Superstituous baseball

I love baseball. I think it’s the greatest sport ever invented. It has such a rich and varied history, and even so there is an intricacy to the game itself that makes it fascinating. And then there is the ability of the athletes to play the game! Amazing!

One thing that has always bothered me about baseball is that it is such a superstitious sport. Perhaps other sports are equally superstitious and I am simply unaware of them (for all other sports are inferior in my mind, next to baseball). Nevertheless it has been difficult for me, integrating my love of baseball and my denial of all things superstitious.

In the past, when I have mentioned this dichotomy, someone almost always points out that, belief system to one side, you never, ever mess with a streak. I understand this perfectly, and in fact, a streak has little to do with superstition. There are good reasons for going through the motions in order to preserve a streak. For one thing, baseball is repetitious and by repeating the same motions again and again, one would suppose improvements would be made over time. For another, the line between good and bad in baseball is sometimes extraordinarily thin. One extra good swing per at bat can make the difference. Thus, repetition, as far as it gets someone into the mindset to keep doing whatever it is they are doing, makes sense when it comes to a good streak. Of course, the counter argument is: what about a bad streak, such as a hitting slump. I’d argue that even here, the approach should be the same. People fall into slumps because they change things up and then end up chasing the hit–or whatever it might be, digging themselves deeper and deeper into despair.

But again, none of this is superstitious. I don’t believe that stepping over the foul line when leaving the baseball field has any positive or negative effect on the outcome of the game. And I certainly don’t believe in curses.

Which makes me question what, exactly, was going through the mind of the person who attempted to thwart the Yankees by burying a Red Sox jersey within the new Yankee Stadium.

Set aside all superstition for the moment. This action, taken by a Red Sox fan, speaks of desperation. I may be reading too much into this, but it seems to me that any fan that would attempt to “curse” another team into losing games has so little faith in the abilities of the players of his own team as to make me wonder how the person can be a fan in the first place. To me it seems equivalent to admitting that your team cannot win without the intervention of supernatural powers.

But now let’s look at the superstitious elements. What on earth makes someone think that secretly burying a jersey inside Yankee stadium (or any stadium for that matter), would have any impact whatsoever on a team? The principle of “no necessary connection” comes to mind, but even setting that aside, I think it is possible to devise a test to see if buried shirts have such a magical effect.

For the test to be fair, you’d need a few teams to track throughout the season, and at least one “control team. For the purposes of my experiment, let’s use the Yankees and Red Sox as the experimental teams, and the St. Louis Cardinals as the control team. For both the Yankees and Red Sox, a computer would generate a schedule of their home games and randomly pick one-third of the home games in which the rival’s jersey would be buried in the home stadium; one-third of the home games in which their own jersey is buried in the home stadium; and one third of the home games in which no jersey is buried. On those games day, experimenters would then bury the appropriate jerseys for the appropriate teams. Of course, St. Louis, being the control team, would never have a jersey buried. The key is that the only people who would know which jersey was buried when would be the experimenters themselves.

Given this, the Yankees, for example, would play 27 home games with a Red Sox jersey buried in their stadium, 27 home games with a Yankees jersey buried in their stadium, and 27 home games with no jersey at all. Ditto the Red Sox.

The idea, of course, is to see if the Yankees happen to play better when a Yankees jersey is buried in the stadium, or worse when a Red Sox jersey is buried. Furthermore, we can also look at how the Red Sox play when they are at Yankee stadium and a Red Sox jersey happens to be buried there; or when the Yankees are at Fenway when a Red Sox jersey is buried there.

When all is said and done, the main question would be: did the presence of an enemy shirt cause a team to play worse than usual? Did the presence of a friendly shirt cause a team to play better than usual? And the Cardinals, with no shirt, would be expected to play however they play without “supernatural” influence.

Looked at this way, I highly suspect that a buried jersey would have no influence on a team that knew nothing about it. There would probably be games where a Yankees jersey would be buried at Yankees stadium and the Yanks would play terribly. There would probably be games at Fenway where a Red Sox jersey was buried and which the Red Sox would win handily. And vice versa. Of course, a variant (and perhaps even more interesting version of the experiment) would be to “hint” to the players that a particular jersey is buried at the stadium on a given game, always hinting the opposite of what is really buried. In this case, one would be looking to see if the mystical power of the buried jersey could overcome the knowledge the players have that a jersey is buried in their stadium, either as help or hindrance.

When all is said and done, I think we’d find that the buried jersey has more value as foundation material than it does as a mystical cursing device.