Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Opening Day and Superstitions of the Faithful

The snow has melted and the warmth of the sun, the smell of barbecue, and the blooming flowers of spring have replaced winter’s harsh edges. Historically, the winds of March and the cold, wet rains of April delay the advent of spring’s gentle touches, but that matters for little now because, come the first week of April, baseball is for real. The rookies who gave their all in Spring Training have been sent packing to farm teams in small town America, places like Asheville, Bowie, and Reading, their dreams deferred until rosters expand in September or, through the happenstance of luck and fate, a big leaguer is cursed with injuries or a prolonged slump.

For fans spiritually and existentially attached to their teams, the ones who invest emotion and passion and irrational exuberance, this is when the games count, when every pitch, every at bat is recorded in the box scores, the standings a daily reflection of a team’s worth. On Opening Day, every team is a contender, each tied for first place, when all possess hopes and dreams of October success. Even fans of the lowly Washington Nationals – well, at least the young, innocent ones, those for whom the drumbeat of defeat has not beaten down the soul – believe they have a chance on Opening Day. If our players remain healthy, if Jones can make a comeback, if our defense holds up and the bullpen doesn’t let us down, if . . . .

On Opening Day, last year’s disappointments and life’s discouragements are temporarily washed away, the fresh scent of optimism a direct corollary to the sun’s reflection on the outfield grass. For Roger Angell, it is when the season becomes the “real thing”, when “the sudden new standings and fresh stats, the return of line scores and box scores and speculation and involvement” can make us well again. As explained in Game Time (Harcourt Books, 2003), a collection of Angell's baseball essays from The New Yorker:

Seen from the veranda of Opening Day, the sunlit new season appears to stretch away almost endlessly into summer. The winners of each first game may entertain hopes, however manic, of a wholly unexpected pennant, while the losers remind themselves that there remain one hundred sixty-one games in which to do better.
Opening Day is when baseball superstitions reassert themselves, when seemingly rational people displace logic and adopt a respectful adherence to the Gods of Baseball. Of course, one must tread lightly on this topic, for the baseball gods are sensitive, fickle souls. As any baseball player can attest, you must not disrupt or upset the angels and demons of the national pastime. There are certain rules for which nearly all players abide: do not step on the foul line; do not talk to a pitcher in the midst of a no-hitter; and do not mess with a winning streak. Skeptical ballplayers ignore superstitions at their peril. Mel Stottlemyre, pitching coach and former ace of the New York Yankees, once thought that the foul line myth was a silly belief, that stepping on the foul line would have no effect on his performance. He once tested this proposition against the Twins, cavalierly stepping on the foul line on his way to the mound to start the game. “The first batter I faced was Ted Uhlaender,” Stottlemyre recalled to the Baseball Almanac, “and he hit a line drive off my left shin. It went for a hit. Carew, Oliva, and Killebrew followed with extra-base hits. The fifth man hit a single and scored and I was charged with five runs. I haven’t stepped on a foul line since.”

The baseball gods have been known to curse entire teams, refusing championships for decades, even centuries, the curse removed only upon adequate displays of remorse, misery, and despair. Perhaps the most famous curse to afflict an entire team is the one that no longer applies – The Curse of the Bambino – inflicted on the Boston Red Sox following the 1919 season when the team’s owner sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000. For 84 long years, Red Sox fans suffered in pitiful agony, occasionally flirting with victory only to have their aging first baseman watch a groundball go through his legs, or a Game 7 end in painful defeat. The Curse of the Bambino ended in 2004 at the dawn of a new century, when the Gods of Baseball had a change of heart, satisfied that sufficient despair had transpired over the banks of the Charles River.

The Cubs have not made it to a World Series since 1945, the year Billy Sianis, owner of a Chicago tavern, was ejected from Wrigley Field during a World Series game. Sianis had brought his pet goat to the game (he had bought a ticket for his goat, which displayed a sign that said, “We Got Detroit’s Goat”), but by the seventh inning, the stench became intolerable and stadium security removed Sianis and the goat from the park. Outraged over the treatment afforded him and the goat, Sianis placed a curse upon the Cubs, declaring that they would never again play in another World Series game at Wrigley Field. 65 years later, the Curse of the Billy Goat remains intact as the Cubs have yet to return to the World Series.

