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10 Bizarre Athlete Superstitions

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If any group has a reason to be superstitious, it's professional athletes. Since their livelihoods rely on their abilities to consistently replicate physical motions, it's hardly surprising that they often don't want to change anything about their routines once they find success. However, some stars take these rituals beyond their logical extremes. Jumping over the baselines when taking the field in baseball? Pretty standard. Wearing the same cup from high school on through your pro career like Mark McGwire reportedly did? Now we're getting a little more peculiar. Here are ten of our favorite truly absurd superstitions.

1. Kevin Rhomberg, Cleveland Indians

Rhomberg played just 41 games in parts of three seasons with the Tribe from 1982-84. But in that short span, the outfielder managed to assert himself as possibly the big leagues' most superstitious player ever. Rhomberg's most peculiar superstition was that if someone touched him, he had to touch that person back. Although this compulsion was not as much of a liability as it might have been in basketball or football, it still led to some odd situations: if Rhomberg were tagged out while running the bases, he'd wait until the defense was clearing the field at inning's end to chase down the player who'd touched him. Rhomberg also refused to make right turns while on the field, because baserunners are always turning left. So if a situation forced him to make a right turn, he'd go to his left and make a full circle to get moving in the correct direction.

2. Mike Bibby, Atlanta Hawks

Like fellow NBA star LeBron James, Bibby has been known to nervously bite and chew his nails during games. When relegated to the bench for a breather during games with the Sacramento Kings, Bibby would obsessively pick at his nails until he stumbled across a better solution: using fingernail clippers on the bench. The clippers became his superstition, and whenever Bibby came to the bench for timeouts, someone would hand him a set so he could go to work on his nails.

3. Jason Terry, Dallas Mavericks

jason-terry.jpgBibby and Terry, college teammates at Arizona, started another odd superstition while playing for the Wildcats. The restless pair slept in the uniform shorts the night before each Arizona game on the logic that it would make the game feel like it was starting sooner. When Terry broke into the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, he decided to start wearing the shorts of the next day's opponent, instead. This ritual is fairly tenuous, though, as it requires Terry to procure a pair of uniform shorts from each opposing NBA team. Although his network of connections with equipment managers and former teammates has helped him out, he had to wear Mavericks shorts before each game of the 2006 NBA Finals since he couldn't find a pair of Heat trunks.


That's not Terry's only superstition, though; he wears knee-high socks as a tribute to his father, which seems normal. The catch is that Terry wears five pairs of them whenever he's on the court; he claims the extra hosiery is more comfortable. Like former third baseman Wade Boggs, Terry also insists on eating chicken before each game, a practice he also says started with Bibby at Arizona, making the 1997 Wildcats the most superstitious team to ever win the NCAA title. [Image courtesy of SI.com.]

4. Moises Alou, New York Mets

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Most baseball players wear batting gloves to absorb some of the shock of making contact with the ball and to improve their grip on the bat. A handful eschew gloves in favor of a barehanded approach, though, most famously outfielder Alou. Alou does have a system for avoiding calluses and hardening his skin: he urinates on his hands throughout the season. New York Yankees catcher Jorge Posada also employs this superstition to aid in his gloveless approach at the plate. The trick may be more gross than helpful, though: a 2004 article in Slate questioned the value of this superstition since urine contains urea, a key ingredient in moisturizers that actually soften the skin.

5. Bruce Gardiner, Ottawa Senators

Gardiner spent five years as a forward in the NHL, most notably with the Senators. His superstition was even more unsettling than Alou's: before each game, Gardiner would dip the blade of his stick in the locker room toilet. Gardiner's strange superstition started in his rookie reason in Ottawa in 1996. After going several games without a point, he asked veteran Tom Chorske for advice. Chorske told Gardiner he was treating his stick too well and needed to teach the wood to respect him by dunking it in the toilet.

Although Gardiner was initially skeptical, after his cold streak extended for a few more games, he took Chorske's advice. He then got hot and started scoring, and he kept on hitting the bathroom before games. Gardiner eventually backed off of dunking his stick regularly, but he'd still go back to the tactic to end a slump. As he told NHL.com in 2007, "You tape it, you dunk it, and you don't touch it. I'd do anything for a couple of goals."

6. Ecuadorian National Soccer Team

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Ecuador's national team knew they needed help if they were to succeed at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Even after practicing and preparing as well as they could, they were still looking for an edge. They found it in Tzamarenda Naychapi, a mystic who London's The Guardian called a "witch doctor-cum-shaman-cum-priest-type-fella," to help enlist the aide of supernatural spirits. Naychapi supposedly visited each of the twelve stadiums being used in the World Cup and chased away any lingering evil spirits and worked a little magic on the pitches and goals themselves. By all accounts the magic worked; although Ecuador is not a traditional soccer powerhouse they defeated Poland and Costa Rica in group play to advance to the Round of 16, where they lost to England 1-0 on a David Beckham goal.

