My baseball life experience is for the most part limited to fanhood. For that reason, I’m not totally familiar with some of the more refined aspects of the game. One of the eccentricities of baseball that has always intrigued me are these unwritten rules that each player seems to follow. Some of these rules are true for many players, but others are more specific to an individual. These routines vary in commonality from pedestrian habits to full on weird customs that require any sensible individual to question the sanity of the player as they do what needs to be done. These are the customs I want to learn about. My Wonder for the weird makes me want to dive head first into these bizarre tendencies and dissect them vigor in hopes of explaining them or (more likely) bring some of the stranger ones to the limelight and give them the attention they so fully deserve. Just remember that when you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition ain’t the way.
There are a few superstitions that seem to be held by everyone in baseball. These traditions have taken on a life of their own and exist as the unwritten rules of the game. Among these are avoiding the pitcher’s mound when stepping off the field, avoiding the pitcher if he is close to a no-hitter, and the continued use of a single bat if the player is on a hot streak. These are all commonly held beliefs and I can understand where each is coming from, so I have no qualms. However, there is one unwritten rule that I just can’t wrap my head around. Why can’t players step on foul lines? The best answer I have found on the foul line is that it’s bad luck. Some liken it to breaking a mirror, but I don’t see it. When did this superstition start? I mean for such a commonly held superstition, its origin is shrouded in mystery. The best answer for this riddle is that damaging the chalk line could have some influence later in the game on a fringe foul ball…come to think of it, that makes a lot of sense (thanks Tyler). Signed, sealed, delivered, I’m in on avoiding the chalk.
Writings on the Wall…err Dirt
Imagine you’re at a little league game. I’m talking pitching machine age group; little little league. If you look at the players out in the field, what do you think you’ll see? No summer’s high. No warm July. No harvest moon to light one tender August night. No autumn breeze. No falling leaves. Not even time for birds to fly to southern skies. No, you’re going to see some kids having a day in the field. The left fielder is sitting down and the right fielder is wearing his glove as a hat. The centerfielder is turned around and waving to his mom who is sitting in the opened hatchback of her Prius in the outfield so no one asks her to help with the scorebook or pass out snacks at the end of the game. The shortstop is picking his nose and the third baseman is drawing in the dirt. Any skipper worth his salt would bench all these kids, but unfortunately the best managers can’t get a decent wage at these ranks and avoid the game at the grassroots. Anyway, someone is going to yell at these kids, and I can almost guarantee that the first one they yell at will be the kid playing in the dirt. Well to the parent that feels obligated to chastise this kid: they will never stop.
Big league players draw in the dirt all the time. Just this season, we saw Yunel Escobar be ejected for drawing home plate in the dirt in order to illustrate what he felt was a check swing. That’s not really a superstitious thing, but it’s funny. Others have a name, shape, or number that they will write that has significance. For the last two seasons Elvis Andrus has written the name of his late father in the dirt to start each game. One common practice among hitters is tracing the batter’s box with their feet or drawing lines with their bat where they plan to dig into their stance. The oddest drawing has to belong to the king of superstition himself, Wade Boggs. The hall of famer would write the Hebrew word for life in the box before every at bat. Bear in mind that Boggs is not Jewish nor does he seem like the kind of guy that would be fluent in Hebrew. This is by far his quirkiest habit, but I’d be remiss to not mention some of his other superstitions. Boggs woke at the same time each day, took batting practice at 5:17, ran sprints at 7:17 and fielded 117 ground balls in pregame. Not to mention he ate fried chicken before every game in his big league career. If anyone else ate chicken like that, you would feel it all over, but Boggs would end up being one of the best third baseman of all time.
Very Superstitious, Nothing More to Say
I saved a nice little section here at the end for all the weirdos. These are the guys that are either so original or so specific with their mannerisms, that they borderline on the freakish. Boggs sets the standard, but there are others that rival him. Justin Verlander eats the same meal before every start. That’s not uncommon, but not many world class athletes eat like he does. Verlander eats three crunchy taco supremes, a cheesy gordita crunch, and a Mexican pizza from Taco Bell. A little fourth meal to help him grind through the tough days. Ryan Zimmerman uses the same shower in the locker room after every game. He does this practice so religiously that not only do teammates step aside and give him the shower he needs, if they don’t he waits on it. Todd Helton has been known to shave midgame. In one early season bout, he started the game with a full beard and due to some errors and bad at bats finished the game clean shaven. That wouldn’t have been bad, but he had a goatee in the fifth inning.
Sean Burnett always pitched with a poker chip in his back pocket. Jason Giambi had a gold thong that he’d wear to help break loose from a slump. Kevin Rhomberg had to touch any fielder after they had tagged him out ensuring that he would win the perpetual game of tag. Richie Ashburn would sleep with his bat in the hopes that both would make it to the ballpark well rested. Torii Hunter insists on having clean cleats and because if this, he will clean them several times throughout the game. Each of these traits seem insane to any onlooker, but for each player, these are par for the course.
Superstition IS the Way
Perhaps my favorite baseball superstition is the fact that many players are superstitious about their superstitions. An Inception of superstitions if you will. These guys don’t want to tell people about their quirks for the fear that they will stop working if anyone knows about them. How many weirdos are we the fans missing out on until their career ends and they can finally open up and let their freak flag fly? I hope that more quirks like those of Wade Boggs come to light because I think they make for a great story. I want to believe that, much like Stevie, we haven’t seen the best. Superstitions are a huge part of the game. They are lovely, they are beautiful, they are precious, and they are very old.