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The Luck of the Ball

The case of the golden thong and other baseball superstitions

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Los Angeles Dodger infielder Nomar Garciaparra looks like any other baseball player up until the moment he reaches the batter's box. That's when he transforms from a ballplayer to a circus freak, thanks to a succession of taps, tics, twists, touches, and a variable assortment of gestures and adjustments in preparation for his turn at bat.

The description reads like instructions for some alternative aerobic workout: Adjust right wristband. Tap plate with bat. Touch bill of helmet, end of bat, touch helmet again. Balance bat on shoulder. Tighten batting gloves. Dig spikes into dirt. Then, right hand crosses over left, tug left-hand glove. Twist cleats and rotate bat counterclockwise in tight circles. Repeat four times from start to finish between each pitch.

And that's only half of it.

When Garciaparra takes the field on defense, he climbs the dugout steps in small, repeated hops until he completes his ascent. Then, he spins around the third-base coaching box, bounding to the foul line, finishing with a leap over the chalk toward his assigned position. Like clockwork, Garciaparra repeats this routine every inning throughout the game.

If B.F. Skinner could see this, he would have scrapped his research and dedicated his life's work to the Garciaparra Project.

Garciaparra, a five-time all-star, has been called superstitious, and rightfully so. But is he obsessive-compulsive? According to MUSC sports psychologist Geoffrey Cheek, probably not, at least if Garciaparra's ritualistic behavior is limited to the ball field.

"A baseball player who goes through a ritual when he hits, does he also go through that same ritual when he's playing softball with his family?" Cheek asks. "If it were a true compulsion, I'd expect he would."

The Golden Thong

To the average sports fan, this kind of on-the-field behavior is bizarre and fascinating, especially the extreme cases. Consider Charleston RiverDogs pitching instructor Jeff Ware and his unique game-day dining habits.

"I had to get to an Olive Garden on the day that I pitched," says Ware, a former player in the Toronto Blue Jays system. "I always ordered the chicken Parmesan. It was especially tough on the road. If there wasn't an Olive Garden within walking distance, I was taking a cab."

As for those times when Ware could not find an Olive Garden, well, he was SOL. "Then you just hope everything goes right when you pitch, but when it doesn't, you can blame it on the fact that you couldn't find an Olive Garden," Ware says and laughs.

Then there's the story of New York Yankee Jason Giambi and his gold lamé, tiger-stripe thong. In a story first reported by Portfolio.com last May, Giambi confessed he wears the thong when he's in a hitting slump. "I only put it on when I'm desperate to get out of a big slump," Giambi said. It was later reported that Giambi, who first bought the thong in 1996 when he was with the Oakland Athletics, has shared it with current teammates Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, and Robinson Cano.

"All of them wore it and got hits," he said. "The thong works every time."

Jeter agreed that Giambi's thong works. "I was 0-for-32, and I hit a homer on the first pitch," he said. "That's the only time I've ever worn it."

So does Giambi's golden thong have some sort of magical powers? Of course not. But for the ballplayer who slips on that pair of tiger-striped panties, something otherworldly seems to happen. See, Giambi's golden butt floss is a fetish, an object believed to possess "supernatural" powers that can aid or protect the owner. Not surprisingly, this kind of good luck charm is a standard piece of equipment for some ballplayers. Some choose a pair of socks. Others an unwashed jock strap. And a few — OK, make that one player —a necklace made from animal bones (see sidebar).

According to George Gmelch, cultural anthropologist and author of the article "Baseball Magic," superstitious behaviors among ballplayers fall into two major categories — rituals and taboos. Garciaparra's famed batting gyrations, that's a ritual. When he jumps over the base line to take his position in the infield, that is a taboo.

In "Baseball Magic," Gmelch writes, "Breaking a taboo, players believe, leads to undesirable consequences or bad luck." He adds, "Taboos usually grow out of ... poor performances, which players, in search of a reason, attribute to a particular behavior."

The article uses the studies of Pacific Island fishermen by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski as its basis. Malinowski found that the fishermen had rituals they performed to provide magic when they went out in dangerous, shark-infested waters, but none when they ventured into safe, calm lagoons. Gmelch applies this finding to baseball, pointing out that most superstitions involve the more stressful parts of the game — hitting and pitching.

Using Gmelch's psychological theory, we would have to assume former Charleston RiverDogs relief pitcher Jesse Hoover has a foot fetish, or, more correctly, a footwear fetish.

Whenever the reliever begins to slip into a pitching funk, he throws away his cleats and picks up a new pair in the hope that his luck will change.

the Riverdogs Jeff Ware used to eat at Olive Garden before each game in which he was scheduled to pitch - BEN WILLIAMS
  • Ben Williams
  • the Riverdogs Jeff Ware used to eat at Olive Garden before each game in which he was scheduled to pitch

"Obviously, it's all mental, but the mind is a powerful thing. If you believe something is going to help you, whatever," Hoover says. "I have three pair [of cleats] here. I'm on my second pair, so I've got to make them last through the year."

