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Fungraphs: Baseball’s Weird, Wonderful Superstitions

Why are we so weird?

We don’t have 13th floors in hotels, walk under ladders, or pick up coins facing tails-up because all of these things are bad luck. People knock on wood when they talk about the future. They say “God bless you” if you sneeze, for fear of your soul escaping.

And as if those habits weren’t odd enough, ballplayers and baseball go and take superstition to a whole new level of silly and agitating.

The worst is the concept of the jinx during a no-hitter. Under what circumstances does uttering some passing phrase about a pitcher’s no-hitter suddenly doom it? Even if it’s deliberate, how does that change a guy’s ability to paint the black or shoot a blooper? Maybe it’s some cosmic understanding that goes over the head of simpler folks. But baseball is a game that is constantly relying more and more heavily on numbers, odds, and percentages. A no-hitter is one thing we can accurately acknowledge in the moment and without in-depth analysis. Doing so is no foible.

A pitcher’s team not talking to him during a no-hitter is just fine, though. It makes out a single game as something special, and how often do we get to do that during the regular season? That pitcher is on a mission that has been accomplished only 252 times since 1901. Currently, there are nearly 2,500 games in a single season. If a guy’s doing something that’s only been done a fraction of a single percentage in all the games in modern history, there’s no reason to goof with him like it’s just another day at the park. To that point, it hasn’t been.

Other superstitions are ones that have become prominent because of the volume at which they occur. Guys skip over the chalk at the start and finish of every inning on the way out of and to the dugout. It’s okay to think, “But what would happen if they did hit the line just once? No one is going to get hurt. It isn’t going to break a teammate’s mother’s back like stepping on a crack.” Let’s remember, though: the inning is over. Commercials are about to start. That silly moment is an easy one to tune out, so we’d be best off doing just that when we find ourselves fixated on it.

But when the game is back, and a player’s getting ready to pitch or step into the box, we’re paying attention. And we notice those ridiculous, idiosyncratic tics that turn into superstition which so many guys maintain. They work them into their mechanics and if they don’t perform them they’re thrown off. I’m looking at you, Matt Garza. Your little glove twitch has been the visual equivalent to a throw-up burp. It’s unpleasant and people might take a drink of the nearest beverage just to forget it.

Though he’s retired, Nomar Garciaparra remains the king of batting-glove love. Each time he stepped to the plate he might as well have played pat-a-cake with himself. It’s nothing compared to Moises Alou, though, who refused to wear batting gloves and would pee on his hands to toughen them up. Gross.

In all this strangeness, through all this exercised peculiarity, there might be some logic, even though the very definition of superstition tells us there isn’t.

In an episode of Fresh Air titled “Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them,” we learn about something called the habit loop from Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. There are three steps to it: a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue enables the brain to let a behavior happen, while the routine is the actual action, and the reward is the brain enjoying it all and making it easier to remember.

That process becomes automated rather quickly. Scientists attribute it to the basal ganglia, which “plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition.” You might realize how none of this speaks to the actual decision of players to do quirky things like skip over foul lines or fiddle with their equipment a certain way. That’s because the part of our brain that makes decisions — the prefrontal cortex — checks out once a behavior becomes automatic. It appears that once someone starts a habit, in many cases they’re not actually choosing to continue it.

Habits do provide comfort, though. And habits held in the belief of good fortune are why we get silly baseball superstitions that we can laugh at or hate. Whether they’re rare or regular occurrences, they’re one more way the game gives back to us.