Sports | Sports Columns

CARUSO: Superstitions help athletes regain control

Back when I still played baseball, a number of things stood out to me as a little odd. Before games, my team would always take ground balls in the foul territory of the infield—standard procedure, to be sure—but there would always be that kid who would chastise anyone who stepped on the newly-chalked foul lines. Naïve as I may have been, I always assumed that this was an issue of politeness and nothing more—if some kid’s dad had made the effort to draw two (sometimes not-so-straight) foul lines, I thought, I owed it to him not to mess them up before the game even started. I later learned, however, that this foul-line avoidance is a very common superstition among baseball players, even among our Columbia baseball players.

Superstitions and rituals are nothing new among baseball players. In my youth, it was Nomar Garciaparra’s constant batting-glove adjustments, bat taps, and helmet and armband touches. Before that, it was Wade Boggs’ eating chicken, taking batting practice at exactly 5:17, and doing wind sprints at exactly 7:17 before every game. And since Garciaparra and Boggs were both predominantly Red Sox, here’s one for you Yankees fans: Back when Jason Giambi was still on the team, he wore a gold lamé thong when he wanted to get out of a hitting slump, which he apparently also shared with his teammates.

But sometimes it’s hard to separate superstition from routine. Garciaparra, now retired, claimed that there was nothing superstitious about his batting ritual and that it was simply a routine. “It’s more pregame rituals,” junior pitcher Tim Giel agrees. “I always like having the same flavor of Gatorade.” And clearly, some rituals, like Giel’s Gatorade, make much more sense than others, like Boggs’ temporal exactitude.

Even fans partake in these superstitious acts. Take, for instance, the rally cap. Needless to say, fans aren’t on the field and can’t effect a victory in any definitive way other than rallying the players and being noisy. But somewhere along the way—many sources point to fans of the 1985 New York Mets—some spectators who were desperate for a sense of control decided that turning their hats inside out would propel their team to victory.

Fans also create other supernatural reasons for why their teams never seem to be good enough. Perhaps best known is the now-defunct Curse of the Bambino for the Red Sox, or the even stupider Curse of the Billy Goat for the whiny Chicago Cubs fans. Thankfully, according to Giel, the Lions, at least as far as they know, don’t have any type of curse on them (though some may disagree).

Superstition is, by its very nature, irrational—there’s nothing more logical about fearing a monster under the bed than there is about thinking that one’s choice of underwear will produce home runs. And in baseball, sometimes it gets taken to such an extreme that even sports headlines from the Onion, like “Naked Kevin Youkilis Trying To Convince Teammates He’s Attempting Break Out Of A Slump,” start to seem plausible.

Superstition and rituals are not unique to baseball. “I remember earlier this year watching the Steelers-49ers game when the lights went out over in San Francisco, and they were talking about how all the pregame routines were going to be messed up,” Giel noted, also suggesting that baseball players aren’t any more superstitious than anyone else, but that the pace and the amount of down time during the game give people more time to reflect on these things.

So why would someone use such obviously specious reasoning to justify irrational actions? It all comes down to wanting a sense of control. The slow pace builds anticipation, and bench players and fans want to feel like they have some say in the end result of the game. Even the players in the game have to do this to a large degree—most players aren’t directly involved in any given event.

Additionally, each player has clear responsibilities, since success in baseball is so clearly defined—they either make the play or they don’t, reach base or are retired. And thanks to batting orders, anticipation builds even higher. Unlike, say, soccer or basketball, where opportunities are constantly formulated and broken down, baseball is one of few sports where players are always aware of their upcoming opportunities, at least on offense.

Maybe routines and superstitions are the only ways to regain an internal sense of control.

Tom Caruso is a Columbia College junior majoring in economics-mathematics.
sports@columbiaspectator.com

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