We have a feeling Hoover will be wearing that second set of cleats for some time. He was just moved to the New York Yankees' minor league team in Tampa Bay.

The Great Failures

The greatest hitter in the history of the game is Ty Cobb. His lifetime average is .366. Statistically, he failed more often than he succeeded.

The greatest home run hitter of all time is Barry Bonds. He hit 762 career home runs. He struck out 1,539 times; that's more than two strikeouts for each home run hit.

Cobb and Bonds are considered "great" players, but they also failed — and quite often. Failure rules the game of baseball. In general, hitters fail somewhere between 70 to 75 percent of the time.

What does that have to do with superstitions? A lot.

MUSC's Cheek brings up a point made by the late communications theorist Paul Watzlawick of Stanford University in his book, How Real Is Real? "When your level of success at something is very high, you make very simple theories about what works," Cheek notes. "But when your level of success at something falls below 40 or 50 percent (which it does in most sports), it creates much more complex cognitive theories about what you have to do to be successful."

Some sports psychologists suggest superstitious behavior blossoms only after failure takes root in the mind. In The Mental Game of Baseball, psychologists H.A. Dorfman and Karl Kuehl explain it this way: "When that [success] happens, we ignore facts or logic, and our thoughts and actions can be strongly influenced by superstition. We believe in the feelings ... We believe in the power of belief."

Skinner talked about the "reinforcement effect." According to the psychologist, when an individual performs an action expecting a specific result, it creates a sense of persistence in the mind of the individual. This parallels superstitious behavior because the individual feels that by continuing this action reinforcement will happen. At the very least, the individual believes that reinforcement has come at certain times in the past as a result of this action, and that this time may be one of them.

Hoover, the Yankees' fifth-round pick in 2004, suggests that when a player changes his shoes or kisses his bat, that behavior builds confidence. "There are little things that can help boost your confidence and give you a mental edge," he says. "I did it (changing shoes) earlier this year, and it helped me out.

He adds, "You don't want to admit that you give into something that small."

According to Cheek, this typical behavior is "a type of coping mechanism that works to create a successful behavior. It's a behavioral routine that gets one into a state to be able to perform with excellence."

Or as Ron Smith, sports psychologist and former team counselor for the Seattle Mariners, told The Seattle Times, "The problem is, we fear negative consequences a lot more than we value positive ones. What happens to an athlete is that if he wore a particular sock or pair of shirts, or did some ritual, and had success, he'll continue to do that. That act reduces the anxiety associated with not doing it. It's the exact same mechanism, clinically, we find in obsessive-compulsive people."

Stupidstitions

Athletes will often deny being superstitious. They prefer to talk about their routines or rituals. Former major league pitcher John Wetteland even invented his own word to describe the sometimes bizarre behavior of ballplayers: stupidstitions.

"It's kind of pejorative," writes Gmelch, who interviewed dozens of professional ballplayers for "Baseball Magic." "But if you ask them what they do to give themselves confidence, they'll tell about their rituals and beliefs. All that is superstition. If they realized it really is functional, they wouldn't be so reluctant to admit it."

According to the RiverDogs' Ware, it's all about establishing a routine. "A lot of times you want to create routines for yourself," Ware says. "They're superstitions, but they are also part of your routine, being mentally prepared and trying to do things over and over the right way. We talk to guys here about getting in a routine, getting to the park at a certain time, eating similar foods the night before and the day of your scheduled start when you're going good. That's all part of routine, and you want to have a good state of mind."

So, why do it?

"I don't know why," Ware confesses. "It's something I've always done. There's really no rhyme or reason. What it all comes down to is being prepared, mentally and physically. Making sure you're doing your running, lifting, conditioning, all that stuff. It's not about finding an Olive Garden."

Retired College of Charleston psychology professor Charles Kaiser knows why. A player "doesn't feel comfortable unless he does it," he says. "Most athletes can't explain why they do it. It's something their brain is making them do. They learned it before. It's an unconscious behavior. It has nothing to do with baseball."

Garciaparra was asked point blank what he thought would happen if he stopped his intricate routine. He replied, "Why wouldn't I do it?"

MUSC sports psychologist Geoffrey Cheek has worked with a lot of golfers, including many at the Citadel. According to Cheek, experience can also play a role determining whether or not an athlete becomes a slave to superstition.

