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Batter Up! Not So Fast ...

Dodgers all-star Nomar Garciaparra performs a painstaking ritual every time he steps up to the plate. But don't call it a superstition.

September 30, 2006|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

"Is it a tribute to the guy who invented Velcro?" intoned Dodgers announcer Charley Steiner on one radio spot. "Or some sort of juju to ward off evil spirits?"

Garciaparra's game-time routines extend beyond the batter's box. Whether climbing up or down, he half-hops each dugout step. In the on-deck circle, he'll pull at his batting gloves and sink and twist his cleats, as in the box, but he also flips his bat, then grabs it near the thickest part with one hand while tapping it several times on the opposite side with his other hand. Then he switches hands and repeats.

And when heading out to the field, he curls around the coach's third-base box and angles toward the foul line, almost like a high jumper, then hops over the line on his way to first. Every inning. Guaranteed.

What would happen if he didn't do it?

"Why wouldn't I do it?" said Garciaparra, who abandoned his game-time preparation at batting practice. He stepped up to the plate and hit away, sending more than a few balls into the stadium bleachers.

Garciaparra acknowledges having superstitions, but he won't identify whether any of the previously mentioned behaviors qualify in his book.

"There's definitely differences between superstitions and routines," he said. "But I don't like to talk about it. Superstitions are your own thing and not something you share with everybody else."

Garciaparra explains his mysterious ways like this:

"I think everybody has their routines in life. When people experience stuff they can't control, there's only one thing you can control, and that's your routine.

"The biggest thing in the world is trying to be consistent, especially in our game. We do something every single day, we've got to play, and you're expected to be the best every single day and you can't control it. It's on television for everyone to see.

"That's why routines come in for me."

Even sports psychologists have difficulty distinguishing among superstitions, routines and rituals. Chris Bader, a doctoral student at the University of North Texas Center for Sports Psychology and Performance Excellence, eventually gave up his research on sports superstitions out of sheer frustration. There are clear examples of each, of course, but the three blur and overlap a good deal too.

"There's been a ton of research on the subject," Bader said. "But there's just no hard science to back up anything.

"I can tell you players don't like to talk about superstitions, though. They feel like it might take away from the power of the lucky thing. Of course, that's a superstition of its own."

Former Dodgers Manager Tom Lasorda calls what Garciaparra does an idiosyncrasy -- one that his 10-year-old softball-playing granddaughter began emulating this year.

"She does the whole thing with the gloves like Nomar, I swear to God," Lasorda said. "And you can imagine if she's doing it, they must be doing it all over the country."

Garciaparra's behavior, whatever it is, is really like a kid sleeping with a night light -- it keeps the monsters away. And he delivers in the clutch.

Garciaparra has a lifetime batting average above .300, and this season he's batting over .360 with runners in scoring position and in the last three innings of games. He's also won games with a pair of walk-off base hits and another pair of towering walk-off home runs -- the latter down the stretch in a hotly contested playoff race.

"If Nomar is superstitious, then maybe more people in the world need to have them," said Ethier, considered a front-runner for rookie-of-the-year honors until his September batting swoon.

"It works."

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