Yes, that title is a direct quote from Michael Scott, and it’s my lame segue into one of the most unique and interesting aspects of the sport of baseball: superstition. Today I’m going to delve into the history of superstition in the sport before I recommend two waiver-wire adds (one hitter, one pitcher) and review a craft beer for your enjoyment.
Very Superstitious (writings on the ball)
“Don’t swing at crap, Tino,” mom muttered at the TV. “You’re 0-4. You’re due, baby, you’re due.”
It was the late 90’s, and we were starting to realize we were in the Golden Years of Yankee baseball. That being said, I was learning that it was still necessary to let Tino Martinez know that he should not be swinging at such nonsense. I was still playing little league at the time (I’m dating myself, I know), and baseball had long since been my favorite sport, but superstition was new to me. Talking to the TV is hardly unique to baseball fans, but the role of ritual and superstition in the sport is like no other.
“Yeah, don’t swing at crap!” I repeated, wondering if I was old enough to get away with the c-word.
I must have been, because I don’t remember getting scolded. My mom was probably just happy to see her love of baseball (and the Yanks) was rubbing off on me.
First and foremost, baseball is a numbers game. It’s a long season, with 162 games, tens of thousands of at-bats, and even more possibilities. Statistically, we see an average of about 5 triple-plays per season, but god only knows when or where they’ll happen. There have also been 295 no-hitters thrown since 1901, an average of 2.5/year, but there’s no predicting what lazy afternoon will turn into history. We all know that “April numbers mean nothing” because slumping star sluggers will invariably return to form after a slow start and that overachieving mediocrities hitting .400 are bound to regress to their career averages. In a sport with such a maddening combination of predictability and volatility, we cling to any signs of stability we can find, which is where superstition comes in to play.
When we start to see patterns emerging, our brains make connections. Whether it’s the Mariner’s owner Hiroshi Yamouchi refusing to attend games in person or RA Dickey naming his bats after swords from “The Hobbit”, or even Joe DiMaggio famously touching 2nd base each time the inning ended, players, fans, and managers will stick with whatever is working to ensure the delicate balance of karma is kept positive. As Tommy Lasorda famously said, “no matter how good you are you lose a third of your games, and no matter how bad you are you win a third of your games, it’s the other third that makes a difference.”
For the record, whether on my couch or at the ballpark, I still tell players not to swing at crap. I like to think it helps.
The Big Picture: Curses, Traditions, No-no’s
The Curse of the Bambino. The Curse of the Billy Goat. The Curse of the Black Sox. The games three biggest curses (all now broken, but still) and proof positive of the prolific nature of baseball superstition.
The Curse of the Bambino is the ill-fated trade of Babe Ruth, considered by many to be the best player in history, from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees. This trade signified a shift in fortunes; the Yankees rode Ruth to a slew of World Series victories while the Red Sox suffered the third worst Championship drought in history at 86 years.
The Curse of the Black Sox began after the fixing of the 1919 World Series by several Chicago Black Sox players, who intentionally lost the Championship in order to bet on the game. They failed to make a World Series appearance for 40 years after the fixed game, and would not win a World Series until 2005 (an 87 year drought).
Perhaps most famous is the (very) recently broken Curse of the Billy Goat, afflicted upon the Chicago Cubs in 1945 by William Sianis when his goat (who did, in fact, have a ticket) was kicked out of Game 4 of the World Series because it smelled like….a goat. Which is to say it smelled terrible. Sianis cursed the Cubs upon being booted from Wrigley Field, stating that “them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” And win no more they did. Thus began the longest Championship drought in sports history, spanning 107 years from 1908 to 2016, when the Cubbies finally shook the goat off their back and beat the (almost as hapless) Cleveland Indians to win the 2016 World Series.
Is there any cosmic force working against teams to prevent them from winning? That’s for you to decide. But baseball players, managers, and fans certainly seem to think that there’s something to them, as evidenced by…..
Crosses on necks, those weird magnetic necklace things that some pitchers wear, Jason Giambi’s golden thong (safe to click!), the Rally Cap, mismatched socks, not washing your shirt. What players (and fans) wear has always been a part of how they perform, just not in the way that you think (no Nike, spending more on your overpriced shoes does not make someone run faster). Anything that becomes associated with a hot streak and success is worn and cherished, just as any articles of clothing tied to a slump are quickly disposed of.
The history can be hazy, but the earliest reference I’ve found was to Amby McConnell, a man apparently enamored with socks as he played for only the Red Sox and White Sox in his brief career in the early 1900’s. McConnell famously scoured the streets of the city for pins to wear when he was in a slump and looking to break out. I guess in the early 1900’s pins were things that people dropped in the street a lot? But superstition goes back a long ways, and it shows no signs of slowing down now that players’ gear and their routines are more customized than ever.
What goes in….
Besides what goes on the outside of their bodies, baseballers have also shown deep concern for what goes in, and I’m not talking about kale smoothies or fish oil. Perhaps the most famous example is “The Chicken Man” aka Wade Boggs, who ate a whole roast chicken before every game, and also purportedly drank 64 beers on a cross-country flight before going 3-5 the next day (Boggs himself confirms he drank a ton of beer, but won’t confirm the number). May he rest in peace!
Babe Ruth was also a man of prodigious appetites, and drank beer and ate hot dogs between innings of games. Tim Wakefield purportedly ate a whole pound of spaghetti before each start. Aaron Judge eats an entire suckling pig before each game (not really, but would you be surprised?). The 2011 Red Sox ate Popeyes and drank beer in the clubhouse during games, although that was more unprofessional laziness than superstition.