The baseball gods exert their influence in Japan as well. For the past 25 years, the Hanshin Tigers of the Japanese Baseball League have endured the Curse of Colonel Sanders. In 1985, the Tigers won their first championship in 68 years and, in celebration, fans resembling Tigers stars began jumping into the polluted Dotonbori River in Osaka. Unfortunately, no one among the inebriated fans resembled the Tigers’ American star, Randy Bass, so in a creative attempt at improvisation, resourceful fans went to a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and forcibly removed a statue of Colonel Sanders, tossing it into the river. Since that fateful day, the Tigers have plummeted back to mediocrity. Legend has it that the team will not win another championship until someone finds the Colonel. Although city officials have attempted to recover the statue from the river’s depths, it has been for naught. The Colonel remains at the bottom of the Dotonbori, and the Tigers remain in the cellar.

It is well known that players are always on the lookout for anything that might provide Divine assistance. Minnie Minoso of the Chicago White Sox once showered in his uniform after going hitless in a game, believing he needed to wash away the evil spirits. The next night, Minoso got three hits and, following the game, eight of his teammates jumped in the shower fully clothed.

When Frank Viola pitched for the Minnesota Twins in 1984, he noticed during one home game that a fan held up a large banner that said, Frankie Sweet Music Viola. Whenever the banner appeared, Viola seemed to pitch well. In fact, neither he nor the Twins lost that year when the banner was displayed; Viola went 15-0 in games that the banner appeared, and his four no decisions all resulted in Twins victories. According to an account in Sports Illustrated, when Viola met the fan, Mark Dornfield, they talked for two hours. When the Twins made it to the World Series, Viola learned that Dornfield was without a ticket. At the last minute, Viola’s wife, Kathy, called Dornfield and gave him tickets to the first and seventh games. With the banner proudly displayed, Viola won both games and the Twins won the World Series.

I would like to tell you that all of this is silly, that it is simply the irrational imaginings of men who play a boys' game. I know from experience, however, that this is not so, that you really must respect the Gods of Baseball. If your team wins whenever you wear that unwashed, grimy, spaghetti stained tee shirt, then wash it at your peril. On the Cardinals’ opener on Monday, I tried to anticipate the needs of the Gods that I imagined would be in charge that day. I put on my bright red Cardinals polo shirt commemorating the World Series Championship of 2006, classy but low-key, so as not to offend. I brought out my favorite Cardinals hat – the one with the sweat stains that has brought good luck on past occasions – and placed it strategically on the couch; wearing it, I thought, might be deemed arrogant and cocky, a surefire means to agitate the higher powers.

My strategy initially paid off; the Gods were in a generous mood, allowing a Pujols homer in the first and a Rasmus dinger in the fourth. But later that inning, with the Cardinals up 3-0, things started to falter. Carpenter conceded two home runs to the Reds in the bottom of the fourth, narrowing the lead to 3-2. As anxiety quickly set in, I knew that an adjustment was needed. So, I put on my hat, believing that perhaps my display of team loyalty was overly modest, as today – Opening Day – the Gods of Baseball expected more. Was it the displaced hat that disrupted the spirits, or something else? Then I recalled that, in the middle of the fourth inning, I had turned off my ceiling fan to accommodate a slight chill. Was it just a coincidence that the Reds soon thereafter hit two home runs? I think not. After the fan powered back on, the sweat stained hat positioned atop my head, the Cardinals went on to score eight more runs, including a grand slam by Molina and a second Pujols home run. Colby Rasmus in centerfield robbed Scott Rolen of a home run with a fantastic jumping catch over the outfield wall, and the game’s balance comfortably drifted back in my favor. The world was set right again, the Gods of Baseball temporarily satisfied. At least until next game.

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