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Sciences of Baseball: Mind Games: The superstitions of baseball are rooted in psychology, but range from the logical to the insane
Sciences of Baseball - Psychology

Sciences of Baseball: Mind Games: The superstitions of baseball are rooted in psychology, but range from the logical to the insane

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That languid pace of baseball can allow the brain to play games.

Doubt can creep in with a failure two of every three times at the plate. The brain gravitates toward a need to control the random world.

Sometimes the idea becomes, "If I eat this meal at this time then this will happen, if I tie my shoes in this order then this will happen, if I count to 13 at 1:30 13 times then this will happen."

How the brain works

More than half of Americans believe in some sort of superstition, according to WebMD.com.

Horoscopes, avoiding cracks in the sidewalk, and throwing salt over a shoulder are little things that everyday people do to not tempt fate.

Nearly all baseball players have idiosyncrasies. Chicken bones are tapped on bat barrels to ward off bad spirits, hours are spent on hair care, and avoiding the guy throwing the no-hitter are all little things that a player does. It isn’t wise to tempt the fates of the game.

Superstitions, scientifically, are the brain’s response for a need to feel in control of everything. Similar to how religions originated, superstitions are the electrical and chemical responses the brain uses when it can’t make things happen through the body according to Stuart Vyse, the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition.

A baseball player can hit a thousand curveballs in the cage, but the pitcher controls when he will see one in the batter’s box. A pitcher can induce a thousand ground balls with a runner on a first, but he isn’t the one spinning the double play behind him.

The response to that lack of control for a player is to have the same warm-up song. Every time. No exceptions. Because that will make them feel in control of the uncontrollable.

The Foul Line

It is the line that divides everything foul from everything fair.

One of the most traditional superstitions in the game - not touching the chalk foul lines on the base paths - is one that Auburn Doubledays starting pitcher Nick Lee follows and even pushes.

“During warm-ups, during stretch, during the game, every time. During the games I do pitch I jump over the (whole) baseline,” Lee said counting on his fingers. “I am avoiding the dirt. I am not touching the dirt.”

The superstition comes from the early days of the sport where the foul lines didn't fall flat and instead were little mounds. The lines worked as tiny bumpers for bunts up the lines and kept them fair. Lead-off batters implored teams to avoid the lines so they could get base hits. 

“I was younger and one of my coaches - who was really superstitious - said that it was a way to respect the game,” Lee said. “I have done it since that day. If I am throwing and the ball is over my head I will look for that line and step over it. It’s just kind of a weird thing.”

Weird things help.

Some Caribbean and South American teams have witchdoctors actually on the roster to bless bats...and play the outfield.

The Rally Cap

There isn’t a rally napkin (that the parent Nationals have) or rally monkey (from the Anaheim Angels) in Auburn this season.

The old fashioned rally cap is the way that the Doubledays go.

No one from the team would speak on the record about the mysterious reversal in cloth leading to reversals on the scoreboard.

However, there have been a couple of hats turned inside out seen at Falcon Park this season.

Through its first 18 games, Auburn trailed in seven of its 13 wins, six of those rallies came at home. Four times the Doubledays walked off with the win.

In the first 18, the Doubledays were 10-1 at home and 8-2 in one-run games.

The Auburn rally cap was working.

Aside from some witty banter about wearing golden thongs (an actual baseball superstition that slumping hitters sometimes wear to break slumps), most Auburn players didn’t want to talk about superstitions.

Superstitious about superstitions.

Routine is not superstition

David Fischer always wears a fleece or a sweatshirt on a day when he is starting.

“Even when it is in the 90s,” the former UConn starting pitcher said.

In his three relief appearances this season he gave up six runs in seven innings.

He struck out two and walked one over four no-hit innings in his first start of the season against Lowell on July 5 with a red Nationals fleece on all day long prior to taking the hill. Temperature at first pitch was in the mid 80s.

Scientifically, routines allow brain chemicals to get in cycles that allow players to concentrate and perform. If part of that routine is eating the same meal every day, putting batting gloves on in a specific manner, or keeping a stuffed animal in their locker; so be it.

The chemicals in the brain produce a feeling relief and let muscle memory and focus take over the task at hand.

Streaks and slumps

Imagine that opening crash of the “X-Files” theme.

Welcome to the thought process of a hitting streak or, even worse, a slump.

“Some guys have superstitions because it is a game you play everyday,” Auburn manager Gary Cathcart said. “It isn’t like football where you are playing only once a week. If you feel you did something well the night before, whatever it is, you might try and copy it the next day.”

All hitters, pitchers, and fielders go through streaks and slumps. It is a statistical impossibility to avoid them. If a coin is flipped 10,000 times inevitably there will be a run of 20 tails that could easily be followed by 20 heads.

Great hitters fail two-thirds of the time and mistakes that pitchers make land 400 feet from the plate.

Enduring the bad or enjoying good times are the key for ballplayers.

“All that “luck” and everything. I don’t really buy into it,” Cathcart said. “You make that all for yourself.”

Having a rabbit’s foot in your back pocket can’t hurt though.

Sports writer Ben Meyers can be reached at 282-2257 or at ben.meyers@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenMeyers.

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