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Rituals, superstitions help players feel at ease

Rituals, superstitions help players feel at ease

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Rituals, superstitions help players feel at ease
Superstitions have been a Major League way of life for generations. But few men have ever been as committed to a quirk as Kevin Towers.

The San Diego general manager during most of Trevor Hoffman's tenure with the team, Towers refused to watch any of the closer's saves for the Padres, which totaled 552. When Hoffman was on the mound, Towers was on the lam: He became convinced Hoffman performed better if he didn't see him pitch.

"At the beginning, I stopped watching," said Towers, whose 15-year reign as the San Diego GM began in 1995, a year and a half after Hoffman's trade acquisition from the Marlins, "and just didn't want to change anything. It seemed the less I saw, the better the outcome. I just didn't want to take a chance by changing things."

Towers' Hoffman-avoidance was well-known at the time, but he had a chance to reflect on it when he returned to San Diego for the Aug. 21 ceremonies to retire the former reliever's No. 51 uniform. The current GM of the National League West-leading Diamondbacks had looked forward to the occasion because he knew it would include video tributes. "So I'll get to see some of his saves," he said. I didn't see any in person.

"Like most people, I was superstitious."

Baseball has always elevated that trust in routine and order to an art form. Superstitions are as old as the hook slide, from minor tics to major regimens. They have a natural place in an everyday sport, offering a steady platform as the cities and the months swoosh by.

Interestingly, one of baseball's most sacred and time-honored superstitions has been trashed, road-kill on the information superhighway: Not mentioning no-hitters in progress. While still observed on the bench, the taboo is ignored by broadcasters, who have to hook channel-surfers and station-hoppers.

There's plenty left to go around, however.

Towers' quirk was pretty obvious. At home games, TV cameras would catch him abandoning his suite as soon as the bottom of the eighth ended with the Padres holding a slim lead.

"I'd go down to my office. I kind of knew how long it would take Trevor, so I knew when to peek my head out of the office," said Towers, who frequently traveled with the club and on the road would sequester himself in the manager's office.

Having Towers hiding out in Bud Black's Coors Field office couldn't prevent the most crushing of Hoffman's relatively few blown saves, in Game 163 of the 2007 season. Towers emerged "about the time I thought he'd be done" preserving a 13th-inning 8-6 lead over the Rockies to send the Padres into the NL Division Series.

He immediately spotted club video coordinator Mike Tompkins sitting with his head buried in his arms atop his computer, and thought, "This can't be good."

"Did they tie it?" Towers asked.

"No. Worse," Tompkins told Towers, who, nevertheless, resumed his ninth-inning disappearing act the following season.

And, yes, Towers has taken the same approach toward his current closer, dropping out when J.J. Putz drops in. It's still working: At the rear of Arizona's refurbished bullpen, Putz has 34 saves in 38 opportunities.

Six degrees of separation: The most superstitious manager must be Bob Melvin, the former Arizona skipper now commanding karma with the Oakland A's. From the pens with which he makes out lineups to the arrangement of thumbtacks on the dugout bulletin board, Melvin adheres to strict protocol.

"Superstitions for me are just a way to occupy my mind and try to stay consistent when you're doing something right," Melvin explained. "It's all about staying on a routine when you're doing well to try and continue that mind-set of doing well. You get on a little bit of a win streak and you notice something, and so you just try to keep it consistent."

A win will impel Melvin to drive the exact same route to the ballpark the following day. After a loss, he'll find an alternate route. When he managed in Phoenix, presumably his itinerary invariably included Superstition Highway.

Today's big leaguers resort to a hodgepodge of superstitions -- as one pointed out, "We prefer to call them routines" -- none of them as eccentric as some of the most infamous in history.

Cubs pitchers Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster have their pre-start "routines": The former has to treat the team to Popeye's Chicken on days he pitches, and the latter eats at the same Italian ristorante prior to every Wrigley Field start.

Yankees reliever Rafael Soriano is one of countless players who take the field under a cap containing a personal, secret message. If Tim Lincecum's cap had a message, he probably can't read it any more: He's worn the same hat for every one of his starts for the Giants.

The Dodgers have periodically taken a crack at the Superstition Hall of Fame through their relationship with gnomes. In 2008, they attributed a breakneck second-half charge to the clubhouse presence of those plaster lawn ornaments -- which, in time, became persona gnome grata around Dodger Stadium.

A couple of months ago, the Dodgers ascribed the end of a five-game losing streak to Jamey Carroll smashing one gnome, and bullpen coach Ken Howell marshaling his relievers into ganging up on another.

Nice try, but still not quite up there with the greats.

Garza is chicken little to Wade Boggs, who famously ate poultry before every game. The Hall of Fame third baseman was a creature of habit, rising every day at the same time and taking 100 grounders in practice. You could tell time by his pre-game routine: Batting practice at 5:17 and sprints at 7:17 -- reflecting his obsession to go 7-for-7.

Does Kevin Rhomberg's name ring a bell? Probably not; he had only 41 big-league at-bats with the 1982-84 Indians. He might've had a longer career in the Professional Tag League, if such existed: If someone touched him, he had a compulsion to touch that person back; after being tagged out running the bases, Rhomberg treated fans to seeing him chase down the player who'd touched him.

Ken Griffey Jr. once sold a brand-new car because it didn't feel right, "didn't have any hits in it."

Pitcher Don Robinson (1978-92) had to pick the ball off the ground before the start of an inning. If the ump reflexively flipped him a ball, he would dodge it, let it land, and retrieve it once it stopped rolling.

Then there was Turk Wendell, who in his 12 seasons as a National League reliever took another time-worn superstition -- never stepping on the foul line -- to new heights. Literally: Coming and going, he would leap high enough to clear not only the white chalk but also the dirt surrounding it.

Wendell had another odd habit: Chewing on four pieces of black licorice while pitching. Back in the dugout, he'd spit them out, brush his teeth, then repeat the cycle the ensuing inning.

Good thing Wendell started only six of his 552 Major League games. Otherwise, he might have needed rotator cuff surgery due to all the brushing.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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