I don’t know when the ritual began, but each time I step into the batter’s box during a baseball or softball game, I have to smooth the dirt with my spikes. Occasionally, a teammate, opponent or umpire will razz me about it; ask if I’m trying out for groundskeeper and would like a rake.
Hey, what can I say? It’s my little superstition; my way to relax and focus before the first pitch is delivered. And it could be a lot worse. I could make like Mike Hargrove, the former Cleveland Indians first baseman whose constant fidgeting with his batting gloves, helmet, cup, etc. resulted in him being called “The Human Rain Delay.”
Some guys have been known to kiss their bats before swinging them. Richie Ashburn, the late Philadelphia Phillies Hall-of-Fame centerfielder, took it a step farther by sleeping with his bat. Now, if you ask me, that is really strange, though I guess having a Louisville Slugger at the ready does keep you prepared for unwanted intruders.
Sports have always been a place where superstitions and obsessive compulsive behavior reign. Often, the eccentricities involve articles of clothing. Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of them all, continued to be true to his school after leaving the University of North Carolina. While leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships, His Airness donned powder blue shorts from his Tar Heel days beneath his Bulls shorts. To cover his North Carolina skivvies, Jordan began wearing longer Bulls shorts, igniting a basketball fashion trend that continues to this day.
Tennis superstar Serena Williams has dabbled in fashion, too, with her own line of clothing. Her superstition centers on her socks. She will wear the same sweaty socks throughout a tournament, refusing to change them as long as she’s winning. This desire not to tempt the fashion fates is a widespread among athletes. There are numerous stories of players wearing the same dirty socks, caps, jerseys and undergarments while on a hot streak—athlete’s foot and jock itch be damned.
Williams has other rituals she follows, including bouncing the ball five times before her first serve, but only twice before her second one. Many basketball players have a similar routine when they toe the foul line to shoot free throws. Karl Malone, aka “The Mailman,” prayed to the foul-shooting gods before delivering his shots. His prayers were answered 74.2 percent of the time.
Late Detroit Tigers pitcher/baseball cult hero Mark “The Bird” Fidrych liked to pat down the dirt on the mound and talk to the baseball. Patrick Roy, hockey’s greatest goalie, wouldn’t consider such behavior strange. After all, he routinely had conversations with the goal posts. Why? “Because they’re my friends,’’ he said. Wayne Gretzky wouldn’t talk to his sticks, but hockey’s most prolific scorer did treat them with tender, loving care, applying baby powder to the blades before hitting the ice.
Food also can be part of the routine. Wade Boggs, a five-time American League batting champion, ate chicken before every game. Fortunately, he allowed for different varieties. Former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher had to have two chocolate chip cookies before kickoff. Not one, not three, but two. And we’ve all heard the stories about Babe Ruth prodigiously inhaling pre-game hot dogs like a Roaring Twenties version of Joey Chestnut at Coney Island on the Fourth of July.
Jim Kelly’s pre-game ritual involved food, too. The loss of it. Before each game, the Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame quarterback would make a beeline for the bathroom where he would throw-up. Former Bills special teams great and current CBS network football analyst Steve Tasker remembers being shocked when he learned about Kelly’s game-day habit after joining the team midway through the 1986 season.
“I hear this guy throwing up violently in the bathroom,’’ Tasker recalled in a book we collaborated on 10 years ago. “I turned to one of my teammates and said, “Who is that losing lunch?” and he said, “Oh, that’s Jim Kelly.” I said, “Geez, he must be really sick. Is he going to be able to play?” And the guy told me, “Oh, yeah, he’ll play. That’s just Jim’s pre-game ritual. If he doesn’t hug the porcelain bowl before a game, he doesn’t feel like he’s ready.” I thought to myself, ‘Man, that’s really sick,’ no pun intended.”
At least Kelly didn’t eat grass the way former LSU football coach Les Miles was known to do. Before each kickoff, he’d grab a few blades and chew on them. I just wonder what he did when LSU played on artificial turf. He’d been better off mimicking UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, who dipped a small towel in water and chewed on it during games. Or rolling up a program and clutching it the entire game like legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.
Few jocks have had more superstitions than former New York Mets reliever Turk Wendell. Like many ball players, he avoided stepping on the baselines to and from the mound, but unlike any other player, he chewed black licorice while pitching and brushed his teeth in the dugout between innings.
Playoff beards became the rage in hockey during the New York Islanders’ run to four consecutive Stanley Cup championships in the early 1980s, and have to spread to other sports. Some athletes also refuse to cut the hair on top of their heads in the post-season, causing some of them to bear a striking resemblance to Charles Manson.
Numbers are a big part of sports superstitions. Athletes usually avoid the No. 13 like the plague, though Wilt Chamberlain, Dan Marino and Alex Rodriguez were able to put up impressive numbers while wearing that cursed number.
Golfers, both pros and hackers, have been known to put lucky charms in their bags. These include everything from four-leaf clovers discovered on courses to coins from the 1960s, a reminder that a score in the ’60s will earn you many more coins.
Admittedly, this all seems silly. But there have been studies showing that superstitions might not be as crazy as we think. If a ritual or a good-luck charm causes you to relax and focus, it actually could be a positive thing: a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Whether it works or not, I’m going to keep smoothing that dirt in the batter’s box and hope that my groundskeeping results in many basehits.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.