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Why Are Athletes and Soldiers So Superstitious?

My season as the lucky charm of the Army baseball team.

In baseball, streaks are something to write home about: Cal Ripken, Jr.’s 2,632 consecutive appearances; Joe DiMaggio’s 56 straight games with a hit, and—this one’s still alive—Ichiro Suzuki’s ten seasons in a row with at least 200 hits. My father would never forgive me if I failed to mention a couple of Ted Williams’s streaks: reaching base safely in 84 consecutive games in 1949, or maintaining an on-base percentage of .400 or better for 17 seasons—feats all the more remarkable for the fact that Williams, a Marine fighter pilot, missed three full seasons during World War II and most of two more in Korea.

My winning streak was—everyone agrees—a magical run. I couldn’t write about it until it was over, of course. I couldn’t write about it until I had lost. I say I lost, but it’s as irrational to claim I had anything to do with the losing as it is to imagine that I influenced the winning. Unless, that is, you’re superstitious, which I’m not. At least, I never used to be until I started spending time in the dugout with the Army baseball team.

In 2009, I became one of the team’s several faculty representatives. This assignment involves serving as an academic mentor to the players and providing moral support during the season—including taking a periodic turn in the dugout on game-day. The streak started with my very first, early-season contest in March. It wasn’t exactly baseball weather in the Hudson Valley; swaddled in full-length parka, ski cap, and mittens, I kept warm by pacing the dugout, flapping my arms, and stomping my feet to victory.

Spring weather eventually arrived and, with it, high-stakes league games and hopes of a trip to the NCAA tournament. My next appearance in the dugout came during the first game of a Sunday afternoon doubleheader against Patriot League opponent Holy Cross. Army had dropped two to the Crusaders the day before, and the mood in the dugout was grim. When Army won in resounding fashion, 8-1, Coach pointed to me from the other end of the bench:

“You’re staying for the second game.”
“But Coach,” I said, “Major K has the second game.”
“He can stay too.” Coach replied, “but, if we start to lose, he’s got to go. OK?” 

How do you say no to that? And why would you want to? If, as I do, you still remember the day your father brought home two brand new Franklin gloves—stiff as stones, pockets yawning—and a hulking Hillerich & Bradsby Louisville Slugger; if you hear a Siren’s song in the crack (well, college ping) of the bat; if you enjoy the company of smart, funny, dedicated twenty-year-olds; if you derive an indescribable sensation from standing out there on the first baseline before the game while the national anthem plays, then there really is no finer way to spend an afternoon.

It is a tradition for the faculty representative to bring a robust supply of sunflower seeds and bubble gum to the game. I started to bring in tubs of Bazooka that I got from a guy in Queens. In the dugout, I learned quickly to duck both the arc of spit seed shells, as well as the occasional errant throw from second. I learned above all to relish the chatter—equal parts morale boosting, material assistance (to a runner, let’s say, who is trying to avoid getting picked off at first), associative wordplay, nicknames, and chanted mantras: “Hunh kid … attaboy, Meatball … up … down … back … room … way to work it, Cheese Rat … good boy … good eye … not you … all you … way to battle … wait for yours … so what … OH yeah  … oh YEAH … oHIo … no one better, baby!”

This poetry is a vital part of an elaborate set of rituals—verbal and physical—that surround a game in which chance can sometimes defy even the most rigorous training and discipline. As the poet and avid Brooklyn Dodger fan Marianne Moore wrote, in baseball you never know “how it will go.” Many ballplayers respond to the game’s fundamental unpredictability—the bad hop, the bottom suddenly dropping out of a split-finger fastball, the carom and the ricochet—by embracing superstition.

Watching a major leaguer on television skip over the white lines or scratch runic symbols in the dirt with the end of his bat before stepping into the box, I’ve often had the impression that it’s all a performance. But, the more time I spent in the dugout, the more clearly I saw that ballplayers aren’t doing this stuff for us.

I noticed a “Mr. Potato Head” by the Gatorade bucket one day, a miniature Greek helmet the next. Someone hung a stuffed vulture from the netting on the first-base side. I watched an outfielder place his glove at the same angle in the same place at the end of every inning, a relief pitcher touch the bill of his cap a precise number of times. When things weren’t going well, a fellow perched on the railing would jump down and move to the other end of the dugout muttering, “Gotta change spots.”

