Superstition and The Knucklehead

The Knucklehead is 6.

We’re in Louisville, Kentucky, at the Louisville Slugger factory and museum. It’s a must-see even for casual baseball fans. They have an exhibit where a dummy wearing catcher’s gear is set up behind netting, and a pitching machine hurls baseballs at the thing. But the pitching machine is behind a movie screen, and there’s a hole in the screen where the ball comes out, and they project different pitchers in their wind-up and time the machine to spit out a baseball at the right moment in the pitcher’s release. And it’s terrifying. You’re only a few feet away, and you literally flinch at the violence of the “THWACK! THWACK!” as the baseballs slam into their target. Few of us have ever seen a baseball flying at 95 mph up close, and even the slow curves and change-ups make you cringe. You can’t imagine standing in there against an assault like that, and an assault is exactly what it feels like. It’s an exhibit where a lot of foolish fantasies about being able to play the game at the major league level are snuffed out. And then you walk over a few feet to a stand where a bunch of bats are attached by lengths of chain to a rack, like freakish bank pens, and you pick up one of Hank Aaron’s actual bats, and you hold it in your hands. And if you turn it over and look at the “sweet spot,” that concentration of ash directly on the other side of the Louisville Slugger oval logo, you see hundreds of tiny little dents forming a mirror oval of their own, and you realize that this man could not only stand in against the violence on display at the pitching exhibit, but could hit these pitches with exactly the part of the bat that he wanted to. And you realize that some of these men who played this game were doing something superhuman and extraordinary, even if it was just on a baseball field.

But the really cool part is touring the factory. During spring training, sales representatives from Hillerich and Bradsby, the good people who have been making the Louisville Slugger out of Pennsylvania ash trees since 1855, hit the major league training camps with their sample bags. Which are huge. Every major league player gets to choose from a variety of bats: weight, length, width, are all considerations. You want a long bat to reach more of the plate? Fine, but you’ll pay for it in weight. Unless you shave the handle or the barrel thinner, in which case the bat may more easily break, or you’ll lose acreage in the bat head that may turn a swinging strike into a foul ball. Want a heavier bat, so you can add more mass to the old Force = Mass x Acceleration formula? No problem, except swinging a heavier bat will slow you down, not only detracting from the equation, but cutting back on your ability to make those quick, late swings. Don’t like what’s in the sample bag? Hillerich and Bradsby will make one to your exact demands, and as long as it’s within league specs and you’re a major leaguer, your team will pay for it all. It’s a lot to think about, but think about it you must, because they’re going to make dozens of these bats just for you. And you’ll know it’s just for you, because your name is burned into the barrel (your signature if you’re ordering off the menu).

So when touring the Louisville Slugger Factory, as they’re making the bats, they know not only which team they happen to be making bats for that day, but which players. And the day The Knucklehead and I were wandering through, they were making bats for the New York Yankees.

“Would you like to hold some?” our tour guide asked us, producing various bats in various stages of completion.

Why, yes, the Red Sox fan in me thought. I would like very much to hold one. To spit on one. To shave one down and put bottle caps and salt on the handle. To coat the outside with cork. To maybe replace the finely grained hardwood with, say, silly putty.

I turn to The Knucklehead with a conspiratorial grin. “We should jinx these bats,” I gleefully whisper to him. He’s a bigger Sox fan than I am, this will be a great father-son moment. And he looks at me, dead serious, and he says, “Dad. That’s cheating.”

It’s a moment I never forgot. I knew that at the time, too, but later that night in the motel room (after we where done playing baseball with the miniature bats they handed out on the tour, and the foam rubber baseball I’d purchased in the gift shop) I thought about it a lot more. And I thought about it many times in the years to come. Still do.

In that moment, The Knucklehead told me that the ethics of the message were more important to him than the ethics of the messenger. I was one of his primary ethical teachers, his rabbi, and he had figured out that what I had said was breaking the rules of what I had said before. He was making an enormous distinction: something isn’t ethical just because Dad, or Teacher, or Doctor, or Pastor says it is, but it’s ethical according to your belief system. What comes from those you admire still needs to be examined. It’s a distinction that many adults find themselves unable to make. It astonished me, and I was proud to my bones to hear him call me on it.

What he didn’t know is that he had also caught me in another ethical crisis. I’ve always been a staunch believer in Reason. Things magical, imaginary, superstitious, have no place in my Philosophie, Horatio. That’s one of the reasons I love baseball; anything in the damn game can be quantified. I need proof. Clear, objective evidence is the order of the day. Otherwise, I have no use for supposition.

Except when it comes to baseball. The baseball fan in me not only recognizes superstition, but embraces it. I have a beer glass I got in Cooperstown that I will only use during the baseball season. When the Red Sox play, it is important to me to be wearing two articles of Red Sox paraphernalia (one shows lack of motivation, three gives the Gods of Baseball an unpleasant whiff of desperation, or worse, lack of faith in your team). It’s important not to be touching anything with your fingertips when a crucial pitch is being thrown to a Sox hitter, or by a Sox pitcher. Is this hypocritical of me? Yes. Yes, it is. Hypocrisy is something you make friends with sometimes as a parent, and I decided to enjoy its dual citizenship when it came to Baseball and Everything Else.

I crouched down to The Knucklehead’s eye level. “It’s OK,” I told him. “It’s not cheating because it doesn’t really work. We’re not going to do anything that makes a bit of difference to the players. We just do this as fans because it makes us feel better. Because there really isn’t much we can do at all to make a difference in the game. It’s just a fun way for us to pretend.”

Well, let me tell you, The Knucklehead was all in at that point. This was going to be a great project. We had to have a conference first, because neither of us had any idea what actually constitutes “jinxing” anything. We came up with something on the spot that involved wiggling fingers, making faces, and muttering, “No hits, no hits, no hits!” We grabbed every Yankee bat we could, and when the tour guide finally asked us what we were doing, we replied in unison, “Nothing.” Then giggled.

But I’ll never forget The Knucklehead’s step that day into a larger ethical world. It may not have seemed like much, but it taught me as a father that he was paying attention not just to me, but to the lessons I was teaching, whether I was teaching intentionally or not. If he measured what was coming out of his father’s mouth against what he had said and done before, he was much more likely to do it with his friends, teachers, coaches, and senators. He was on the right track.

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2 Responses to Superstition and The Knucklehead

  1. Barth says:

    Once again, well done, Pete! I must admit, your superstitious streak surprises me, coming from Mr. Sabermetrics! 😉

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