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Supersition In The Way : Baseball Players Aren’t Limited to Wearing Lucky Socks or Eating Certain Foods. In One Case, a Plastic Owl Has Become Part of the Team.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The night was cold--too cold for baseball--and something was horribly wrong.

John Link sensed it when he found his Sonora High players huddled next to the field, waiting to play a semifinal game in the recent Glendora tournament.

“Where’s Hoot?” he asked.

Ryan Owens sheepishly ventured forward.

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“I left him in my truck.”

Link and co-coach Pat Tellers shot each other a look; this was a portentous event.

Hoot, a plastic owl, is the Raiders’ good-luck charm. According to the proselytes, Hoot’s supernatural forces carried them to a Southern Section Division II championship last year. During that season, the 2-foot high, plastic statuette with cut glass for eyes became a revered talisman. The team brought it everywhere and one player was assigned to “baby-sit” each night.

This season, with Hoot occupying a VIP perch--usually on top of the dugout--at every game, the Raiders started 8-0.

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Then came the game when Owens, the shortstop, left Hoot in his truck back in the school parking lot. There was little to be done; fate had played its card.

The Raiders took the field and struggled to a tie--the lone blemish on an otherwise perfect record. They advanced to the final, but only because they had more runners reach base.

Link approached Owens after the game.

“Let’s not forget Hoot anymore,” he said.

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Owens agreed. “At first I was thinking, it’s just a superstition, but afterward, it kind of made me believe that it really is true,” Owens said.

For baseball aficionados, the Raiders’ profound belief in the magical powers of Hoot is nothing out of the ordinary. More than any other sport, baseball is steeped in superstition. Indeed, much of the allure of the sport emanates from the bizarre and mundane rituals associated with it.

Baseball superstitions serve as a rite of passage--only a benighted player would step on the foul line when taking the field. Even a young player knows the pitcher sits alone when working on a no-hitter.

Superstitions provide a sense of unity and routine. They also fuel the hope there is a greater power in the universe--the hope that if you align the physical world in a certain way, the supernatural forces will swing in your favor.

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The Mystical

For most baseball players, the birth of a superstition starts with a revelation. You notice you go four for five the day you put milk in the bowl before the cereal. Now, the morning before every game you pour milk, add cereal.

Hoot revealed his supernatural powers to Link last year when the Sonora athletic fields were undergoing renovation.

Walking across the recently seeded field with a friend, Link remarked on an owl perched atop the backstop.

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The next day, Link and his friend walked the same path. Looking up, he noticed something strange.

“I’ll be darned,” he said, “that owl is still there.”

His friend looked at him incredulously--the owl was fake, placed there to scare birds away from eating the grass seeds.

The story became the joke of campus and soon, high-pitched “hoots” could be heard in the hallways following Link, the school’s athletic director. One day, the owl on the backstop disappeared, so a team booster purchased a new one. Link intended to place it on the backstop, but the team developed the habit of carrying it with them.

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By the time the Raiders ended the regular season 19-4-2, most of the players had strong feelings that Hoot brought good luck.

Link was convinced of Hoot’s powers after the team’s 9-3, section semifinal victory over Temecula Valley. At a post-game victory party, someone called to Link from the patio, urging him to come outside and see an owl perched on a phone line.

“No way,” he said. “You fooled me once, you’re not going to fool me again.”

Eventually, he was persuaded. This time, the owl was real, and in Link’s mind, there was no denying the omen.

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Four days later, with Hoot looking on, Sonora beat San Luis Obispo, 7-2, to win the championship.

Whether they actually believe in mystical powers, most baseball players and coaches figure it can’t hurt to try.

Mater Dei Coach Bob Ickes rubs a Weeble--a wobbly plastic figure designed for preschoolers--whenever the Monarchs get into defensive trouble. Huntington Beach Coach Mike Dodd stands in a certain part of the dugout depending on whether a right-handed or left-handed hitter is at bat.

“I think coaches like to think that things are beyond their control,” Dodd said.

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The need to believe that some larger force is controlling your destiny is strong in a sport in which a successful hitter fails in seven of 10 at-bats.

A certain jersey number might put magic in your swing. The luck in your socks might last all season if you don’t wash them.

Mari Womack, associate professor at Santa Monica College, is a cultural anthropologist who specializes in psychological anthropology and the study of ritual. Her 1982 dissertation on “sports magic” discussed rituals among professional baseball, hockey and football players.

“Risk and magic go together. The idea [is] that magic is a way of controlling anxiety,” Womack said. “Anxiety can be some kind of danger to the individual, and you’ve got it there in baseball, winning and losing, being humiliated or being hurt.”

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Richie Pohle, a third baseman at Buena Park, never lays his bat on the ground--it must be propped up next to him in a particular way when he gets dressed for the game.

