwich from the exact same convenience mart before every single one of our home games. We acted like it had to be done or we'd just fall apart (which was especially ridiculous on my part, considering all I had to do was put on a uniform and sit in the dugout). In reality, we liked the sandwiches, they were cheap and the convenience mart was across the street from our locker room. It was a nice routine and there was no reason to stray from it.
If you think about it, most of the time superstition is the wrong word. When you grab a cup of coffee on the way to work every morning, are you superstitious? Do you believe the morning will fall apart if you don't have coffee because of some mythological factor, or do you believe the day will fall apart because you'll fall asleep at your desk and get fired? It's just a routine. If your routine in any walk of life is rushed or out of whack, the chances you have a perfect day just aren't as great as if your routine was normal.
Sports aren't much different. I'd liken many of the baseball "superstitions" to be just like this, they are traditions of the game due to common sense and routine.
For example, do people really think telling the starting pitcher he has a no-hitter is going to cause the heavens to open up and your God (from whatever faith you believe in) is going to intervene in anger because someone broke some sacred baseball tradition? Instead, maybe the pitcher starts thinking too much and makes a bad pitch. So the tradition actually has merit. Just leave the guy alone and let him pitch his game. Like I said, there are real elements to most any "superstition" you can name.
Though I don't think a smelly animal has any determination on the fate of my favorite team, I most certainly won't question the merits of most quirky routines of baseball players.
Maybe, like the bumbling manager of Dunder Mifflin, I am "a little stitious" myself.