DETROIT — Midway through September, during Detroit’s remarkable run of 12 straight victories, manager Jim Leyland revealed that he wasn’t changing his underwear as long as the streak was alive.
“That was pretty disgusting and disturbing, wasn’t it?” asked Alex Avila, the Tigers’ bemused catcher.
Perhaps mercifully, the Tigers lost later that night, but their skipper’s declaration lived on as an unsettling-but-endearing reminder that the end of a baseball season is no time to be bashful— or to worry about hygiene — when it comes to staying in the hunt.
After a thrilling finish to the regular season Wednesday, eight teams are in the playoffs, knowing their championship hopes could hinge on any pitch. Some players and managers feel like they get a boost from a particular object or behavior — and indulge themselves in some of the oddest superstitions imaginable.
“The pitching staff hasn’t allowed me to shave my goatee since the middle of the season,” said Avila, whose Tigers take on the New York Yankees in the first round. “I think at the time, I was hitting well, and they were like, ‘You can’t change anything.”’
Yes, the man who wears a mask all game is minding his facial hair — and it’s all perfectly normal. Avila’s goatee. Leyland’s underwear. Nyjer Morgan’s socks. Baseball is a sport that confounds its participants, leaving them constantly searching for a way to preserve those fleeting moments of triumph.
“Say you have a 5-for-5 night, of course you’re going to try to do everything the same the next day,” said Morgan, Milwaukee’s eccentric outfielder. “Yes, I’m superstitious. Of course, all baseball players are superstitious.”
It’s no surprise that Morgan is. After all, this is the player who commonly refers to himself as his alter ego, “Tony Plush.”
The Brewers now face Arizona in an NL division series. Morgan recently identified a pair of baby blue argyle socks as a catalyst for Milwaukee’s surge after some early-season struggles.
“I wear them under my regular socks,” Morgan said. “The fans were talking about the road woes, and I was like, ‘No it’s all over now. Plush is bringing out the magical socks.’ And the next thing you know, here we go. … Whatever Plush wears turns to magic.”
Detroit pitcher Max Scherzer is a little more reticent. One of his superstitions, apparently, is that he doesn’t talk about his superstitions. Not while they’re still “active” at least.
“I used to wear shorts underneath the pants when I pitched, and there was a game where I actually wore the shorts backwards, and I pitched really well. So I was like, ‘I’ve got to do that every time now,”’ Scherzer said. “I ran off like a really long scoreless streak, and as soon as someone noticed they were on backwards, I gave up a run.”
Leyland went into detail about his underwear habits on Friday before his team’s division series opener against the Yankees.
“If we win, I’ll be wearing the same ones tomorrow,” he said.
“Briefs or boxers?” he was asked.
“Long ones. I guess those are boxers,” he said. “Longer than the boxer trunks.”
Darren Oliver, the 40-year-old reliever for the Texas Rangers, has seen some quirky routines over the years. Some pitchers want to wear the same undershirt before taking the mound, for example.
Oliver says he probably had some superstitions of his own earlier in his career, but they’re a little too time consuming.
“Ever since I got married with kids, my routine changes every day,” Oliver said. “This morning I was helping my kid with homework.”
There are reasons baseball players seem more superstitious than most athletes. The sheer number of games forces everyone to adopt a sensible routine.
It’s not easy to stay sharp mentally during a season of seemingly inexplicable streaks and slumps.
“I don’t have any crazy superstitions,” Rangers reliever Darren O’Day said. “(Starting pitcher Derek) Holland has a pretty good one. When I used to live with Holland a couple of years ago, every night, the night before his start, we have to go to Wendy’s. The first time was an eye-opening experience because we went up to Wendy’s … and his bill comes to $30. I wasn’t paying attention to what he ordered, the bill comes to $30, and I was like, ‘Are we bringing home food for somebody else?’
“He said, ‘No, it’s all for me.’ … That’s his pregame routine. He’s a young buck. He can still do that. If I did that, I wouldn’t be able to move for two days.”
Texas faces Tampa Bay in the first round, but only after the Rays overtook Boston for the AL wild card with a stunning late-season rally. On Tuesday, Tampa Bay turned a triple play in a win over the Yankees, and on Wednesday, the Rays fought back from a seven-run deficit to beat New York.
No wonder baseball folks appear so willing to believe in the supernatural. They’ll try almost anything to snap out of an untimely funk.
“When we came out of the ballpark, I told the bus to go a different direction yesterday,” Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said on Sunday in Washington. “Take a left instead of a right, things like that.”
Even the scenic route couldn’t save the Braves, who lost their last five games to relinquish the NL wild card to St. Louis. The Cardinals now play the Philadelphia Phillies in the playoffs.
As for Gonzalez, he’ll surely come up with few more superstitions during this long, disappointing offseason.
“I think it’s just sports in general, and I think it’s just humans,” he said. “I bet if you go into a law firm, a guy has a lucky tie when he has to give a big opening statement or that kind of stuff. I think it’s human nature.”