Ricky Leach, an Esperanza outfielder, refuses to wear this season’s warm-up jersey. He prefers last year’s model, which he insists brings him good luck.

George Hart led Esperanza to a victory in the 1993 section Division I semifinals wearing the same beat-up old cap he had worn for four years.

“You don’t want to tell the kid that he looks like a bum. That hat was faded, it was ugly, it was brutal. The bill of it was crumpled up,” Esperanza Coach Mike Curran said. “That guy can wear a doggone cowboy hat for all I care if he can get us there.”

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Curran has his own superstitions. He and assistant coach Doug Domene never walk by a coin without picking it up. The monetary value of the coins, they say, will influence how many runs the Aztecs score. This kind of fortune-telling also has its drawbacks.

“I kind of want to walk by the penny and say, ‘Forget that, I want a quarter right now,” Curran said.

In 1987, former Mater Dei shortstop Kevin O’Connor and second-baseman Luis Diaz had a pre-game ritual that often drew a crowd.

O’Connor and Diaz would walk to second base and say a prayer, then they would walk to the shortstop area, where they would say another prayer. Finally, they would return to the foul line, where they would cross their bats on the ground and say another prayer.

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The Routine

Many rituals and superstitions have been a part of the sport for years, evolving so much over time that many have lost their original meaning.

There may be practical reasons for avoiding a pitcher who is working on a no-hitter--you don’t want to break his concentration--but why can’t you say the words?

“You’re trying to keep away the evil eye, and that’s very prevalent in magic around the world,” Womack said. “Don’t call attention to the powers that be that you’re doing well.”

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Most follow such rituals for fear of what might happen if they don’t.

“I don’t think it’s anything other than the fact that you don’t want to test fate,” Dodd said. “It’s not necessarily that something’s going to help you, you just don’t want it to hurt you.”

Further, there is something comforting about superstition. It provides routine and rules in an otherwise chaotic and confusing world.

Kevin Lavalle, Canyon High’s freshmen coach, insists his players slide their caps on their heads from front to back, placing the brim against the forehead before smoothing the rest down.

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At the end of every infield practice, Fullerton Coach Marty Berson hits a pop-up to the catcher then hits home plate with the bat.

John Cummings, a relief pitcher for the Dodgers, insisted on being the last player on the field when he played at Canyon in 1988.

“It’s not superstition, it’s what makes you comfortable,” Foothill Coach Vince Brown said. “You mainly do it to stay within your habits. Leading into a ballgame, you want to keep that routine and that consistency because that is what helps you prepare. Sometimes it means putting your right sock on first and your left sock on second, it’s part of that routine.”

Socks are a big part of the routine. Ever since Edison Coach Dave Tallman began playing at UCLA in 1965, he has always worn the sock with the label on his left foot. He said he has no idea why he started doing that.

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Food is another important pre-game ritual. The Huntington Beach baseball team eats bananas before every game. The tradition started with Erik Fox, a relief pitcher. Fox, who is diabetic and can’t go a whole game without eating something, brought bananas to the Loara tournament this season.

“I had a couple [bananas] and people asked if they could have some. I said sure, as long as I don’t need it,” Fox said.

Huntington Beach won its first three games in the tournament and suddenly the Oilers began looking at the bananas in a whole new light.

“If you come around to our dugout before the game, there are banana peelings all over the place,” Dodd said. “You kind of have to watch your step.”

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Bananas are not the Oilers’ only superstition--their socks must always be turned a particular way and they must ride in the same cars to every away game and stop to buy a California Lottery ticket at the same supermarket.

"[Because of] the level of discipline that we have in our program, it’s natural that we have these superstitions,” Fox said. “We keep a routine and do things that work.”

Team Unity

Superstitions also provide a sense of comradeship. An entire team can get involved in a no-hitter by not saying the taboo words.

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“You can’t get out there and help him throw the ball, but you can help him by not saying ‘no-hitter,’ ” Womack said.

Often, the best teams and players have the most eccentric superstitions.

In 1989, the El Dorado baseball team rode to the section Division 5-A title on the luck of a spider and a burial.

Early in the season, Golden Hawk players noticed a black-widow spider in the corner of their dugout. As their season began to grow more successful, they said the spider was lucky and they would not allow anyone to get near it.

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“It was alive. It was just getting bigger and bigger,” Coach Steve Gullotti said.

In the middle of the season, the Golden Hawks were in danger of not earning a berth in the section tournament, so they held a burial. The players gathered around a shallow grave in front of the dugout and tossed in various items to influence the baseball spirits--a score book, batting gloves and even an athletic supporter.

They made the playoffs and advanced to the final at Dodger Stadium, where they won a championship.

“They spent all their time together,” Gullotti said. “They enjoyed all the aspects of baseball, and this certainly is an aspect.”

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Staff writer Mike Terry contributed to this story.


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