GRAND RAPIDS — On the wall in my den I have an autographed Hall of Fame picture of Harmon Killebrew, one of my childhood heroes. When the Twins came to Minnesota, my allegiance immediately turned from the Yankees and Mickey Mantle to the Twins and Harmon Killebrew.
Killebrew was an easy guy for a kid to imitate. He just stood in the batter’s box, bat on shoulder. When the pitcher started his windup, Harmon took the bat off his shoulder and got into hitting position. He never moved, never stepped out of the box. He hardly ever had to look down at the third base coach; he knew what his job was.
He had no pre-at bat ritual. He didn’t loosen and tighten his batting gloves after each pitch ala Chuck Knoblauch. Knoblauch’s constant stepping out of the box to adjust his gloves irritated Twins manager Tom Kelly. One time Tom Kelly was asked how baseball could speed up the game. He answered: “Get rid of batting gloves.”
He didn’t do it when he was in Minnesota, but when David Ortiz was in Boston he had a ritual before almost every pitch. He’d step out of the box, put his bat under his arm, spit in both hands, and then slap his hands together. Kirby Puckett made the sign of the cross before each at bat.
There are rituals and superstitions in all sports; some are pretty crazy.
Hall of Famer Larry Walker was an outstanding ballplayer for the Colorado Rockies; he was in love with the number three. When he first signed he asked to have number 33. He wore the number throughout his career. He made sure the phone company gave him a number with as many threes as he could get. He would only wake up at 33 past the hour. He even got married on November 3rd at 3:33 PM!
The Wade Boggs “chicken” story is legendary. Legend has it that Boggs struggled for a while when first called up. The he broke out with a multiple hit game, and then another. He wanted to keep the streak alive so he ate what he ate during the multiple-hit games – chicken. He ate chicken for every meal throughout his entire career, thinking it would bring him good luck.
But that’s not all. Boggs woke up at the exact same time every day, he took batting practice at exactly 5:17 p.m. and he wrote the Hebrew word “Chai” in the batter’s box every at-bat.
Hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky had some interesting rituals as well He would always put his uniform on in a specific order and would drink a Diet Coke, a glass of ice water, a Gatorade and another Diet Coke in that order prior to game time. He also took very good care of his equipment; he treated his hockey stick like his baby – literally! Before each game, Gretzky would apply baby powder to the blade of his stick.
Remember when basketball shorts were short? Why the style change? When Michael Jordan first came into the NBA, he used to wear his University of North Carolina basketball trunks under his Bulls uniform. He wanted his shorts to be longer to hide the North Carolina blue. Jordan of course, took the league by storm and everybody “wanted to be like Mike,” and players nationwide emulated the Jordan “look.”
Barry Bonds kissed the cross on his necklace after each home run. When Serena Williams was in a tournament, she’d wear the same socks throughout the tournament run. Celtic great Bill Russell would force himself to throw up before each game.
Remember college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian of Las Vegas? Tark was a great coach but is probably more well-known for sucking on a towel the entire game. His ritual started when he was coaching high school in California. The gym was so hot, Tark kept walking over to the drinking fountain. He got tired of doing that, so he wet a towel and sucked on it the entire game. He continued the practice his entire career.
That reminds me of when I was in high school. It’s funny how things change, how the “science” of nutrition changes. At that time, we were told that drinking water during a game was bad for you; it would cause stomach cramps. Our student manager would go to the drinking fountain and wet a towel with cold water before our coach called a time out. During the time out, the towel would be passed around to the players, each taking his turn sucking on it! Truth! It’s a miracle we survived!
LeBron James goes over to the scorer’s table before each game, pours talcum powder onto his hands and then tosses it up in the air in a cloud of white that drifts down on the guys seated at the table.
Lebron isn’t the first to toss the powder; Kevin Garnett did it too. For 18 years and 1,455 games Garnett had the same intense pre-game ritual every night. After the National Anthem, he would take off his warm-up clothes and walk over to the basket, facing the padded stanchion. Eyes down, KG would lean his head into the padding and adjust his uniform. Then, he would bang his forehead against the padding twice, hard, and then slap it. Finally, he would go to the scorer’s table and do the talcum powder ritual.
Golf has its share of strangeness too. Golfing great Ernie Els would switch balls after each time he birdied a hole. He didn’t think you could get more than one birdie with the same ball. Jack Nicklaus would never golf unless he had three coins in his pocket.
Billy Casper always golfed carrying a comb and combed his hair hundreds of times a day. Sam Snead always ate a KitKat bar before a round, while Ben Hogan ate plain noodles daily. Bobby Jones had a pre-game ritual; he listened to Mozart, Vivaldi and other classics to get mentally prepared. Zach Johnson’s ball marker is a homemade gift from his wife that has Biblical phrases inscribed on it that Johnson recites throughout the round.
Davis Love III uses coins as ball markers, but he claims that all coins minted after 1970 are bad luck. As a result, he only uses pennies from the 1960’s.