Superstitions, Slump-Busters, and Story


Baseball players are a superstitious lot.  There are some superstitions that almost everyone follows, and there are some that are bizarrely unique.  For those of us who watched Tuesday’s game on TV, we witnessed Alcides Escobar wearing Yuniesky Betancourt’s shoes.  Escobar did have a hit in the game, keeping his average above .300, but the Royals still lost the game.

Some superstitions start at a young age.  Starting in little league, no one dares to step on the chalk foul line on the way on or off the field.  Maybe this is in line with “step-on-a-crack-break-your-mother’s-back” type of thinking.  However, there is always that one guy on the team who always steps on the chalk.  I have yet to observe who the Royals’ line-steppers are.  Maybe they need to work harder at converting others.

Another common superstition is not talking about a no-hitter for fear of jinxing it.  This subject was actually broached on the Royals’ Twitter time-line last week, about five minutes before Luke Hochevar surrendered his first hit of the game.  Rookie mistake.

Baseball players are people of routines and when they find a routine that works—whether it includes shirts, bats, and hats—they stick with it.  (Remember Roy Hobbs and his bat Wonderboy?)  Some players have lucky undershirts or a favorite place to sit on the bench.  Rumor has it Alex Gordon wore the same hat all season last year.  (Maybe he needs to find it for this season?)  These behaviors of routine are then transferred onto the diamond, as players us them to help focus and duplicate previous successful endeavors.

One of my personal favorite superstitions, the rally hat, started with the players and has passed on to us fans.  A rally hat is any hat worn inside-out, upside-down, with the bill pointed to heaven or to the guy behind you or in a multitude of other ways.  (A Royals rally hat is not to be confused with anything that the “royals” from the other side of the ocean wear on their heads.)  Come late innings, the losing team almost always breaks out some kind of rally cap to inspire on-the-field success.

Many players also have their own unique superstitions.

I have heard that when Reggie Jackson signed with the Angels after having multiple successful seasons with the Yankees, that he took his batting helmet with him, having  an Angels’ logo painted over the Yankees logo.

Satchel Paige reportedly had his pitching arm rubbed down with axle grease before every outing.  He believed it helped him to pitch nine innings every time.

Wade Boggs might take the cake as one of the most superstitious players of all time.  He ate chicken before every game and later published a cookbook of all of his chicken recipes.  He woke up at the same time every day (I wonder how that works in different time zones) and always took 150 ground balls during infield practice.  He drew a Hebrew word in the batter’s box meaning “life” before each at bat and would always smooth the dirt in front of him with his left foot while standing at third base.

With the Royals’ losing streak approaching epidemic proportions, many fans have tried to break the slump employing their own superstitions, and I am no exception.  For one game, I tried to comment on everything on Twitter.  The next game, I had a Twitter fast.  (Michael Engel was supposed to join me, but he broke in the seventh inning.  Weak.)  I have participated in L’il Frenchy’s “wear-a-different-Royals-shirt-everyday” and am starting to get strange looks.  I overheard one fan, who is an avid collector of Royals’ autographs, is spending time rearranging his autographed baseballs, trying to find the “right combination.”

What all of this comes down to is simple: we desperately want a win. 

I cannot help but look at the beginning of this season through the lens of Story.  According to best-selling author Donald Miller, a story is simply “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”  At the beginning of every story, we are introduced to the protagonist, the leading character.  The first chapters of a book or first scenes of a movie show us the goodness in the character, enabling us to become emotionally attached to this character’s success.  Following the introduction to the character, we catch a glimpse of what it is that the character desires as well as the obstacles that the character must overcome in order to succeed.  The greater the desired object of the character, the more resistance he will face, the more demanding the obstacles he will have to overcome.

Let’s revisit the first few chapters of this year’s Royals story.

In the off-season, Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar, and Alex Gordon all signed contract extensions.  The slogan of “Our Time” is adopted for the 2012 season.  Even in the middle of football season, people are talking Royals baseball.  The fan base is truly excited, believing that we’ll be surprised and rewarded on the field.

The obstacles start occurring even before the season officially starts.  Manny Pina and Salvador Perez both go down with knee injuries.  Joakim Soria is out for the season with his second Tommy John surgery.  Felipe Paulino has a strained forearm.  Blake Wood has an irritated ulnar nerve.

The season starts, and we quickly fall in love with our character.  The first time through the rotation, the Royals starting pitching is the best in the majors.  Lorenzo Cain impresses us in the field and at the plate.  The Royals’ win their first series against the Angels and come home from their first road trip at .500.  We see the potential.  We believe—Nosotros Creemos.

Round two of the obstacles:  Lorenzo Cain gets injured.  And, as of this writing, a 12-game losing streak.  No wins at home.  Zero statistical luck.  Double plays (and a triple play!) mean that there are runners on base and hard hit baseballs.  They just happen to be hit right at people.  Phenomenal reliever Greg Holland is placed on the disabled list with a stress reaction in his rib cage.  Moments ago, it was released that Cain experienced a “minor setback” in his rehab assignment, further delaying his return to the team.

Once the obstacles start coming, they will not stop until the want of the character is satisfied.  (Think “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars” or any good movie.)  This is the critical time for character development.  We learn how the character reacts when nothing goes according to plan, when the worst-case scenario becomes a reality.  In the middle of the pain of the struggle, the character is tested to see if he truly has what it takes to press on and continue to pursue his dream, even without any positive reinforcement.  Will he cave in to resistance or persevere through it?  This is the ultimate question.

If I were in charge of writing the story of this year’s Royals, it would go like this:

Slowly, the Royals will start winning, and slowly the players will return to the team healthy.  By the All-Star break, Cain, Paulino, Holland, and Giavotella will all be in KC and contributing to the team’s success.  The Royals will be in third place in their division, still under .500, but only by a few games.  After the All-Star break, the Royals catch fire, becoming the hottest team in all of baseball.  Perez will return to the lineup to guide the pitching staff into consistent and brilliant performances.  The team that walked through the valleys in April will be able to do no wrong.  And for the first time in decades, the Royals make it into the postseason.

The last time the Royals were in the postseason, I lived in Springfield.  In just a few weeks, I’ll be moving my family back toSpringfieldso my daughters can spend more time with their grandparents.  I’ll willingly join the ranks of the displaced Royals’ fans if this will help the Royals tell a better story this season.

For now, I’ve got my shirt on inside-out, the bill of my hat pointed to heaven, and my autographs arranged in the order of today’s lineup.  It can’t hurt.

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