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Very Superstitious: The Myths and Traditions of Baseball

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By Rod Short

By: Rod Short
Sports Editor
 sports@bedfordbulletin.com

    Sacred places, secret signs, rituals, jinxes, numerology and curses may sound like third-world voodoo, but it’s a part of everyday traditions in the world of baseball.
     Now played in many parts of the world, baseball is a true melting pot which encompasses many long-standing traditions that few people can really explain, but are still followed nonetheless.
    Following are some that represent just the tip of the iceberg -- all the way down to the high school level.

Sacred Places
    Baseball diamonds can vary in size and shape, but they all share sacred places that unwary players are best-advised to avoid.
    The pitcher’s mound, for instance, is the hurler’s domain. Players headed to or from the dugout, even if they’re on the same team, usually always avoid walking across the mound. For the opposing side, doing so is a sign of disrespect and retaliation can be expected.
    The foul line is another place that some players fear to tred. Stepping on the foul line supposedly causes bad luck, even in high school sports. It’s not uncommon to see some players hop over the line rather than chancing an inadvertent touch.

Respect the Rituals
    Re-arranging dirt on the pitcher’s mound or in the batter’s box, talking to your bat, having the entire team greet you at the plate after a homer, wearing rally caps in the last inning when you’re behind and tipping your hat during a curtain call are all commonly seen, but you dare not break the ritual. 
    It’s also common to see pitchers walk off the mound or batters call time to step out of the batter’s box to shake-off an errant throw or strike.
    When there are no runners on base, “throwing around the horn” after a strikeout where all the infielders all get a glove on the ball before it gets back to the pitcher is everyday fare as well. Some think it’s done to keep all the infielders engaged, others believe it’s for the pitcher’s benefit to give him time to reset.
    No one really knows why, other than it’s always been done, which is a good enough reason in itself.
    These rituals and others ay not have that much effect on the game, but why risk offending the baseball gods?

Secret Signs
    Baseball can sometimes seem like a laid-back game on the surface, but there’s actually a flurry of communications going on through the use of secret signs and gestures.
    Catchers most always communicate to their pitchers through hand signals deep between their thighs that only someone on the mound will (hopefully) see.
    They’re pretty basic when no one’s on base, but that changes when runners reach first. second or third. Signals can be sent about what pitch to send next, to warning the pitcher of a potential steal or to a mid-fielder to cover second.             Disguising them by changing the sequence during the game is important, which is why you may see the catcher call time to converse with their pitcher on the mound.
    You’ll also see secret signals being exchanged from sometimes the first and especially the third base coaches to the rest of the team as well.
     Third base coaches that touch their arm, ear, nose, chest, belt, cap and belly doesn’t necessarily mean there’s ants in their pants, they’re all signals to the team. What they do and the sequence may look nonsensical, but that’s to confuse the opposition. Putting their hands in their front, rear pockets or running their hands through their hand may be the actual signal.

Jinxes and Curses
    Players often laugh about these openly, but none want to push their luck.
    As far back as 1911 in a book called The Jinx: Stories of the Diamond, players were aware that luck could turn on them and curse them forever.
    The infamous Curse of the Billy Goat from 1945 was the contributing factor many gave as the reason that the long-suffering Chicago Cubs went 71 years without a World Series title.   
    The club reportedly brought in a priest to sprinkle holy water around the dugout and home plate to lift the spell to no avail.
    The Curse of the Bambino supposedly haunted the Boston Red Sox beginning in 1920 after Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees. A Red Sox pitcher once suggested publicly that they should exhume Ruth’s body, bring it back to Fenway and make a public apology to reverse the hex.
    Another curse loomed over the Angels for decades because their field was built over an American Indian burial ground. That spell was lifted by the Rally Monkey in 2004.
    Others, such as the Curse of the Black Sox, the Curse of Rocky Colavito, the Curse of Donnie Baseball and the Curse of Captain Eddie lived in the dark places of people’s minds for many years.

Other Traditions
    Whenever a pitcher is on their way to a no-hitter or a perfect game, it’s taboo to talk about it while the game is going on. Doing so at the ballpark may get you “hushed” or even result in a bath of beer.
    There are times when a player should never, ever bunt, flip a bat or attempt a steal. Doing so can be interpreted as showing disrespect to a pitcher -- and a pitcher’s revenge from being struck can be painful or worse.
    At Wrigley Field, an irate fan’s throwing an opponent’s home run ball back out onto the field gained traction in other ballparks.                                                                                                                                                                          Fortunately, baseball is flush with other, more light-hearted traditions as well.
    The ceremonial first pitch, seventh-inning stretch, the singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”  are examples of long-standing traditions that, if they didn’t happen, would leave people feeling short-changed.
    At the local level, the singing of “Sweet Caroline” at Fenway Park or “New York, New York” at Yankee Stadium provide feel-good vibes, while the absence of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” at Phillies games leaves some with an empty feeling.
    When people wonder if all this really makes a difference, the answer is simple: only if you believe it.
    Most say they really don’t, but they still live on.