Few spots in sports are as lonely as the batter’s box. Even for an all-star such as Dodgers first baseman Nomar Garciaparra.
So to elevate his comfort level, he approaches the 4-foot-by-6-foot patch of dirt with one of the oddest sets of pre-batting behaviors the national pastime has ever seen.
A Garciaparra snapshot looks like this: Adjust red arm band on right arm. Tap home plate with bat. Then, quickly touch helmet bill, end of bat, then back to helmet bill. Sometimes, especially if it’s his first time at bat in the game, he’ll make the sign of the cross across his jersey.
Next comes a synchronized dance of glove pulling and cleat digging. While balancing his bat on his right shoulder, he yanks his batting glove with his left hand. Then, the right hand crosses over his left and it tugs on the left-hand glove. Repeat four times at least.
Meanwhile, like a cat kneading its claws into the carpet, he twists and sinks his cleats into the box while rotating his bat in tight counterclockwise circles.
Then, he’s ready to hit.
He insists it is routine, not superstition, that makes him do it. And he won’t even address whether his tics are a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, as some fans have wondered. (Even Wikipedia, the user-generated online encyclopedia, speculates, “Supposedly his strange pre-pitch routine is caused by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.”)
“I’m just doing it to get everything tight,” Garciaparra said during batting practice on a recent afternoon at Dodger Stadium. “I like everything tight, that’s all it is, really.”
But the quirks have made Garciaparra, a 33-year-old native of Whittier, the template for the ritual-soaked ballplayer. He has been fielding questions about his style for so long that the queries have become an unwelcome routine of their own for the private, modest man.
As the divisional race heads into its final weekend, Garciaparra will have to brace himself for more curiosity from a national television audience.
“It’s hard to explain why baseball has so many superstitions and rituals,” said Manny Mota, a Dodgers hitting coach who retired with a lifetime batting average above .300.
“For me, I did the sign of the cross and asked for God’s help. But some guys like Nomar -- they have a different way.”
Like any other mortal, Garciaparra doesn’t control the when, the where and the velocity of the pitch that in professional baseball can range from less than 70 mph to more than 100 mph. He knows that if his bat is off, even a fraction of an inch, it can mean a foul-tip out to the catcher instead of a line drive single to left field.
And Garciaparra knows that even the best in his profession -- of which he is clearly one -- can’t hope for much less than a 70% failure rate.
Add up those variables -- plus leading a team on a playoff drive with a bum leg, as is now the case with Garciaparra -- and it equals fear and anxiety, the mother of all superstitions, say sports psychologists.
“Yogi Berra always said you can’t think and hit at the same time,” said Ken Ravizza, a former consultant for the Angels who teaches sports psychology at Cal State Fullerton. “But unless you’ve got something to do when you go up to the plate, it’s awful hard not to think.”
Long before Garciaparra, baseball was stacked stadium-high with superstitions. Tales are common of players refusing to shave, change their socks or switch parking places in an attempt to appease the victory gods. Legendary examples are Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, who always stepped on second base as they trotted off the field for the dugout.
Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game and then, before batting, would scrawl the Hebrew symbol chai into the dirt, even though he isn’t Jewish. And former relief pitcher Turk Wendell always chewed black licorice while pitching, only to spit it out, brush his teeth and reload the candy in the dugout between innings.
Virtually all major league hitters step up to home plate in an individualized manner. Sports psychologists say a batter’s approach is often intended to claim the territory as his own. For instance, Dodgers rookie Andre Ethier smooths the dirt to rid the box of all footprints before he’s ready to face down a pitcher.
“It’s so natural for me; I’ve been doing that since high school,” said Ethier, who despite a severe September batting slump is still hitting over .300. “If I didn’t do it, it’d feel like I left the stove on at home or something.”
But all that seems Little League compared with Garciaparra. His quirks have received the pop culture equivalent of canonization by being incorporated into his character on the popular Backyard Baseball computer games. The Dodgers couldn’t resist capitalizing on their star’s idiosyncrasies in a recent marketing campaign that wondered what the team’s home run co-leader was doing with his batting gloves.
“Is it a tribute to the guy who invented Velcro?” intoned Dodgers announcer Charley Steiner on one radio spot. “Or some sort of juju to ward off evil spirits?”
Garciaparra’s game-time routines extend beyond the batter’s box. Whether climbing up or down, he half-hops each dugout step. In the on-deck circle, he’ll pull at his batting gloves and sink and twist his cleats, as in the box, but he also flips his bat, then grabs it near the thickest part with one hand while tapping it several times on the opposite side with his other hand. Then he switches hands and repeats.
And when heading out to the field, he curls around the coach’s third-base box and angles toward the foul line, almost like a high jumper, then hops over the line on his way to first. Every inning. Guaranteed.
What would happen if he didn’t do it?
“Why wouldn’t I do it?” said Garciaparra, who abandoned his game-time preparation at batting practice. He stepped up to the plate and hit away, sending more than a few balls into the stadium bleachers.
Garciaparra acknowledges having superstitions, but he won’t identify whether any of the previously mentioned behaviors qualify in his book.
“There’s definitely differences between superstitions and routines,” he said. “But I don’t like to talk about it. Superstitions are your own thing and not something you share with everybody else.”
Garciaparra explains his mysterious ways like this:
“I think everybody has their routines in life. When people experience stuff they can’t control, there’s only one thing you can control, and that’s your routine.
“The biggest thing in the world is trying to be consistent, especially in our game. We do something every single day, we’ve got to play, and you’re expected to be the best every single day and you can’t control it. It’s on television for everyone to see.
“That’s why routines come in for me.”
Even sports psychologists have difficulty distinguishing among superstitions, routines and rituals. Chris Bader, a doctoral student at the University of North Texas Center for Sports Psychology and Performance Excellence, eventually gave up his research on sports superstitions out of sheer frustration. There are clear examples of each, of course, but the three blur and overlap a good deal too.
“There’s been a ton of research on the subject,” Bader said. “But there’s just no hard science to back up anything.
“I can tell you players don’t like to talk about superstitions, though. They feel like it might take away from the power of the lucky thing. Of course, that’s a superstition of its own.”
Former Dodgers Manager Tom Lasorda calls what Garciaparra does an idiosyncrasy -- one that his 10-year-old softball-playing granddaughter began emulating this year.
“She does the whole thing with the gloves like Nomar, I swear to God,” Lasorda said. “And you can imagine if she’s doing it, they must be doing it all over the country.”
Garciaparra’s behavior, whatever it is, is really like a kid sleeping with a night light -- it keeps the monsters away. And he delivers in the clutch.
Garciaparra has a lifetime batting average above .300, and this season he’s batting over .360 with runners in scoring position and in the last three innings of games. He’s also won games with a pair of walk-off base hits and another pair of towering walk-off home runs -- the latter down the stretch in a hotly contested playoff race.
“If Nomar is superstitious, then maybe more people in the world need to have them,” said Ethier, considered a front-runner for rookie-of-the-year honors until his September batting swoon.