FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Baseball is a game of rituals, routines, secrets, and superstitions. A timeless game played by grown men who get paid to be boys. Superstitious boys.
Carl Yastrzemski is sitting in a golf cart at the Red Sox minor league complex, avoiding the crowds and raving about a 19-year-old prospect named Lars Anderson, from Jesuit High School in Carmichael, Calif. Forty years since the 1967 Impossible Dream season elevated baseball to sacred cow status in Boston, the 67-year-old Yaz is asked about superstitions. Instead, the last man to win the coveted Triple Crown chats about the weather, fishing, injuries, and aging.
Then the greatest living Red Sox reveals that for seven years, he never changed his red socks.
"I think I wore them from the start of '67 to '73," says Yaz, breaking out that infectious grin. "The red socks. They had a big hole in 'em and everything else, but I wouldn't change 'em. I kept wearing them and wearing them and wearing them."
Yaz, like most baseball players, is superstitious. "A little bit," he acknowledges.
But don't get the impression that the Impossible Dream started with some smelly socks.
"It's not like they have them nowadays," Yastrzemski says. "It was a stirrup sock. They were my outside socks; I don't know how many years I went without putting a new pair on. You wore white [sanitaries] underneath them."
Yaz says he also marked his shorts and sweat shirts. "You'd have a great day -- not a good day -- and you'd say, 'I'm not changing anything.'
"You'd wear the same sweat shirt, same shorts. I'd get a magic marker and make a little mark on them. Then after they got washed, I made sure I'd put those shorts on for the game. Then you'd go 0 for 4 and go with another. But the socks I kept for a long time. Long time."
First baseman Dick Stuart -- known as "Dr. Strangeglove" -- used to get comfortable in the batter's box and then take his used gum out and toss it across the plate. Third baseman Wade Boggs made it into the Hall of Fame with a routine of eating chicken before every game, taking batting practice at exactly 5:17, and running wind sprints at exactly 7:17. He also took exactly 150 ground balls in practice and carved the Hebrew "chai" symbol in the dirt each time he stepped to the plate, even though he is not Jewish. Shortstop Nomar Garciaparra taught a whole generation of New England kids to tap their toes and adjust their batting gloves before they stepped in.
No major sport has more rituals or superstitions than baseball. Players avoid touching the foul lines as if they are the third rail. They never talk to the pitcher during the late stages of a no-hitter. Some behave as if the baseball gods will strike them dead if they don't follow the same rituals.
Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn used to sleep with his bat. Tony La Russa wore a bulletproof vest covered by a warm-up jacket after receiving a death threat while managing the Chicago White Sox. But when his team went on a winning streak, he kept wearing the jacket.
Mike Hargrove of the Orioles used to do so much fiddling and diddling at home plate that he was dubbed "The Human Rain Delay."
Tiger Mark Fidrych conversed with baseballs and wanted them thrown out of the game after he gave up a hit. Steve Finley and Darin Erstad wore mineral pouches to ward off injuries. Roger Clemens used to pat Babe Ruth's plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium on the way to the mound. Larry Walker of the Cardinals had an obsession with the No. 3. He wore No. 33. He got married at 3:33, and reportedly paid a $3 million settlement to his ex-wife, according to the book "Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions from Around the Major Leagues" by Ken Leiker.
Outfielder Wily Mo Peña has the wackiest. In the on-deck circle, he sniffs the pine tar on the handle of his black, 35-inch model C43 Louisville Slugger. He starts at the handle and slowly moves toward the barrel. When he gets near the meat of the bat, he opens his mouth and grips the bat as if he's being fitted for a mouthpiece.
"I bite it with my teeth and give it a kiss," he says.
Now he's ready to hit.
"The umpire says, 'What the hell are you doing?' Everybody goes, 'Why did you do that?' And I don't know. It's just something I always do. I don't really taste it. I just give it a little grip with my teeth."
Does it help him with his hitting or his tape-measure homers?
"I don't know," he says. "I could always hit."
He also uses different color batting gloves on each hand when he's on the road, and black and white at home. "I just try to do something different," he says.
Third baseman Mike Lowell says his superstitions are minor.
"I like to take four warm-up swings in the on-deck circle. Not five, not three. I think I did that in high school one day and I wound up getting four hits that day and I think I've done it ever since. Oh, and I never chew gum hitting. Ever. 'Cause I struck out while chewing gum when I was 8 years old. I had to blame it on something."
Sox captain Jason Varitek puts a baseball in his catcher's mitt and ties it tight, even if the trip is from the clubhouse to the dugout.
"I don't like my game glove getting bounced around," he says.
If first baseman Kevin Youkilis is wearing new batting gloves, it means he's not hitting well.
If Sox pitcher Brendan Donnelly gets lit up, his shirt gets tossed into the trash. "It's never my fault," he says with a laugh. "It's the stupid shirt's fault."
"There's a lot left to chance," says pitcher Kyle Snyder, "in the sense that there's only so much that's within your control and then there's a lot left up to the so-called baseball gods. The majority of the guys have something they do every time out."
Some players claim they are not superstitious but are just following a ritual.
"Baseball's always been strong on routines," says Mike Timlin. "It makes players comfortable. It's more a timing thing; I stretch during the first inning, I do visualization in the second and third. Stretch my arm and legs in the fifth. I play catch in the seventh and I'm ready to go in the eighth. In the bullpen, I say a prayer after the last pitch and ask God for strength. Then I always run to the hill."
Timlin turned 41 March 10.
"I always jog at least, anyway."
Center fielder Coco Crisp does the same ritual during every at-bat. "I pick up dirt, spit on my hands," he says. Then, coiled in the batter's box, he wiggles his fingers as if they've fallen asleep. "I don't wear batting gloves. I move my left hand. It relaxes me and helps my timing. I stomp my front foot down. It's a habit. I'm not that superstitious, although sometimes I skip over the line."
Other players have unusual rituals. Joel Pineiro has a weird way of getting dressed. "The days I pitched, I got dressed starting with my left side, left hand, left leg, then my right side," he says. "I had to eat the same breakfast. French toast, omelet, glass of orange juice, and coffee."
Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield plays mind games.
"I do a crossword puzzle a day, or at least I try to," says Wakefield. "I don't always finish. I didn't start that till I got here in '97-98."
Each game, left fielder Manny Ramírez leads the team out on the field after the exchange of lineup cards. "He just likes to," says manager Terry Francona, whose ritual includes not wearing a uniform with a number on the back.