Rally Caps Ain’t The Way…Or Are They?

Today’s Situational Essay comes from Kenneth Morgan, a Mariner fan, and (at least compared to Ted and I) mathematical genius. His essay, in a lot of ways, gets at the essence of Pitchers and Poets. How do we reconcile what we believe to be true and what we know to be true? The superstition and the super-advanced statistical analysis?

“When you believe in things that you dont understand
Then you suffer
Superstition aint the way”
– Stevie Wonder

It wasn’t this particular verse per se, but rather the smooth transition between my invaluable Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits CD and the Mariners game. After listening to Dave Niehaus stumble through another half-inning, I started to fuse those last two things I had listened to. I began to realize that I am a much more superstitious fan while following a baseball game than any other sport. What makes baseball so special?

Caps turned inside out, fingers crossed, hands in the praying formation, and watching with one eye closed. Why do we resort to such archaic rituals? I’d argue that our behavior can be largely attributed to mirroring the very players we root for on the field. All hitters have some form of superstitious ritual they practice while hitting, with varying degrees of sanity. We recognize some of the usual suspects: Nomar’s toe tapping and constant re-adjustments of his uniform, Tony Batista preferring to be parallel to the catcher before the pitcher winds up, and Craig Counsell stretching his bat so high in the air you’d think he was trying to touch the moon. These routines are a main reason why we display these same superstitious traits; to help establish familiarity and in turn a level of internal comfort.

During a large percentage of pitches of a ball game, I’ve found following baseball to be a very passive and relaxing activity. This isn’t to say that I am indifferent to what is transpiring, but rather I find it very difficult to be fully invested in every one of the hundreds of pitches in each game. When more important situations arise I become much more invested, and occasionally will use one of my own superstitious techniques to try and help my boys out. I usually save my empirically sound “good luck” techniques for high leverage situations. There’s no need to waste them on less important at-bats right?

During my earliest years of following the Mariners I adopted a superstitious activity that I’ve caught myself practicing occasionally even up until this day. My toe-crossing spawned from what I’d imagine was a very tense situation at the end of a Mariners game in the early-mid 90’s. At the time of its conception it was as if I truly believed that my toe-crossing would somehow transmit some positive vibes to the M’s pitcher or hitter in his time of need.

My background is in Statistics and Math and over the past year I’ve tried to really immerse myself in the world of Sabermetrics. The more I have learned about topics like UZR, Dewan’s +/-, tRA, wOBA, WPA+, and BABIP fluctuations, the more my superstitious practices have dwindled. Now when I catch myself in the midst of one of my rituals, the condescending voice of “Applied Math/Statistics” always seems to chime in with some variation of, “Even after all we’ve learned, this is how you still behave?!” Well Math, I hate to break this to you, but you’ll never completely extinguish my superstitious flame.

To set the scene: Ichiro is up in the bottom of the 9th, down by five, two outs, with runners on 2nd and 3rd. It would be extremely easy for me to be cynical, detach myself from the moment, and cross my arms while informing those near me what the minute probability of the Mariners winning the game, under these circumstances. But I still enjoy staring the pitcher down and trying to persuade him to throw a hanging curve or a ball in dirt with my robust game-altering psychic powers. Does the great Ichiro even need my help here? Nah. I should probably save my heavy artillery for a crucial Jack Wilson at-bat in the ALCS.

–How superstitious are you while following your favorite team?
–Is baseball the sport where you find you’re the most superstitious?
–What are some of your favorite superstitious rituals?

6 Responses to “Rally Caps Ain’t The Way…Or Are They?”

  • I think this piece has way greater talking points beyond the realm of sports and superstition. Even though Mr. Morgan readily admits that, in the eyes of statistical analysis, his habits are pointless and silly, he still does something to try and tempt fate. Is it really because we are mirroring others or do we, perhaps subconsciously, hope there is a greater spirit out there that can affect outcomes? And why do we only tend to invoke it for selfish reasons?

  • I cross my toes for world peace every night!

  • When playing softball I still don’t step on the baseline as I exit the field. Even if there isn’t a proper baseline painted, I leap over where it belongs.

  • I’ve been having trouble trying to post this, apologies if it comes through more than once but there’s a new post so I want to get this up before the topic disappears.

    Well Math, I hate to break this to you, but you’ll never completely extinguish my superstitious flame. <- Very well put.

    Taking the discussion points out of order:

    Is baseball the sport where you find you’re the most superstitious? Yes. It's also the only one I regularly follow on a professional level. Make of that what you will.
    What are some of your favorite superstitious rituals? Not mentioning perfect games or no-hitters when they're in progress. Other than that, I don't have any favored ritual actions per se, but rather feel that consciously paying attention is helpful.
    How superstitious are you while following your favorite team? The no-hitter taboo applies for any team. As far as rooting goes, it's less "superstitious ritual" as much as "delusions of grandeur".

    Harry's questions: I employ a complex, multi-level doublethink when dealing with baseball. While I happen to be one of those people who do profess belief in a Greater Spirit that can affect the world as we know it, I'm generally leery about invoking it for selfish reasons/disdainful of those who would do so. The trickier belief to justify is that in a not-as-great force that converts psychological states to mundane actions in the real world. Try as I might, when it comes down to it, I can't deny that I believe in the latter, /too/.

    …that was unnecessarily philosophical, sorry, but if you're not sick of my ranting by now my opinions are essentially summed up by http://humbug.baseballtoaster.com/archives/1085362.html.

  • That link to humbug.baseballtoaster isn’t working for me. So hopefully what I’m about to write isn’t stepping on its toes.

    Complete isolation while a no-hitter in progress is a superstition(ritual?) I’ve never completely understood. During what inning do other teammates completely stop talking to the starting pitcher? What do the un-written rules say? The 5th, 6th, 7th? During that 5 or 6 pitcher combined no-hitter magic trick the Astros performed a few years ago against the Yanks did each of those pitchers still receive the “treatment” in the dugout?

    I’ve noticed that the starting pitcher usually isn’t talking to many people early in the game anyway, but does the poor guy need a 15 foot buffer on the bench later in game if his no-hitter is still intact? I would argue that he would perform better if he was still exposed to a normal dugout environment. God forbid if someone made a joke about his streak being snapped to loosen him up for the next inning!

  • Sorry about that! The link has little to do with no-hitters, so all toes are fine. (If you’re interested, try removing the period at the end.)

    The unhelpful answer is “whenever people realize something “special” might be going on”, probably around the sixth or so. You could make the case that increasingly up-to-the-minute coverage (new leads on the MLB home page, etc.) has gradually pushed this time earlier.

    As far as performance being helped by normal dugout environments, I would say that the isolation is probably more likely to make a pitcher “snap” a little. But it could also more likely to keep him sublime–normal dugouts produce normal results, abnormal dugouts produce abnormal results? You just don’t know which one it would be…

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