7. Caron Butler, Washington Wizards

When most of us want a glass of something heavily caffeinated that fluoresces green, we can just reach for a Mountain Dew. Sadly for Washington Wizards' All-Star small forward Caron Butler, he can't do the Dew whenever he wants anymore. As Butler told Dan Steinberg of the fantastic D.C. Sports Bog, he would guzzle a two-liter bottle of the sugary soda before and during every game dating back to his All-American career at the University of Connecticut. Butler would throw down half the bottle before the game, then finish it off at halftime. That is, until the Wizards clamped down and forced him to switch to a more traditional sports drink, water.

8. Turk Wendell, Major League Baseball

wendell-turk.jpgThe eccentric reliever pitched for four teams between 1993 and 2004 and posted some solid seasons in that span. However, he's most remembered for his vast collection of bizarre superstitions. Among Wendell's more notable quirks was his requirement that he chew four pieces of black licorice while pitching. At the end of each inning, he'd spit them out, return to the dugout, and brush his teeth, but only after taking a flying leap over the baseline. An avid hunter, Wendell also took the mound wearing a necklace adorned with trophies from animals he had harvested, including mountain lion claws and the teeth of wild pigs and buffalo. When compared to these superstitions, Wendell's other little oddities (drawing three crosses in the dirt on the mound, always throwing the rosin bag down as hard as he could, and insisting figures in his contract end in 99 as a tribute to his jersey number) don't seem so strange.

9. NASCAR Drivers

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Drivers in the top stock-car circuit have their share of superstitions, including green cars being bad luck and a hesitance to carry $50 bills. Possibly the most inexplicable, though, is their adamant refusal to deal with peanuts in their hulls. Specifically, the hulls seem to bother drivers since shelled peanuts or nuts in candy bars are perfectly kosher for the track.

No one is quite sure from where this superstition springs, but it has almost certainly been around since NASCAR's beginnings. One theory dates the tradition back to a 1937 race in Nashville in which peanut shells were sprinkled on the cars of five drivers, all of whom crashed during the race. Another possible backstory holds that one of Junior Johnson's crew was eating peanuts when an engine blew, and the blame fell on the nuts themselves. Others claim that when racing was gaining popularity in the 1930s, mechanics would often find peanut shells from the nearby grandstands in the cylinders of engines that had failed. Whatever the origin, don't take peanuts to the track with you. Any other kind of nut or legume is okay, but peanut shells will only cause misfortune. [Image courtesy of SavvyCenter.com]

10. John Henderson, Jacksonville Jaguars

Lining up across from Jaguars defensive tackle Henderson would be pretty terrifying under the best circumstances; the behemoth stands 6'7" and weighs 335 pounds. The former University of Tennessee star has an even more intimidating pregame superstition, though: he has assistant team trainer Joe Sheehan slap him open-handed across the face as hard as Sheehan possibly can. According to the Florida Times-Union, Henderson and Sheehan began the ritual during the 2003 season as a way to get Henderson amped up for the game by taking the day's first hit in a controlled environment in the locker room. Apparently the strategy works, as Henderson has twice made the Pro Bowl since Sheehan started unloading on him.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

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science
Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello
©AMNH

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."

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istock (blank book) / Taeeun Yoo (cover art)
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literature
12 Fantastic Facts About A Wrinkle in Time
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istock (blank book) / Taeeun Yoo (cover art)

Madeleine L’Engle’s acclaimed science fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time has been delighting readers since its 1962 release. Whether you’ve never had the chance to read this timeless tale or haven’t picked it up in a while, here are some facts that are sure to get you in the mood for a literary journey through the universe—not to mention its upcoming big-screen adaptation.

1. THE AUTHOR’S PERSISTENCE PAID OFF.

She’s a revered writer today, but Madeleine L’Engle’s early literary career was rocky. She nearly gave up on writing on her 40th birthday. L’Engle stuck with it, though, and on a 10-week cross-country camping trip she found herself inspired to begin writing A Wrinkle in Time.

2. EINSTEIN SPARKED L'ENGLE'S INTEREST IN QUANTUM PHYSICS AND TESSERACTS.

L’Engle was never a strong math student, but as an adult she found herself drawn to concepts of cosmology and non-linear time after picking up a book about Albert Einstein. L’Engle adamantly believed that any theory of writing is also a theory of cosmology because “one cannot discuss structure in writing without discussing structure in all life." The idea that religion, science, and magic are different aspects of a single reality and should not be thought of as conflicting is a recurring theme in her work.

