Friday, November 16, 2012

Superstitions in the Minors: Prominent and Prolific

Phils hurler Tyler Cloyd relies on superstitions
Baseball players are known for being some of the quirkiest of all athletes and, as such, they typically seem to be the most superstitious.

Many people feel that superstitions and sports go hand in hand. The habits and things players believe can bring good luck or serve up bad luck are embedded deeply in the game of baseball.

Some of the best known player activities based on bringing a positive vibe include kooky actions like Turk Wendell's oral habits, which involved the former Cubs, Mets, Phillies and Rockies hurler chewing black licorice while he pitched and brushing his teeth between innings. Some players are big believers in physical routines, like the manner in which Mike Sweeney would enter the batter's box, touching his helmet and face multiple times, or how Nomar Garciaparra would unfasten and readjust his batting gloves between each pitch.

The superstitions that are widely known are those that belong to big leaguers, but there are surely guys in the developmental ranks that have rituals which are just as remarkable.

Most players will simply stick to recurrent methods. Pitcher Ethan Martin, acquired by the Phillies from the Dodgers in the Shane Victorino trade, keeps a focus on drinking the same amount of water or sports drink between innings.

Kelly Dugan, the Phils' top draft choice in 2009, focuses on his warm ups and pregame hitting program.

Matt Campbell, the Phillies' 24th round draft pick in 2011, listens to the same playlist of rock tunes to get himself in the right frame of mind and generally prefers to not be clean-shaven on a day he might pitch.

Other players, like Nationals prospect Cutter Dykstra, who describes himself as very superstitious, exhibit a rotating preference of good luck charms, insisting that his actions vary from week to week.  Dykstra often considers the food he consumes among the measures he takes to ensure agreeable production.

"If something works and I've eaten something, you better believe I'm eating it again the next day, if I had a good night. If I didn't, I would stay away from that for a while," Cutter, the son of former big league All-Star Lenny Dykstra, said during a stop in Lakewood, NJ this year. "The clubby here, Tommy, was actually my dad's clubby with the Mets and he asked me what I wanted before the game and I said, 'Tom, whatever's got knocks in it.' So, he's going to surprise me."

Some routines are more pensive. Reliever Ryan Duke, the Phillies' 25th round draft selection out of the University of Oklahoma in 2011, performs a habitual tribute to his late father, prior to every appearance. According to the 24-year-old righty, it is a means of including his dad and knowing that he's watching.

"I just draw a cross on the back of the mound and write a 1-7 on either side of it and my dad's initials underneath it, because he passed away two years ago, so it's a little reminder. And I've got his initials on my cleats, so it's kind of like a shout out thing to my dad," Duke said of the homage.

Along the same lines, highly ranked Red Sox pitching prospect Matt Barnes, a 1st round pick in 2011, makes the sign of the cross on his chest before he takes the mound each inning. The 22-year-old began making the symbol years ago, at a time when he grandfather was ill, and continues to do so each time out, asking his late grandfather to look over him while he's on the mound.

Blue Jays lefty reliever Aaron Loup, who began his 2012 campaign with Double-A New Hampshire, has also sustained a tribute to his grandfather dating back to childhood. The Tulane product, sticks by a motto as a means to keep his grandfather, who coached Loup as a youngster, close and to help his own mental gait.

"There was one thing my grandpa used to tell me all the time and, I guess, it stuck. It was 'LLTC', which stood for location, location, total concentration. I write that underneath the bill of my hat and it's basically what I just go by, when I'm out there on the mound," Loup stated.

Other rituals are less praise or belief based and are instead more quirky. Left-handed pitcher Ethan Stewart, the Phils' 47th round draft pick in 2010, may top the list of unorthodox habits, as the British Columbia native is unable to pitch a ball that he hasn't acquired in a particular manner.

"When I pick up a ball, on the mound, I've got to pick it up through my legs," Stewart declared during an interview this past season. "I switched balls when I pitched the other day and, when I got it (from the umpire), I had to drop it and pick it back up through my legs real quick."

Phillies rookie hurler Tyler Cloyd, who spent much of his 2012 season in the minors, gets a massage from his wife, a professional massage therapist, the night before each start.  In addition to that quality physical routine, Cloyd seems to have developed a physical dependency with one of his other habits and has a piece of good luck clothing.

"I don't know why, it's something I have to do...I always have to pitch with gum in my mouth," Cloyd stated.  "I can't pitch without gum in my mouth. It's weird. I get headaches (if I don't have gum). And I always like to wear the same under (garments) and everything like that. It's always cleaned between starts, of course. There's a couple superstitions in there that I just can't kick."

Infielder Ryan Goins, the Blue Jays' 4th round draft choice from 2009, is another player who's stuck on gum.

"I always chew three pieces of Trident Layers. I'm not gonna lie to you. I like the green apple and pineapple flavor. That's something that I do. I don't know why. I started it last year and it worked out. I kept hitting, so I wanted to keep doing it. The first couple games this year, I didn't chew it and I didn't hit well. So, finally, I got some gum and we're back on the train again," Goins said, admitting that he'll stick with the same gum, even after the flavor has worn out.

Some of the eccentric routines are considerably more common. Phillies minor league pitcher Julio Rodriguez, like so many other players, refuses to step on a foul line, as he enters or exits the field of play. The Puerto Rican born 22-year-old says he must always hop over the line with his left foot.

Toronto pitching prospect Justin Nicolino, a 2nd round draft choice in 2010, wears a rubber band on his right wrist and is compelled to shower and dress at the same time and same manner every start, dressing from left to right.

With plenty of players, such as Phillies rookie first baseman/outfielder Darin Ruf, who led all of minor league baseball with 38 home runs in 2012, not buying into luck or positivity brought by habits, a lot of individuals simply feel that what works one day may not help the next day.

Former big league catcher and current manager of Toronto's Double-A affiliate in New Hampshire, Sal Fasano, didn't have any habits or routines at all during his playing days. Fasano, a career backup behind the plate, opposed luck and relied on obvious indicators to prepare for a game.

"I really wasn't very superstitious," Fasano stated. "It's easier (to have those) when you play every day, and I didn't play every day. I knew if the sun was out, I was playing, so that's the only superstition I had."

Regarding those that do rely on routines to get by, fans will continually wonder if they really help. Not all of the methods that players utilize to have success will have positive results each and every time out there. What matters a considerable deal in baseball is a player's cerebral approach, so if a little superstition results in a sharpened or enhanced focus, it is beneficial and certainly does work.

Baseball has always been loaded with "head-case" types, so it's no surprise that the number of players that devote considerable amounts of effort to activities that might deliver good fortune seemingly outweigh those that don't do so.  Superstitions are easily a behind-the-scenes aspect of baseball that makes the game that much more interesting for players and fans alike.

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