Baseball players are special. They also have some special superstitions. Even though they hit, throw, catch and coach better than 99.9% of the world, they’re only human, after all. And they make a living (and have long careers) by performing at a high level over a long 162-game season, filled with both ups and downs. They need every edge they can get—even if it’s a superstitious one and sort of crazy.
Need an example? Start with Moises Alou, who played in the Majors for 17 years and didn’t believe in wearing baseball gloves. To toughen up his hands, he admitted to urinating on them, thinking that would do the trick. Surprisingly, they never called Alou the “Whiz Kid.” Jorge Posada of the Yankees did the same thing, but he says it was “only during Spring Training.”
If you’re any kind of fan, you know about the superstitions that have been around forever:
1. Pitchers usually don’t shave on game day.
2. Players won’t step on foul lines when taking or coming off the field.
3. If a player has a great day at the plate, he’ll keep using that bat until he cools off.
4. No one talks to the pitcher once he gets close to a no-hitter.
5. Joe DiMaggio (and there are plenty of others) always stepped on second base on his way in from centerfield.
But those are mild compared to what a lot of players have done and are still doing. An outfielder for the Tampa Bay Rays said, “If one little thing doesn’t go right, it can throw you off. If you don’t complete your superstition, it can throw you off and make you look like you’ve never played the game before.”
Here’s a look at a few superstitious habits and routines that players have:
Sticky situation: Utility player Elliot Johnson always puts a wad of grape-flavored gum in his mouth when his team takes the field. But when they come up to bat, he switches over to watermelon-flavored gum because he says the hits come with that flavor. Story goes he even sent a clubhouse kid to buy the right gum when none was around. Another player admits to chewing a mouthful of gum before the game starts, and then spitting it out of his mouth and hitting it, with his hand, on the infield.
Who you callin’ chicken? Former pitcher Ryan Dempster ate at the same Italian restaurant on days that he was going to take the mound. (Did he order a mound of spaghetti?) Matt Garza of the Brewers supposedly treats some teammates to Popeye’s Chicken every day that he starts. But the best-known food habit or superstition belongs to Wade Boggs of the Red Sox. Before EVERY game, Boggs had to have a helping of fried chicken. You have to wonder how the bat stayed in his greasy hands, or if anyone accused him of “fowl” play.
Field of superstitions: Players will do all kinds of weird things when they take the field, especially pitchers. When reliever Jose Valverde played, he trotted on the field with a mouthful of water and spit it out on the field, from both sides of his mouth. Also: He wouldn’t let his foot touch ANY sort of line on the field. Not just the foul line, but where the grass met dirt, and so on.
Some players never stand in the on-deck circle, where they’re supposed to be. One player claimed it was a different kind of dirt from the batter’s box and it would throw him off.
Pitching a fit: Pitchers can get very serious about their routines and superstitions. Some have to pick up the ball off the ground when they take the mound. If an umpire tosses them the ball, they’ll let it fall to the ground first, and then pick it up before warming up.
Randy Choate of the Cardinals takes that to the next level. He says, “When I come to the mound, I have to pick the ball off the grass, not the dirt. If it’s on the dirt, I have to kick it to the grass, and then pick it up. Then I throw seven warm-up pitches. Only seven. It’s always seven. It’s never eight; it’s never six. Seven. Always.”
But wait, because there’s more out of left field from this lefty: “When I come into a game,” he says, “if I enter from the bullpen down the left-field line, I have to run in between the third baseman and the shortstop. When I enter from the bullpen down the right-field line, I have to run between the first baseman and the second baseman.”
Some guys are just batty:
• Former Phillies slugger Richie Ashburn used to sleep with his bat.
• Willie Stargell would not use a Louisville Slugger model bat with his name. It had to be another player’s model bat. (Can you imagine Bonds using McGuire’s model bat?)
• Other players will kiss their bats, give their bats names, and use them to draw symbols in the batter’s box.
Anyone who saw the movie The Natural knows that Roy Hobbs got all of his power from a bat he had made himself with wood from a tree that had been struck by lightning. He named it “Wonder Boy” and put the image of a lightning bolt into the barrel with a wood-burning kit.
Are you superstitious?
This all sounds crazy, but it’s easy to understand how it happens. Imagine if you went to Las Vegas and had a fantastic day at the blackjack table. What are the chances that the next time you gambled you would go to the same casino and sit in the same chair at the same table?
Chances are, if you coach a team at any level, you have a few routines or even superstitions. One college manager supposedly would flush the toilet in the clubhouse after his team had a bad inning, just to help the team focus on putting it all behind them…so to speak.
If you’re a Little League coach, you probably have players who are starting their own superstitions.
In his Little League days, MLB pitcher Jason Grilli glued a Ken Griffey Jr. baseball card to a Nolan Ryan card and would pitch with it in his shoe. On the days Grilli pitched, Nolan Ryan was faceup in the shoe, and if he wasn’t pitching, the Griffey card would be faceup. “I guess,” Grilli says, “I thought I would somehow absorb their abilities; gain some of their super powers.”
That’s what baseball dreams and superstitions are all about.