Back when the NCAA basketball tourney was about to start, there was a lot of fuss -- some of it coming from Uni Watch -- about Florida's new gator-print uniforms, which came in several colors and were expected to be the talk of the tournament.
Welcome to the world of uniform superstitions, where premonitions outweigh aesthetics, and no hunch is too small to become the basis of a personal protocol. And that's not really so surprising -- given how superstitious athletes are about non-apparel issues (not talking to a pitcher who's tossing a no-hitter, players who habitually hop over the foul line, etc.), it figures that they'd have plenty of uni-related rituals too.
The simplest uni superstitions involve uniform numbers, but that's a lengthy topic in its own right -- one that Uni Watch will save for another day. After that, most uni- and equipment-related superstitions break down into four primary categories:
1. The Retroactive Mojo. The logic here, if you want to call it that, goes like this: "Bad [or good] things happened when I wore that, so I'm gonna stop [or keep] wearing it." Sometimes this is a team-wide thing, as with Florida refusing to wear the gator-print unis, or the Steelers choosing to wear white jerseys in Super Bowl XL because of their white-clad run of playoff success. But sometimes it's an individual thing: Last April 19, David Wright, who usually wears his pants like this, went high-cuffed for a game against the Braves. As he wrote in his blog a few weeks later, "[In that game] we got beat, I made three errors and didn't get any hits. So I've decided to retire that look, at least for the time being."
The Retroactive Mojo dates back at least a century. Back in 1905, the New York Giants' home uniforms were white with a big black "NY" insignia, but manager John McGraw had them switch to solid-black unis with white lettering for the World Series, where they beat the Philadelphia A's. When the Giants and A's faced each other again in the 1911 Series, McGraw once again changed his team's home uniforms, switching from this to this. Catcher John Meyers (shown on the left here) later recalled, "Superstitious McGraw, he had us dressed in black uniforms, because that's the way the Giants had been dressed when they beat the A's in the 1905 World Series." This time, though, the Giants lost the Series, and McGraw banned the black uniforms from then on.
The Retroactive Mojo also comes into play during hot streaks. The 49ers had such good luck wearing their white-pants throwbacks during the 1994 regular season that they chose to keep wearing them all the way through Super Bowl XXIX. And according to this article, Chase Utley "didn't wear the same shirt for five weeks, and he kept the same shoes" during his 35-game hitting streak last year.
And there's more:
• If Red Sox pitcher Brendan Donnelly has a bad outing, he tosses his undershirt in the trash. "It's never my fault," he recently told The Boston Globe. "It's the stupid shirt."
• After receiving a death threat while managing the White Sox, Tony La Russa wore a bulletproof vest under a dugout jacket. When the Sox went on a winning streak, he kept wearing the jacket.
• Look closely at photos of Super Bowl XXIV and you'll see that the lettering on Joe Montana's nameplate was heavier and thicker than the lettering on his teammates' nameplates. Why? Because Montana, in a good luck move suggested by his wife, was wearing the exact same jersey he'd worn eight years earlier in Super Bowl XVI, and the team's typography style had changed subtly during that time. (In a sort of reverse-the-curse version of this, when George Foreman won the heavyweight title from Michael Moorer in 1994, he was wearing the same trunks he'd worn while losing the title to Muhammad Ali 20 years earlier.)
2. The Interventive Mojo. The underlying premise of this superstition category goes like this: "If I wear something a certain way, or change things up, or just do something, it'll change my luck." The most obvious example is the rally cap, which has been a baseball fixture for at least 20 years (there's some good background info here). More recently, several NHL teams have started wearing backwards rally helmets on the bench during shootouts, including the Thrashers, Bruins, and Penguins (further details here and here).
Just as the Retroactive Mojo is often employed to maintain a hot streak, the Interventive Mojo is frequently invoked to break a cold streak. Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis, for example, will often switch to new batting gloves if he's mired in a slump. In the NBA, Larry Hughes of the Cavs usually wears a headband, but he'll often go headband-free during the second half if the team is losing or if he's had a bad first half, just to bring some good karma.
The most extreme uni-related example of the Interventive Mojo was the maneuver pulled off by Mike Redmond on May 25, 2003, when he was with the Marlins. With the team struggling and manager Jeff Torborg having just been fired, Redmond ambled off to the indoor batting cage wearing nothing but shoes, socks, and batting gloves. The team won that day, and Redmond got two hits, so he continued his naked batting practice during the course of what became a six-game winning, uh, streak (a classic case of the Interventive Mojo morphing into the Retroactive Mojo). He dusted off the routine in August, leading the Fish to a 20-8 finish and a World Series title. Full details -- but no photos, thankfully -- are available here.
3. The Transferential Mojo. This superstition usually involves putting a hex on your opponent. The most straightforward example is probably former heavyweight champ Michael Spinks, who wore the words "Spinks Jinx" right on his trunks. In a more nuanced approach, teams playing the Dallas Cowboys sometimes opt to wear white at home, thereby forcing the Cowboys to wear their blue jerseys, which are supposedly bad luck. The highest-profile instance of this was in 1980, when the Eagles chose to wear white while playing host to the NFC Championship Game. Sure enough, they won, and the legend of the Cowboys' blue hex was cemented.
More rarely, the Transferential Mojo can be employed to mooch off of someone else's good luck. The prime avatar of this approach appears to be Manny Ramirez, who has been known to poach the gear of a teammate who's on a hot streak. "He'll wear somebody's socks or shirt if a player's been hot," veteran pitcher Miguel Batista recently said (as quoted here). "You'll go to your locker and go 'Where's my damned undershirt?' And guys are like: 'Oh, Manny may have it.' If somebody's hot on the team and he's not, he'll wear their socks, their shirt, anything."
4. Just Because. This is sort of a catch-all category -- superstitions that don't have any rational explanation except, "That's just they way I do it." This includes everything from Tiger Woods wearing red on Sundays to Wily Mo Peņa kissing, sniffing, and gnawing on his bat before stepping into the batter's box. Some additional examples:
• Carl Yastrzemski says he wore the same pair of stirrups from 1967 to 1973 (kind of a gross concept, even for a stirrups partisan like Uni Watch).
• Mark McGwire wore the same protective cup from high school (an even grosser concept), until it was stolen late in his career (grossest concept of all).
• Cricket player Andrew Symonds is so used to wearing zinc cream on his lips that he even did it for an indoor match in 2005. As noted toward the end of this page, "[He said] he was so used to playing with those white lips, it had developed into a superstition for him even though the sun [was] be nowhere to be seen."
And so on. While the foregoing breakdown is extensive, Uni Watch knows it's far from exhaustive. So if you've got additional examples of uni-related superstitions, past or present, you know what to do.
(Huge thanks to Uni Watch intern Vince Grzegorek for his research assistance and keen eye.)
Paul Lukas notes with a raised eyebrow that this column is being published on Friday the 13th. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and archives of his columns are available here, here, and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted? Contact him here.