Dec. 3, 2001
by Trent Packer
In 1918, the Boston Red Sox were on the top of the world, having clinched their fifth World Series title. The team’s ascendancy was due in part to the prowess of slugger Babe Ruth, who continued to play well even when the Sox failed to make the Series the following season. However, members of Red Sox management were often at odds with Ruth and, in 1920, they decided to sell Babe, or “Bambino” as he was often called, to the New York Yankees for $125,000 cash and a $300,000 mortgage on Fenway Park. Now, more than 80 years later, sportscasters still refer to that infamous business transaction and its aftermath, known as “The Curse of the Bambino.” For after Babe traveled South to New York, the Red Sox never won a World Series again and the Yankees have collected 26 championship titles, the most of any team in professional sports.
The Curse of the Bambino and tales of other sports jinxes have turned the ballpark, the stadium and the court into veritable hotbeds of superstition and quirky rituals. Today’s generation of Red Sox and Yankees are keeping those “traditions” alive. Star Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens makes sure to touch the monument to Babe Ruth in Monument Park just outside Yankee Stadium before his appearances on the mound. Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra wards off any lingering hexes by stepping on each dugout step with both feet and by tugging at his batting gloves and tapping his shoes during each at bat. The list of athletes with game-day rituals is seemingly endless, and it spans the world of sports. Even a self-assured superstar like Michael Jordan has admitted he always wore blue basketball shorts from his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, under his Chicago Bulls uniform.
“Many of these superstitious responses are hard to extinguish because you get a positive outcome some of the time,” explains John Bonvillian, Associate Professor of Psychology and Chair of Linguistics at the University of Virginia. “The psychological term for the intermittent occurrence of positive outcomes is partial reinforcement. For example, you wear a striped shirt on the day you play a particularly good tennis match. From then on, you wear the lucky shirt when you play tennis and you win more matches. While the wins are a coincidence, and a result of your athletic performance, they function like a partial reinforcement. So, of course, you keep washing that striped shirt. Golfer Tiger Woods is well-known for wearing a red shirt during a tournament’s final round to help give him a competitive edge,” Bonvillian says.
In football, there are a couple of widely-held superstitions: double numbers on a player’s uniform bring good luck, and bad luck for a pro player to change his number when he’s traded to another team. Individual players, however, craft their own set of rituals they believe help them to run faster, tackle harder and kick farther. Several Cavaliers share theirs:
Defensive lineman Monsanto Pope pulls up his sweatshirt after leaving practice one day to reveal a somewhat faded dark yellow practice jersey from his basketball team at Hopewell High School in Richmond. Pope kept several of these old practice jerseys and wears one to and from each practice and each game. His teammates tease him and say, “give it up”, but Pope has no intention of abandoning this custom. “I had a good high school career and I try to carry that over to college,” he says as way of explanation. He adds that it is important for him to stay connected with his friends and relatives in Richmond, and wearing the shirt helps him do that. “I like to remember where I started,” he says. “The people (in Richmond) give me a lot of support. They’re a big source of energy.”
Running back Antwoine Womack says a prayer en route to each game at the exact same spot, when the team bus, coming from the Omni Hotel where the pre-game meal is served, passes over the Main Street bridge. He believes the invocation location was set after he said a prayer there and then went on to play a good game against the University of Richmond. He compares player rituals to a coach’s decision to repeat a certain play or strategy. “If it works, you keep going with it,” he says, then reflects and adds, “If I mess up, maybe I’ll say my prayer somewhere else.”
Defensive back Shernard Newby seems to believe that the way to a good football game is through one’s stomach. As a red-shirt freshman in 1999, Newby intercepted a pass against North Carolina. In an effort to repeat his success, he recalled exactly what he had eaten that day and made the menu a standard. For breakfast, it’s four pieces of French toast, one piece of bacon, one piece of chicken, two glasses of orange juice and one glass of apple juice. For the pre-game meal, he dines on steak, one piece of chicken, one piece of bacon, two pieces of French toast, two Gatorades and one glass of water. “I’m not really that superstitious,” he claims. “By doing this, I’m getting focused for the game.” Apparently it’s working. Newby is tied for the ACC lead in interceptions this season with five.
Punter Mike Abrams goes through a number of rituals not only on game day, but during practice, as well. Before each gam, he listens to the same Metallica songs in the same order and at specific times. He listens to five songs before getting to the locker room, two while he’s putting on his pads and one song right before the game begins. He puts his left pads, sock and shoe on before the right. “I’m a right-footed punter,” he explains. “The less I have the right shoe on, the more comfortable the right leg will be before the game. I feel lost if I don’t do it that way.” He always does one leg swing before he gets the snap on each punt. At practice, he is careful to keep another routine intact. First, he stretches his calf muscles before he steps on the practice field grass. Then, place kicker David Greene throws him a fade pass down the middle of the field. If he doesn’t catch the ball at Tuesday’s practice, he won’t catch it, on purpose, for the rest of the week. Going out for the pass began earlier this season when he happened to ask Greene to throw him a pass at Tuesday’s practice before the Wisconsin game. It turned out Abrams gave a solid performance that Saturday, and so the pass stuck. “Kickers and punters work in a rhythm,” he says. “For me, if I break that stride, I think the type of game I have will change.” He knows that it really won’t, but that doesn’t stop him from completing his unique list of assignments. “It’s how I get my head into the game or the practice. It brings me back to the same state I need to be in every week.” Plus, he points out, “I enjoy this little ritual.”