But if it works, it works, and no one is going to tell a confident player otherwise.
Ritual is defined as an action or series of actions performed in a precise sequence to obtain or influence a desired outcome, and it’s a very powerful thing in human psychology (just ask every organized religion ever). It’s not just spirituality that uses ritual, sports have their corner of the marker as well. Whether it’s Ichiro’s patented arm and bat movement when he steps in the box, or a player’s bat wiggle, or crossing themselves after a home run, or hitting exactly 150 balls in BP before games (Wade Boggs again!), players put a lot of stock into repetition for the sake of performance, and I ain’t talking about working out. The repeated action and the exact sequencing provides a feeling of security, consistency, and confidence that can have a very real effect on a player’s mentality, and in turn how they perform on the field.
My dad doesn’t like to go to Mets games with a certain one of his friends, as every time they go together, the Mets always lose (and yes, for those of you paying attention, my parents are Mets and Yankees fans, and yes, they did nearly divorce during the 2000 Subway Series). I don’t think he’s seen the Amazin’s win in person since the Bush administration. But when he and I went to a game earlier this season, the Mets won big over the Nats. Something to it? Maybe. But if it works, it works, and you shouldn’t mess with it. Speaking of which…..
Perhaps my favorite baseball superstition is that of the no-h*****. And no, that’s not a new swearword that’s too vulgar to type, it’s tradition, dammit!
You know the drill, and so does any ballplayer worth their salt (though a few announcers could do with a refresher). The ultra-rare no-hitter, in which a pitcher goes an entire game without allowing a hit to the opposing team, is so incredibly difficult that it’s a historical achievement whenever it happens. Once the game moves past the first few innings, say around the 4th inning, and a pitcher has yet to give up a hit, his teammates will begin to avoid him in the dugout. It’s very taboo to talk to him, sit near him, or do anything that might jeopardize the streak. And god help you if you directly mention the words “perfect game” or “no hitter.”
Again, could this be rooted in something real? I think so. Streaks, grooves, being “hot”; all of these are accepted occurrences in professional sports, and there is something tangible about being in a rhythm that provides confidence and stability to a player. This is never more important or apparent than during a no-hitter, and it’s considered the height of disrespect and jinx-ery to talk about a no-no in progress lest you break the pitcher’s concentration or make him start to overthink things as he contemplates making history. Often sports broadcasters, Tweeters, and website updates will intentionally avoid spelling out all or part of the word as I did above so as to not jinx the pitcher in question.
In conclusion, we can see that baseball has a long, proud, and weird history with curses, rituals, jinxes, and superstition. Whether it’s the infamous Rally Cap (see above) to summon good juju when you’re losing, a meal of chicken and 64 beers to prepare, drawing in the dirt before an at-bat for luck, or a Championship drought brought on by barn animals or gambling, the MLB is chock-full of wacky beliefs, and that’s part of what makes it so great. So flip your hat inside out, crack a lucky beer, and see if any new superstitious history is written tonight.
The Fantasy Slant
I promised two waiver-wire guys, and it’s unlucky to not deliver on a promise (see how I tied that in?). As always, my effort here is to identify players that other writers are ignoring. One batter and one pitcher coming up:
Hot Bat: Adam Frazier (PIT) – OF – available in 91% of leagues
Stat line: .368 AVG, .427 OBP, 11 R, 1 HR, 12 RBI, 1 SB
Frazier is quietly having an amazing couple weeks, and season (it’s because he’s a Pirate, sorry small market teams). Since returning from the DL, Frazier has added to his hot start to the season, hitting safely in 8 of his 10 games this month, including 6(!!) multi-hit games, 6 R, 7 RBI, and a steal in that frame.
Frazier is typically batting leadoff, and figures to get plenty of opportunity in Pittsburgh as Marte serves his PED suspension. If you need a hot bat, try Frazier.
Hot Arm: Zach Efflin (PHI) – SP/RP – available in 94% of leagues
Stat line: 4.25 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 18 K, 36 IP
Efflin is a true under-the-radar guy, but he’s quietly playing well. Yes, he got bombed in his last start, but that was his only flaw of the season, giving up less than 3 ER in every start before that despite going up against some damn good offenses like the Cubs, Mets, Seattle, Dodgers, and the Braves.
He’s posted Quality Starts in 4 of his last five games, and figures to bounce back at home this week against the Rockies. He’s not a big strikeout guy, but he’s a control freak that will keep the ball in the park, and help you with ERA, WHIP, and QS.
I’d also recommend building in a little superstition of your own when keeping up with fantasy baseball. As both a Yankee fan and a Pineda owner, I had the pleasure of watching him pitch last night on my phone while sitting on the couch with my girlfriend. With an 0-2 count, I muttered my usual encouragement of “let’s go Big Mike,” which she jokingly parroted. Pineda blew a fastball by for strike three. I glanced sideways at her, and when the next batter reached a two-strike count, I asked her to use the same goofy voice and say “let’s go Big Mike” again. What do you know, slider for a swing-and-miss strike three. I’m keeping that little gem in my back pocket for Big Mike’s next big start. Thanks babe!
In the spirit of superstition, today I’m recommending New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger IPA, a 7% ABV out of Fort Collins.
This West-Coast style IPA is a nice blend of bitter hops, citrus, and spices. It pours a nice amber gold with a thick, foamy head that leaves good lacing on the glass. I get notes of grapefruit, pine, grass and flowers, and a bit of a biscuity/malty flavor that adds some body to this mid-weight IPA.
Overall, it drinks smooth and clean, and is a nice West-Coast IPA. Throw one back while singing some Stevie Wonder and watching your favorite player do his pregame ritual!