Superstitions come into play, but not like the old days

By From page B1 | October 31, 2012

During Halloween week, one might figure that athletes at a school that has Diablo the Devil for a mascot would be bubbling over with superstitions and curious rituals.

After all, the sports world has been a magnet for strange routines, odd behavior and downright smelly traditions.

So, before this full moon fades from memory, let’s take a look at some goofy traditions from Davis High, professional sports and the silver screen …

Picasso on the radar gun? Former DHS pitcher Ben Eckels, now in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, likes to “draw a little picture on the back of the mound” before each start. Seems innocent enough, unless the fire-balling Eckels draws a picture of you. His heater is now in the mid-90s.

Ugly becomes fashion. The incomparable Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina game shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform every game. So distracting (and uncomfortable) became the flashes of blue from under those NBA short-shorts, that Jordan had his uniform bottoms specially made, almost four inches longer and baggy. Accidentally, the new look took off and lasts league-wide to this day.

“Phew. Please, can I wash these?” Several Blue Devil players said their superstitions include wearing the same socks until a win streak ends or the same underwear as long as the team is doing well. Clothing seems to have a lot to do with perceived athletic success.

“Jobu, you no damn good.”  The 1989 movie “Major League” was filled with baseball peccadillos. For example, until the juice wore off his voodoo statue, Pedro Serrano worshiped his Caribbean talisman … but once the slump hit, the big first baseman jettisoned the little tiki toy and found he could hit a baseball without  hocus-pocus or black magic. The film remains a sports classic, but Serrano (Dennis Haysbert) found he’s a better insurance salesman than cleanup hitter.

Bob was Old School. Longtime DHS coach and teacher Bob Johnson was surrounded by colleagues who had superstitions (Dave Whitmire never passes a penny on the ground without putting it in his shoe). But Johnson’s list of curiosities would have filled a roster.

“I wore the same gray slacks and two shirts for 20 years: one navy blue for home games and one white for away games,” Johnson says. “I wore them until they were threadbare, and then wore them some more.”

Johnson’s wife Karen (who was washing those decomposing duds) saw the antiquity taking over and bought Bob new shirts, laying them out for her husband.

No dice …

“(I) couldn’t wear them,” Johnson said with a laugh. “(I) stuck to my tried-and-true (shirts) and we were winners.”

Johnson would always grab a hot dog before his JV games — “Even if I couldn’t eat it” — and kept defensive calls written on a manila folder that he tucked into his pants in the front: “Handy, but not cool.”

Wow. Touchy. Kevin Rhomberg. Anybody? Kevin Rhomberg? It’s OK, nobody remembers Kevin Rhomberg.

He played 41 games for the Cleveland Indians in 1982. His quirk? If somebody touched Rhomberg — a hand shake, pat on the back, an accidental brush — he had to touch that person back, immediately.

Once teammates discovered his phobia, they drove the poor guy crazy. Players would come up to him, touch him, then run away. When games were uneventful, even umpires got in on the act.

Rhomberg didn’t last long. How could he? All that running around …

“OK. You can start now.” Blue Devil Athletic Director Dennis Foster, who coached eight seasons of basketball at Natomas before coming to DHS, had to be the last person into the gym: “I always wanted the spotlight to be on the players, not on the coach.” He also stood far away from his players during the national anthem.

As a player, Foster would touch the half-court stripe with his hand after every shot, lay-up or drill.

Every shot? Talk about getting back on defense.

These coaches know. Current Blue Devil coaches like boys water polo’s Tracy Stapleton and football mentor Steve Smyte don’t buy the hooey. “I have no superstitions,” Stapleton declares. Smyte says: “The older I’ve become, the more I realize hard work beats superstition every time.

“In my younger football- and hockey-playing days, I had more routines than superstitions. I believe in routine because it reduces stress and creates patterns for success.”

Bet there’s no candy at his house, either.

— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-747-8047.

Bruce Gallaudet

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