Zach Phillips keeps a few lucky quarters in his pocket. Pedro Strop wears Ninja Turtle boxers. And Jason Hammel — well, it got so extreme that he had to swear off the whole superstition thing. It was, he says, a distraction.
"Yeah, I've actually gotten away from that," says Hammel, the Orioles right-hander who was among the league's elite pitchers this season until a recurring knee injury forced him onto the disabled list for much of the second half. "I used to do superstitions — where I went to eat, when I left to go eat, the way I put my socks on, wearing the same pair of underwear for each start. It was bad."
So bad, Hammel said, that he found himself worrying more about the rituals than about getting ready to pitch. "If I forgot something, it would be on my mind," he says. "I felt like I didn't actually prepare if I didn't do that right. So I finally said: [Forget] that. I'm not going to do that anymore."
Almost to a man, the members of this young and overachieving Orioles team say they don't put much stock in superstition. But in the next breath, they acknowledge that ritual is a key part of their preparation for games.
Reliever Troy Patton drinks a Red Bull in the third inning. At the start of every game, center-fielder Adam Jones says, "I tell myself it's time to slap somebody."
First baseman Mark Reynolds keeps one of his son's toys in his locker. He's also not above trying to shake things up or break a pattern: "Maybe I'll take, like, an Aleve instead of Advil or something," he allows.
Even if they don't fess up to it, baseball players are a superstitious lot, says Jim Gates, librarian at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"Every ballplayer has a superstition, whether they admit to it or not," says Gates, a lifelong Orioles fan who's loving every minute of the team's postseason push.
Gates helps maintain a file of baseball superstitions at the Hall of Fame. He notes that fans are just as superstitious, whether it comes to wearing the same outfit to the ballpark or refusing to move from their TV-room chairs during a rally. He suspects that baseball players and fans are even more superstitious than their counterparts in other sports — perhaps because failure is such a big part of the sport, and everyone's always looking for an edge.
"Any activity where, if you're successful 30 percent of the time you're considered great, it almost necessitates superstition," he says.
Joel Fish, sports psychologist and director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia, says most players simply use consistent physical preparation — routines — to feed mental preparation. But maybe one in 10 players is truly superstitious. He's seen one who slept with a bat in his bed. Another habitually walked the stadium upon arriving for an away game; if he performed poorly, he'd blame it on arriving too late to get in his stroll.
Fish puts baseball's shared superstitions — such as not walking on the base lines or not talking to a pitcher during a no-hitter — into a category of their own.
"I would say it's part of the baseball culture, part of the baseball lore, oral history," he says. "One of the roles of leaders and mentors is to teach those traditions to the rookies. One of the signs of being a major leaguer is understanding the subtleties of the game."
None of the Orioles own up to taking after former American League MVP Jason Giambi, who used to keep a thong in his locker (ex-teammate Omar Quintanilla says he saw it) and offer it to colleagues as a surefire way to get out of a batting slump. Compared to him, certainly, most of these O's seem even-keeled.
"I'm actually pretty routine-oriented," says outfielder Nate McLouth. "I'm not superstitious, but I have a routine that I do every day."
The sequence is simple, McLouth says, and generally unaltered: Get to the park. Get in the whirlpool. Watch video of the game before. Hit the weight room. Stretch. Hit the batting cage. Break for a few minutes. Take batting practice. Eat. Take a few swings in the batting cage. Go out in right field and run. Get ready to play.
The routine is the same, he says, whether he hit a pair of home runs the night before or is mired in an 0-for-20 slump. And that, McLouth says, is key.
"When things are going bad, you've got to trust [that] the work that you put in and do every day is going to get you back to where you want to be," he says. "And vice versa. If things are going well, the routine that you have is what got you there. So you stick with it."
You're not going to find any Orioles tapping their bats with a chicken bone, as in "Bull Durham," or wearing a thong while they pitch. "I don't have any superstitions, no," says slugger Jim Thome, who was playing in the majors and hitting home runs (he's clobbered more than 600 of them) since before some of his teammates were born. "I've never really thought about it, other than being prepared and seeing what happens."
Astute observers have noted that Thome prefers his batting helmet filthy. It is not, he says, a superstition: "It doesn't have anything to do with good luck or bad luck. It's just what I've always done. ... I just play."
Stresses outfielder Nick Markakis, "You're talking to the wrong person. I'm not superstitious."
But certainly, in a game where luck plays such a major role, some players do what they can to help the process along. Like rookie (and Baltimore native) Steve Johnson, who as of this weekend's Red Sox series had a 4-0 record and an ERA under 2.00. Come on, Steve, what's the secret?
"I had a good start here. I didn't give up any runs, and I had had a bowl of Frosted Flakes," Johnson says. "So every time I know I'm pitching, I try to eat a bowl."
Longtime O's fans will recognize that Johnson is following in the grand tradition of former catcher Mickey Tettleton, who caused a mini-run on Froot Loops when his wife playfully suggested that's where he derived his power. And then there was pitching great Jim Palmer, whose pregame ritual of eating pancakes for breakfast became so well-known that his teammates took to calling him "Cakes."
Johnson smiles at news of the company he keeps. "I don't do anything too crazy," he says by way of reassurance. "If I've got a good streak going, I try not to change anything — wear the same spikes, wear the same pair of sliders, wear the same stuff. But I wash them."