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Rays supplement teamwork with superstitions

Rays groundskeepers display “lucky” meatballs to recapture the magic of their “lucky” hot dogs, left, only in a photo now.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Rays groundskeepers display “lucky” meatballs to recapture the magic of their “lucky” hot dogs, left, only in a photo now.

ST. PETERSBURG — There are lots of rational reasons why the Tampa Bay Rays are winning this year.

Talented players who work as a team. A steady coach. A resilient bullpen.

Then there were the shriveled hot dogs hanging in the groundskeepers' lockers.

The crew believes they cast a winning spirit over the Rays' season — until someone threw them out.

"I wouldn't have climbed through a Dumpster if I didn't think so," said James Michael, 25, of Pasadena, who searched through trash bags for the missing talismans this season. "We were pretty distraught."

Superstition has long been part of baseball's history. The Curse of the Bambino was often cited as the reason the Red Sox didn't win a World Series title for 86 years. For the Rays, a relatively new team with young players, not all subscribe to the weird routines and irrational rules of baseball superstition.

"I used to be all about them, but I try not to be this year," shortstop Jason Bartlett said. "It drives you crazy."

Like "Chicken Man" Wade Boggs — one of the Rays' first players and the only Hall of Famer to have played for the club — pitcher J.P. Howell has a pregame eating ritual: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a side of Doritos. His mother made the meal for him in high school, and he pitched so well he kept it up through college and into the pros.

Even the Rayhawk has a hint of magic.

In 2006, outfielder Jonny Gomes changed his hairdo to get him out of a batting slump. He said he wanted to "mix things up, clear everyone's head." Now hundreds have them, and the Rays are in the second round of the playoffs.

Anthropologist George Gmelch wrote that superstition develops in baseball because two of the main activities — hitting and pitching — are filled with risk and uncertainty. The performance of a player in large part depends on chance and the other team. So players try to control the outcome with confidence-boosting rituals.

"I can't think of a more superstitious sport than baseball," said outfielder Gabe Gross, who played football at Auburn. He doesn't have any superstitions but chalks it up to the number of games played in baseball. In a long season, players can see patterns and attribute them to coincidences.

That's how the grounds­keepers came to believe in the hanging hot dogs.

One night in April, the groundskeepers had franks for dinner. They hung some of them in an unused locker, a kind of science experiment.

The Rays started winning. And kept winning.

Then, in the miserable ninth inning of an 11-8 loss to the Twins that delayed a playoff berth, one of the crew looked in the locker. The hot dogs were gone.

They realized their power.

Fortunately, someone had taken a picture of the hot dogs a few days before they vanished. The picture went up in the locker, along with a meatball and a half they hoped would bring the same good luck.

"It's there in spirit," Michael said.

The meatball parts did not preserve as well as the hot dogs. They are now black and white, hairy and hardly recognizable.

But still, they hang.

And the Rays are slugging it out with the Red Sox, the World Series in sight.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

Rays supplement teamwork with superstitions 10/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 5:46pm]

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