Baseball is a game of failure. Those who explain it to the uninitiated frequently cite the fact that even the best hitters falter seven out of every 10 trips to the plate. Even then, these great players—the .300 hitters and 40-homer swatters—suffer through extended periods during which their established standards of success are nowhere to be found.
These are the days of the slump, and hitters will do virtually anything to avoid them.
Individual superstitions include such tactics as refusing to change underwear and switching up ordinary routines in extraordinary ways. Dave Concepcion once crawled into a Wrigley Field industrial clothes dryer in an effort to heat up, then collected three hits against the Cubs. Others attempt to bed unattractive women. (“The bigger, the fatter, the uglier, the better,” said ex-pitcher Bob McClure, describing the concept while stopping short of admitting to his own practice of it. “It never failed,” he said. “Either the team went on a winning streak or the guy came out of the slump. It was automatic.”)
More interesting are team-wide solutions. When Frank Robinson managed the Indians, he grew so desperate to jump-start Cleveland’s offense that for one game he had members of the starting lineup draw their positions in the batting order from a hat. (This led to Boog Powell, 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, batting leadoff for the first time in his career.)
Duane Kuiper was also a member of that team (he batted fourth that day, despite having so little power that he hit but a single homer over the course of his 12-year career). Years later he sought motivation for his struggling Giants by bringing the loudest alarm clock he could find into the dugout, in an effort to wake his teammates’ slumbering bats. Bill Caudill once dressed up like Sherlock Holmes, to better find Toronto’s missing offense.
On Tuesday, the White Sox did some slump-busting of their own.
Outfielder Mark Kotsay is batting just .221, and even the balls he’s hit hard recently have turned into outs—including having a home run taken away by an over-the-wall grab by Ichiro on Monday. So his teammates decided to mix things up for him.
Before a game against Seattle, Mark Teahen absconded with two of Kotsay’s bats, and during team stretch set them on fire.
“There are quirky things like changing your uniform or your undershirt or your shoes, but (I’ve never heard of) burning bats,” said Kotsay in the Chicago Tribune.
It’s too soon to tell if it worked, but it’s not the first time players have resorted to fire in an effort to staunch a slump.
In 1999, the Dodgers held a ceremonial cap burning in their bullpen—which wasn’t enough, as they went on to lose their sixth straight and finished the season at 77-85.
Even more pronounced was the bonfire set in the Rangers’ dugout in 1994, in the middle of a game against the Angels.
It was started by players Chris James and Gary Redus, who for kindling used the ratty, red high-top cleats Jose Canseco had been wearing since spring training. Canseco’s reluctance to upgrade his footwear had so offended the sensibilities of his teammates that James hid the shoes before the game, forcing Canseco to don a new pair. When the slugger responded by hitting two home runs in the first three innings, the decision was made to ensure he’d never his old shoes back. There was no time to wait. A bottle of rubbing alcohol was procured from the trainer’s room, somebody found a match and the immolation began.
As the flames grew, members of the Rangers bench started dancing around the pyre.
“I looked over there from first base and said, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ ” said Texas first baseman Will Clark. “Then I heard what they had done. I couldn’t see, I was laughing so hard.”
The catch: His teammates might not have realized it, but Rangers pitcher Kenny Rogers was in the middle of throwing a perfect game at the time.
Rogers, however, was so focused that he never noticed the plume of smoke emerging from the dugout, and remained oblivious until he was told what happened once the game was over. “I like that,” he said. “We’ll burn the rest of his shoes if that’s what it takes.”