<
>

Green Wave have that Mojo working

Editor's note: ESPN.com senior writer Pat Forde has total access to the Tulane baseball team at the College World Series.

OMAHA, Neb. – Between the sixth and seventh innings, Dr. Lance Green strolled down the dugout and delivered my eviction notice.

"Skipper would like you to step into the tunnel," said Green, the Tulane Green Wave's team psychologist.

As part of ESPN.com's total-access deal with Tulane for the College World Series, coach Rick Jones has graciously countenanced my presence everywhere — team meals, bus rides, practices, film sessions, even the dugout for games. But after two frustrating hours at Rosenblatt Stadium Saturday, we reached the time that tries coach's souls — especially the soul of a coach who leads all of mankind in superstitions.

I had to go.

I could actually feel my ejection coming. The No. 1-ranked Green Wave trailed Oregon State 1-0. Hard-hit balls wouldn't drop anywhere but into the mitts of the Beavers. A big upset was brewing. Tension was mounting.

And as the game wore on, I kept noticing Jones looking at me from the other end of the dugout. I could almost see the thought bubble over his head reading, "Jinx."

In an effort to restore the team's groove, I was politely relocated to the tunnel between the dugout and the clubhouse. There, with a limited view of the action, I semi-saw Tulane promptly rally for a steely 3-1 victory.

Jones made four great managerial moves Saturday: He lifted starting pitcher Micah Owings at just the right time in favor of ace reliever Daniel Latham; he used fifth-year senior Scott Madden as a pinch-hitter in the seventh and got a two-RBI double; he inserted outfielder Matt Riser as a late-game defensive replacement and got two nice catches to end the game; and he banished Jinx Boy from the dugout to start the winning rally.

"You know what this means for next game, don't you?" a grinning Green asked after the victory.

Oh, yeah. More tunnel vision for me.

But my six innings in the Tulane dugout were enough to observe the staggering array of rituals the Green Wave embrace on game day. At 56-10 they're arguably the best college baseball team in America, but they're inarguably the most superstitious — perhaps of all time.

Tulane is hardly going to leave it up to silly things like preparation, poise, talent and execution to win the CWS. The Green Wave also has a heaping helping of New Orleans voodoo in the game plan.

And it all starts at the top.

Jones won't cop to being superstitious — "ritual oriented," is the term he prefers — and he dislikes discussing his karmic quirks. But the man relies on everything short of human sacrifices to get himself through nine innings.

He won't leave anything to chance when it comes to preparation — but chance is always invited along for the ride. Just in case.

"It's all about finding a comfort zone," said Green, who was as reluctant to talk about the coach's superstitions as the coach is himself. "Whatever it takes to get to where you're feeling comfortable and ready to perform."

Fungos, popcorn and Coke
It starts with batting practice. Equipment manager Mike Hill — and only Mike Hill — throws Jones' Fungo bat into the grass in front of the dugout. (Yes, it's been the same bat for years now.)

"I could leave the uniforms at home and probably still have a job," Hill said. "But if anything ever happens to that bat ... "

Jones picks up the bat and has two balls rolled to him — not one, not three — that he holds in his left — not right — hand. (An NCAA worker nearly caused a calamity before the Oregon State game when he stepped in and tried to pick up one of the rollers to Jones. The coach shooed the worker out of the way.) Trainer Todd Lorentson — and only Todd Lorentson — must catch balls thrown back to Jones while the coach hits Fungoes.

While Tulane is taking BP, Hill is on to his next ritualistic chore. Before every game he goes to the concession stand and gets Jones a box of popcorn and a cup of Coke. He stores them at Jones' end of the dugout.

"Don't try to fake him out with a Pepsi," Hill said. "It's gotta be a Coke."

Before the first pitch, Jones eats a couple handfuls of popcorn, takes a swig of the Coke and then throws them away. He has pitcher Brandon Gomes present the lineup card; Jones won't touch it. Then, with a set number of chairs occupied by the same players, in the same order, every game, Jones settles in.

Baseball dugout floors are notoriously swampy: tobacco spit, sunflower seed shells and crushed water cups are everywhere. But at Jones' end, the floor is clean enough to eat off of. Everyone knows better than to junk up his side of the room.

During the fourth inning Saturday, Jones dispatched Hill to swap out a chair in the dugout. Something about one of the other chairs was clearly unlucky.

Not that the coach seems to be fully aware of his own habits. On one road trip, he called for a team meeting on the 13th floor of the hotel on Friday the 13th. When the players recoiled, Jones chided them, "Don't be superstitious."

