Baseball’s quirky superstitions

There was an unwritten rule on my high school baseball team: When we were batting with two balls, two strikes and two outs, everyone in the dugout had to put their hat on and rub the bill with two fingers until the opposing pitcher started his delivery.

Then, once he had, you had to take off your cap and “roll the dice” — taking your hat off and flipping it over, wiggling it back and forth.

This, of course, guaranteed that the ensuing pitch would not result in the third out of the inning.

Every sport comes with a certain degree of superstition, but baseball takes it to an entirely different level. Pitchers know not to walk on the foul line in between innings, and if he’s throwing a no-hitter no one’s allowed to talk about it — to him or anyone else.

Batters know to take the same amount of time in between pitches to do the same readjustment of their helmet, batting gloves and cleats. Everyone knows that if you’re on a winning streak you don’t change anything — and I mean anything — in your routine, both on and off the field:

There are a number of psychological reasons why baseball players are particularly prone to nervous tics and superstitious behavior. As I watched my San Francisco Giants win the longest game in playoff history against the Washington Nationals on Saturday night, I was reminded of a few of them, and why they make the game so much fun to be a part of:

Baseball is a game of failure and millimeters

It’s the first two things you tell your kid on the first day of Little League. The average batter gets a hit 25 percent of the time, while the best batters get a hit 30 percent of the time. A pop fly hit two millimeters lower on the bat is a home run.

If you’re going to play baseball, you’re going to have to be ready to fail and fail often. A lot of the time, that failure is going to boil down to plain old bad luck:

The combination of frequent failure and semi-randomized success turns the baseball field into a giant Skinner box.

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In one of the more famous conditioning experiments, B.F. Skinner put pigeons in a cage that would produce food at regular time intervals, regardless of the pigeons’ behavior. The pigeons, however, noticed that after executing some chance behavior the food arrived. Thinking that their behavior elicited the food, a number of the pigeons then started repeating those same behaviors in the hopes of getting more food. In essence, the birds “learned” that certain movements produced food, even though it simply wasn’t true. In essence, the birds became superstitious.

The exact same phenomenon occurs on the ball field, where there is a massive time interval between successes. Batters get hits at a relatively fixed rate, but there’s enough time in between those hits to ascribe irrelevant behaviors to them.

For example, here’s Nomar Garciaparra, who was one of the game’s best hitters when I was growing up. He was famous for three things: tracking down ground balls in the hole, flirting with a .400 batting average and ritualistically adjusting his batting gloves between every pitch:

And Nomar didn’t have anything on Mike Hargrove, whose batting ritual was so drawn-out that it earned him the nickname “The Human Rain Delay:”

Players take these rituals extremely seriously. They’ve found a pattern of behavior that correlates with success, and they refuse to believe that the pattern isn’t causal.

In fact, the rituals become so intertwined with the players’ in-game behavior that what starts as an irrational tic becomes a routine that can, in fact, boost performance — consistency is relaxing, and aids muscle memory.

Baseball’s failure is privatized; it’s success is socialized

Superstition is a psychological response to the uncontrollable, and baseball players have almost no control over the little success they do have.

Some of the best line drives I ever hit went straight to fielders. Some of the best curveballs I ever threw weren’t called strikes. I could induce the ground ball I needed in order to turn a double play, but I still needed my infield to convert it. All this is to say that in baseball, your individual success is less-directly related to your skill than it is in other sports. You have to be good and then you have to be lucky.

Baseball, via Shutterstock.

Baseball, via Shutterstock.

And unlike other team sports like football or basketball, where every play involves most if not all of the players on the field or court, baseball is a collection of individual performances, each of which have an assigned probability of success or failure based on the skill level of the individuals in question, that aggregate into a team effort. In a typical football game, the quarterback will have around 30 passes and the running back will have around 20 carries; in a typical basketball game, your best players will be on the court for roughly 60 offensive possessions. In baseball, your best hitter bats four of five times per game at most, and your best pitcher is on the mound once every five games.

For a baseball player, this turns the sport into a game of chance that exists largely outside of their own control, and the small part that they do have any degree of control over is subject to the most minute Newtonian fluctuations. It’s no surprise, then, that they are more likely than other athletes to irrationally assign causality to factors seemingly unrelated to the mechanics of the game itself.

So within the confines of the game, it isn’t at all strange to wear a golden thong to break a slump, or to shave your forearms to boost your batting average, or insist that the centerfielder wave to you before the start of each inning.

That last one was just one of Turk Wendell’s many superstitions. In addition to being extra-friendly with his teammates, he also brushed his teeth between innings and made sure that umpires rolled the ball to him instead of throwing it, among other compulsions.

In baseball, quirky superstitions aren’t just irrational, they’re part of the game. They help players cope with the sport’s inevitable uncertainties, and they also make it more fun for the fans to watch — and participate.

So put on your rally caps, roll the dice, tap your cleats and never ever wash your socks on a winning streak. It’s October. It’s the playoffs. Play ball.

 


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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