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Jack McCallum
February 08, 1988
There's no end to the crazy things athletes will—or won't—do to charm Dame Fortune
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February 08, 1988

Green Cars, Black Cats And Lady Luck

There's no end to the crazy things athletes will—or won't—do to charm Dame Fortune

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The next time you're at a baseball game, watch the first base coach to see if he kicks the bag before he enters the coach's box each inning. Now, he may kick the bag because he has nothing else to do, a frequent problem for first base coaches. More likely, though, he kicks the bag because he feels that, if he doesn't, all sorts of bad things will happen. Runners will get picked off. Or runners will get thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double. Or runners who beat throws to first will be called out by a diabolical umpire. Or, if he's the New York Yankees' first base coach, he will get word that George Steinbrenner wants to see him after the game.

The next time you see Mario Andretti, hand him a green pen and ask for an autograph—then duck. He may throw the pen to the ground. He may throw you to the ground. Like many race car drivers, Andretti considers the color green more of a threat to his well-being than Turn 1 at Indy.

The next time you're around Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly before a game, you may find you want a quick change of company. Why? Because Kelly may suddenly bolt from his seat, rush to the bathroom and force himself to vomit. He has been doing this since his days at East Brady (Pa.) High, not because a physician or trainer told him it would help relieve pregame jitters, but because Kelly feels it brings him luck. "I don't eat a pregame meal," says Kelly. "I rent it." Ugh!

In the world of sports, superstition isn't all rabbit-feet and four-leaf clovers. Sometimes, in fact, it's octopuses, as it is at Detroit Red Wing hockey games. The tradition of throwing octopuses onto the ice started at the old Olympia in 1952, when a seafood merchant named Peter Cusmano tossed one out, reasoning that its eight tentacles would help the Wings achieve the eight victories (in two series) they needed to win the Stanley Cup. Sure enough, Detroit won, and its fans never forgot. When the Red Wings, who now play in Joe Louis Arena, qualified for the playoffs last season for only the fourth time in the last 16 years, down came the octopuses. Some eager fans even throw them during the regular season. That's not superstition, however—it's mass hysteria.

Your basic, run-of-the-mill superstitions usually don't cut it with athletes. Take the case of former New York Yankee pitcher Bob Tewksbury. One of the first things Tewksbury did last season after he learned he had been demoted to Columbus was kick his lucky rabbit-foot across the locker room. However, when athletes indulge in superstition, it generally involves something stronger and more unusual than mere rabbit-feet. Marvin Johnson, three times a light heavyweight champion from 1978 to '86, for instance, never washed in the 24 hours before a fight. Now, that was a strong superstition.

Superstitions have been around since the dawn of man—we know this from cave drawings showing Neanderthals stepping carefully over foul lines—but athletes probably do as much as anyone to perpetuate superstitions in this enlightened age. There are several reasons for this. Superstitions tend to be passed down from one generation to the next through the strong oral tradition of the locker room—in between dirty jokes, of course. Athletes, too, seem largely unburdened by the commonly held assumption that superstition is mumbo jumbo that doesn't work. And some athletes turn to superstition for the same reasons that others turn to religion or drugs—to relieve pressure, to convince themselves that results are predetermined, to take the fear out of the unknown.

"A superstition is a way to get through a tough situation," wrote Carole Potter in Knock on Wood, a 1983 book about superstitions. For the athlete, superstitions are a crutch, a secret weapon, a way to get that little edge. And a superstition can't fall out of, say, Joe Niekro's pocket on the mound, the way an emery board can.

Much as they might indulge their superstitions, however, athletes, coaches, team executives and other sporting types rarely admit that they are superstitious. They prefer to talk about "habits" or "routines." New York Giants coach Bill Parcells is a classic example. Each morning when he's not on the road, Parcells follows this "routine": He drives from his house in Upper Saddle River, N.J., to Elmer's Country Store for a cup of coffee and then stops by Christiana's Coffee Shop in nearby Wood-Ridge and picks up two more containers of coffee to drink in his office at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford.

Now, one might assume that Parcells simply likes the coffee brewed by those two establishments (which happens to be true). But a routine becomes a superstition when someone believes that he must follow it to have good luck, or that bad luck will come knocking if he doesn't. Put Parcells in that camp. He doesn't want any of his players or staff to precede him into the locker room, and he always wants to see the same three players—Phil Simms, Brad Benson and Chris Godfrey—before he sees anyone else. He'll never pick up a penny that has tails facing up. He collects brass statues of elephants—20 of them adorn his office—but only elephants whose trunks are pointing upward.

Parcells should be in baseball. Superstition envelops that game like a shroud. It's bad luck for a pitcher to strike out the first batter. Never mention a no-hitter in the dugout. Don't cross bats. Don't wash your uniform or change your sanitary socks during a winning streak. Step over the baseline, not on it. The fans get involved too, joining the seventh-inning stretch to bring good luck to their team. Let's be careful, however, to exclude from the list of venerable baseball superstitions such modern gimmicks as the Homer Hankies that were waved by Minnesota Twins fans during last year's World Series. Anything invented since 1950 and done by more than, say, 100 people at a time isn't a superstition. It's an effort to get on national TV.

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