The players roared at that one.

But when you ask the guys about their coach's habits, they look like you're threatening them with scholarship revocation.

"No comment," first baseman Mark Hamilton said.

In the stands, the players' parents have concocted their own stew of taboos and must-dos. Chief among them is the seventh-inning stretch lollipop handout.

Whey they fire up the organ for "Take Me Out To The Ballgame," Susan Latham, Daniel's mom, hands out Tootsie Roll Pops to all the parents and family members. If a parent gets a good-luck lollipop, with an Indian and a star on the wrapper, they're under orders to return it. Before the CWS, Susan Latham calculates that a whopping 424 good-luck lollipops have been returned.

That's a whole lot of sucker mojo.

Necklace, rope and a sledgehammer
But not all credit can be given to Jones' voodoo or the parents' candy. Some has to go to the players, who have their own stash of totems and eccentricities.

Start with the unique game day necklace worn by pitcher Matt Goebel, who boards the bus for the stadium every game with a thick rope around his neck. A 2001 College World Series baseball is at one end of the rope, a metal clasp is at the other end.

The rope was created early in the season by catcher Greg Dini to symbolize team unity: everyone pulling the rope together, in the same direction. Dini drilled a hole in a ball from Tulane's only other trip to the CWS and ran the rope through the ball. On game day, it becomes the property of Goebel and fellow pitcher Ricky Fairchild.

"We're the architectural engineers," Goebel said.

When the team reaches the stadium, Goebel and Fairchild commence an intricate engineering project. With a carefully selected roll of athletic tape, they build a "structure" from which to hang the ball in the dugout. On the top of the dugout they tape the win number they're shooting for that game — 56 against Oregon State. The project takes an entire role of tape to successfully complete.

On Saturday, Fairchild was late for stretching as he and Goebel fretted over the details of the structure. (It worked fine. The ball never fell.)

The other traveling totem is a sledgehammer with the words "Ant Killer" written on the handle in black marker. On the other side are 55 slash marks, one for each Tulane victory before Saturday.

The meaning: after beating Arizona State 8-2 in the first game of a three-game February series, Jones repeated something he'd heard as an assistant high school football coach in North Carolina, half a lifetime ago. He said that kicking over an ant hill doesn't kill the ants; it only gets them stirred up. Hit 'em with a sledgehammer and you'll finish the job.

Tulane sledgehammered ASU twice more that series, 7-2 and 9-3. On Monday, a member of the Green Wave grounds crew delivered the Ant Killer to the team. Freshman Grayden Griener is the "Sledgemaster," charged with bringing it to the ballpark every game.

You wonder: why would a team that's so good be so worried about luck?

"It's gotten to the point where people are doing a lot of stuff, but I think we're all just having fun," said stud outfielder/pitcher Brian Bogusevic, whose diving catch with the bases loaded in the sixth helped save the game for the Wave. "This is just a way to enjoy ourselves."

The Wave players find nothing more enjoyable than a 2-2 count with two outs. Look in the Tulane dugout at that point and you'll see choreography unmatched since the Michael Jackson "Thriller" video.

When Tulane is in the field and the scoreboard reads 2-2-2, the bench players rub their hands together when their pitcher is on the rubber. They rub faster through the windup and then stop suddenly when he delivers the ball to the plate.

When Tulane is at the plate and the scoreboard reads 2-2-2, the players all rub the bills of their caps when the opposing pitcher is on the rubber. They rub the logo on their caps when the pitcher goes into his windup. Then they whip their caps off their heads when the pitcher delivers.

And so it was Saturday that fifth-year senior Scott Madden found himself looking at 2-2-2 in the bottom of the seventh. Tulane still trailed 1-0, with runners on first and second, and pinch-hitter Madden was a strike away from killing the rally — and perhaps giving Oregon State the last lift it needed to steal the game.

This is your textbook pressure situation. And Madden, a high-character kid with a master's degree in finance and a 3.59 GPA, delivered heroically with his double to right-center. Two runs scored. Crisis averted. The Green Wave led at last.

Madden said he's worked hard the past two years on his two-strike hitting, trying to cut down on strikeouts. He tried to pick up the pitch as early as possible, gauge whether it was in the strike zone, and "then just react to it."

That's preparation and cold logic at work. But just in case that wasn't enough ...

... In the Tulane dugout, caps were simultaneously yanked off two-dozen heads as Madden made his serendipitous swing that saved the game.

At least I think they were. I was in the tunnel by then.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.