3. L’ENGLE BASED THE PROTAGONIST ON HERSELF.

L’Engle often compared her young heroine, Meg Murry, to her childhood self—gangly, awkward, and a poor student. Like many young girls, both Meg and L’Engle were dissatisfied with their looks and felt their appearances were homely, unkempt, and in a constant state of disarray.

4. IT WAS REJECTED BY MORE THAN TWO DOZEN PUBLISHERS.

L’Engle weathered 26 rejections before Farrar, Straus & Giroux finally took a chance on A Wrinkle in Time. Many publishers were nervous about acquiring the novel because it was too difficult to categorize. Was it written for children or adults? Was the genre science fiction or fantasy?

5. L’ENGLE DIDN'T KNOW HOW TO CATEGORIZE THE BOOK, EITHER.

To compound publishers’ worries, L’Engle famously rejected these arbitrary categories and insisted that her writing was for anyone, regardless of age. She believed that children could often understand concepts that would baffle adults, due to their childlike ability to use their imaginations with the unknown.

6. MEG MURRY WAS ONE OF SCIENCE FICTION'S FIRST GREAT FEMALE PROTAGONISTS ...

… and that scared publishers even more. L’Engle believed that the relatively uncommon choice of a young heroine contributed to her struggles getting the book in stores since men and boys dominated science fiction.

Nevertheless, the author stood by her heroine and consistently promoted acceptance of one’s unique traits and personality. When A Wrinkle in Time won the 1963 Newbury Award, L’Engle used her acceptance speech to decry forces working for the standardization of mankind, or, as she so eloquently put it, “making muffins of us, muffins like every other muffin in the muffin tin.” L’Engle’s commitment to individualism contributed to the very future of science fiction. Without her we may never have met The Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen or Divergent’s Tris Prior.

7. THE MURKY GENRE HELPED MAKE THE BOOK A SUCCESS.

Once A Wrinkle in Time hit bookstores, its slippery categorization stopped being a drawback. The book was smart enough for adults without losing sight of the storytelling elements kids love. A glowing 1963 review in The Milwaukee Sentinel captured this sentiment: “A sort of space age Alice in Wonderland, Miss L’Engle’s book combines a warm story of family life with science fiction and a most convincing case for nonconformity. Adults who still enjoy Alice will find it delightful reading along with their youngsters.”

8. THE BOOK IS ACTUALLY THE FIRST OF A SERIES.

Although the other four novels are not as well known as A Wrinkle in Time, the “Time Quintet” is a favorite of science fiction fans. The series, written over a period of nearly 30 years, follows the Murry family’s continuing battle over evil forces.

9. IT IS ONE OF THE MOST FREQUENTLY BANNED BOOKS OF ALL TIME.

Oddly enough, A Wrinkle in Time has been accused of being both too religious and anti-Christian. L’Engle’s particular brand of liberal Christianity was deeply rooted in universal salvation, a view that some critics have claimed “denigrates organized Christianity and promotes an occultic world view.” There have also been objections to the use of Jesus Christ’s name alongside figures like Buddha, Shakespeare, and Gandhi. Detractors feel that grouping these names together trivializes Christ’s divine nature.

10. L’ENGLE LEARNED TO SEE THE UPSIDE OF THIS CONTROVERSY.

The author revealed how she felt about all this sniping in a 2001 interview with The New York Times. She brushed it aside, saying, “It seems people are willing to damn the book without reading it. Nonsense about witchcraft and fantasy. First I felt horror, then anger, and finally I said, 'Ah, the hell with it.' It's great publicity, really.''

11. THE SCIENCE FICTION HAS INSPIRED SCIENCE FACTS.

American astronaut Janice Voss once told L’Engle that A Wrinkle in Time inspired her career path. When Voss asked if she could bring a copy of the novel into space, L’Engle jokingly asked why she couldn’t go, too.

Inspiring astronauts wasn’t L’Engle’s only out-of-this-world achievement. In 2013 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) honored the writer’s memory by naming a crater on Mercury’s south pole “L’Engle.”

12. A STAR-STUDDED MOVIE ADAPTATION WILL HIT THEATERS IN 2018.

Although L’Engle was famously skeptical of film adaptations of the novel, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay (13th; Selma) is bringing a star-filled version of the book to the big screen next year. Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Mindy Kaling, and Zach Galifianakis are among the film's stars. It's due in theaters on March 9, 2018.

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