Sports psychologist Geoffrey Cheek says that superstitions can cause players to give up control - BEN WILLIAMS
  • Ben Williams
  • Sports psychologist Geoffrey Cheek says that superstitions can cause players to give up control

While caddying for a group of golfers that included two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer, Cheek says, "The amateur that I was caddying for had about a three-foot putt. He just kind of said, 'Oh, this is nothing.' And Bernhard Langer said, 'I could tell you about some.'"

He adds, "You tend to see the older, more experienced players talk about putting as being much more difficult."

Why? Older golfers have missed a lot more putts than younger golfers, and as a result, they more consciously feel the pressure each time they try to sink the ball.

According to Cheek, athletes who believe that fetishes or rituals should be credited for successful performances instead of, say, their own skills, potentially face creating deeper problems for themselves. "That is essentially the illogic of the procedure," Cheek explains. "It gives up control."

He adds, "The efficacy is put in the ritual as opposed to the person, and that detracts from that person's real learning about what they need to do. There's this thing that gets built up as if it will make something happen when there's a much different set of processes that have to do with the performance."

Former RiverDogs pitcher Jesse Hoover admits that relying on routines can both help and hurt an athlete's performance. "Sometimes a guy is making good pitches, and he's just not getting results," Hoover says. "Then you want to start changing something mechanically when it's not necessary, and it makes it worse."

Working out the Kinks

Superstition is not an elixir for a batting slump. Superstition has never won a batting title, pitched a no-hitter, or crushed a walk-off home run. Superstition has never been on the Hall of Fame ballot, nor does it own a World Series ring. Although some athletes may feel differently, superstition is not part of the mathematical equation measuring success. Superstition is incalculable.

Still, if channeled properly, superstition can help an athlete succeed — both on and off the baseball diamond. In The Mental Game of Baseball, Dorfman and Kuehl write that consistent and repeated thoughts and behaviors are the elements of effective mental preparation. They lead to confidence. In the ballplayer's mind, if a routine relaxes or improves their concentration, which leads to an extra hit a week, or 25 extra hits a season, that's the difference between a .275 and .300 batting average. And in the case of Giambi, the awkwardness of wearing a thong has kept him from thinking about his troubles at bat. It takes his mind off hitting.

Oddly enough, superstitious behavior may be the mental edge some athletes need to cope with high-pressure situations, to overcome an intense fear of failure, or to instill confidence. "The obsessive-compulsive personality would be the type of individual who would more likely be adopting these behaviors," says retired psychology professor Charles Kaiser. "They're perfectionists. That's, in a way, why they're successful."


Very Superstitious

Baseball's stupidstition kings

Former Boston Red Sox player Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game during his career. It has also been reported that his hitting improved when longtime mistress Margo Adams attended games sans panties.

Former MLB pitcher Turk Wendell is known for his kooky rituals, like refusing to catch a ball from an umpire, leaping over the baselines, and brushing his teeth in between innings. And perhaps the creepiest ritual in baseball: he wore a necklace made from the teeth and claws of animals he had killed.

One-game-wonder Ron Wright (he played one game for the Mariners in 2002) suffered an injury while in the minor leagues, and his arm was shaved so it could be taped. He hit three homers over the next few games, and he never stopped shaving his arms. Today, he's a pharmacy student in Idaho with a wife and four kids. He still reportedly shaves his forearms.

It has been said that the 1894 Baltimore Orioles sat down together one hour before batting practice and chugged glasses of turkey gravy. That'll put you in the mood for a quick run around the bases.

Former Colorado Rockies outfielder Larry Walker is apparently obsessed with the number three. Before retiring in 2005, he wore the number three, took three practice swings before stepping into the box, and, in the locker room, showered at the third nozzle. He also set his alarm for three minutes past the hour and got married Nov. 3, at 3:33 p.m. According to the book, Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions from Around the Major Leagues, he paid a $3 million divorce settlement to his ex-wife.

Mark Fidrych played for the Detroit Tigers for just a season, but he's still remembered for his eccentric antics. The pitcher was known for talking to balls. He also refused to reuse a ball that had been hit. He'd go on to suggest that the ball should be put back in the ball bag, so it could rub off on the other balls and maybe come back out as a pop fly.

Roger Clemens used to pat Babe Ruth's plaque in Monument Park before he pitched at Yankee stadium.

Nationals' outfielder Wily Mo Peña likes to love on his bat. He sniffs it from the handle to the barrel, and when he gets toward the end, he gives it a good bite and a kiss. How could you not give a hit when you get that kind of love?

Fresno Grizzlies manager Dan Rohn's signature move was to always touch anyone who touched him. Players took great pleasure in touching him and then running away and hiding. But Rohn couldn't be beat. If someone eluded his touch, he'd send them a letter saying "This constitutes a touch."

Everyone loves taking a break during the seventh inning stretch and singing a sloppy version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," but did you know the tradition started because the number seven is considered lucky? Well now you do. —Erica Jackson

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