I always thought I understood the difference between habit and superstition, but I grew unsure when I became a talisman. Army won the second game of that doubleheader against Holy Cross, and people remembered. “You’re undefeated,” other faculty representatives noted to me in passing. (I wasn’t keeping track of their records.) After another regular season game, I was still unbeaten, and Coach started calling me “a good luck charm.” I tried to duplicate all the things I could remember having done during that first game. I took the same path to the dugout, trotted along the sidewalk, carried the Bazooka in the same bag, exited the field after the game by circling behind home plate and out the third-base gate. I even added a few rituals just in case. On a visit to the Army’s elite Ranger Regiment I had been given a ceremonial coin, which I kept in my pocket in the dugout. If things were looking bleak, I switched pockets. The longer the streak went on, the tougher it got. I started to brood: If I lost, I would become an outcast, a Jonah, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

When Army drew Holy Cross in the opening round of the Patriot League conference tournament, I got the call for the first game of a best of three series. Army chalked up another win: 5-1. Clearly, I had the Crusaders’ number, but I had to skip the second game of the afternoon to give an exam—and Army lost. Now there seemed to be tangible proof that I was a rabbit’s foot. I slept fitfully that night, and the next day I was back in the dugout for the decisive game, which Army won 11-0. The following week, I was there as the team swept Lafayette to clinch the Patriot League championship. I ended my season with an unblemished record.

In the weeks that followed I watched from home every inning of Army’s noble run in the NCAA regionals in Texas. From that distance, I managed to rid myself of superstition, even if my heart still rose or sank with each pitch, and I was left to ponder what everything that had happened over the season really meant—the way in which coincidental patterns began to work on my mind. What roles, I wondered, would luck and superstition continue to play in the cadets’ lives after they hung up their baseball jerseys for combat uniforms?

Perhaps the only people more superstitious than ballplayers are soldiers. In war, of course, unpredictability takes on a much deeper significance. Warding off misfortune becomes an art form—a matter of survival. Ulysses S. Grant, who graduated from West Point in 1843, a year behind baseball’s mythological founder, Abner Doubleday, wrote freely about his own superstitions in his memoirs: 

One of my superstitions had always been when I started to go any where, or to do anything, not to turn back, or stop until the thing intended was accomplished. I have frequently started to go places where I had never been and to which I did not know the way … and if I got past the place without knowing it, instead of turning back, I would go on until a road was found turning in the right direction, take that, and come in by the other side.

Refusing to retrace one’s steps in peace is one thing; in war, it is potentially quite another. Maybe Grant’s superstitious avoidance of the same road was the secret source of his tenacity as a commander. He was known for aggressively, relentlessly pushing ahead. That’s how he won, sometimes at great cost.

I asked a few officers I know about their own combat superstitions. One, who had been an intercollegiate athlete as a cadet, told me about a stuffed dinosaur given to him by one of his children before he left for the first Gulf War. The dinosaur has recently redeployed after serving multiple tours in Iraq in two wars: first with this officer and, eventually, with each of his sons. Another officer told me that he always wore the same floppy, wide-brimmed hat in Vietnam. Sure, it shaded him from the sun, but that wasn’t the point. He refused to go anywhere without it. He wore it on every helicopter ride—even wore it under his helmet—and he lovingly preserved it for years afterward.

A former Army football player shared with me the ritual he followed as a captain before every mission in Iraq: “I always … did the same things. … Grab a bottle of water and stow it in the same place by my seat, tap the forward assist on the rifle three times, grab the radio, check the FBCB2 (digital map), and always look at the same place outside the gate from inside the gate, the place where the conditions change. It helped me change my mind from ‘here’ to ‘there,’ where the stakes are a little higher.” The routine served as a “mental checklist,” the captain explained. It ensured that he never went out on a mission without taking every precaution. Yet, when the order in which he executed the sequence became non-negotiable, the ritual took on a different quality: “Things were normal if I did it that way, and things were not if I didn’t.”

Feeling that things are normal, no matter the irrational means by which a soldier arrives at that conclusion, is no negligible achievement, especially in combat. If a given routine enhances an individual’s mission focus, then it becomes difficult to begrudge him certain idiosyncrasies. But where does one draw the line between a salubrious habit and an unjustified obsession? At what point does the sustaining faith in a particular pattern of actions become a liability?

My luck had rolled over into a new spring, and I was summoned for the first game of the league playoffs against Bucknell on May 15, 2010. Plagued by injury all year long, Army had nevertheless reached the conference tournament once again. I can’t tell you what I did differently that day—I know that I believed as fervently as ever in the team’s ability to pull out a victory—but they fell behind early and had to play catch-up most of the way. Resilient, Army answered repeatedly but not quite loudly enough. They lost 11-9.

My streak had finally snapped at ten games and, with it, a strange spell. The alchemical pinball machine of physiology, psychology, and chance that determines “how it will go” had produced, at last, a loss that had so very little do with me yet for which I felt gravely responsible. The streak and the moment of its breaking remain inextricable in my mind. I would not for anything have traded those many hours in the wind and cold, those epic afternoons in the baking sun. And I’ve finally written it out. This is my version of spring training. I’m getting in shape for next season. “Never saw anything like it,” one of the coaches had said to me the year before as I walked off the field after that championship victory, circled behind home plate, and exited by the obligatory third-base gate.

Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. The opinions she expresses here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

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