On a couple of occasions, we have examined how people sometimes claim magical powers—and thus personal responsibility—for events that they couldn’t possibly have controlled (see “Red Sox Magic” and “Think You’ve Got Magical Powers?“). Be it through willing a certain event to happen, or voodooing it not to occur, many of us regard seemingly innocuous rituals as meaningful.
This phenomenon is particularly apparent with sports fans, who sometimes believe that their completely unrelated activity may in some way influence a game or a player’s performance. Back in October 2003, when the Boston Red Sox were enjoying a playoff run that would ultimately end on an Aaron Boone home run, many Sox fans believed that the clothing they wore and food they ate influenced the Sox’s chances. Donovan Slack and Anne Barnard of the Boston Globe wrote about such fans:
The same clothes, the same food, the same beer. They had to sit in the same order on the couch. And, when the Red Sox scored, they rose to their feet and cheered the same way they did during Games 3 and 4.
At a house party in the Fenway last night, guests tried to repeat every move they had made on Saturday and Sunday.
“After every good play, we do a high five, and then I hold up this,” said Patrick Labadia, pointing to a Red Sox sign on the coffee table.
Some might call it behavior bordering on obsessive-compulsive, but, across the region last night, little rituals and big anxieties took hold, as fans seemed to hang their entire sense of identity on the team’s fortunes.
Belief in magic gives us hope, causal explanations, and the illusion of control – all of which we tend to crave – at times when any of those things might be hard to come by. Fears can be assuaged, threats can be tamed, stress can be eased, physical constraints can be transcended, and smoldering embers of hope can be rekindled when magic is possible.
But fans aren’t the only ones who believe in magic. Players can be just as, if not more, superstitious. Take Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, one of the best closers in baseball and the subject of a Suzanne Smalley article in today’s Boston Globe. Papelbon and police officer Billy Dunn, who provides security in Fenway Park, have developed a routine called the “knuckle knock” for whenever Papelbon is called into the game. We excerpt portions of the article below.
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Billy Dunn is a paunchy veteran cop from the streets of Dorchester. Jonathan Papelbon is a strapping young fireballer from the deep South.
The former protects the Red Sox bullpen at Fenway Park. The latter protects Red Sox leads. In the course of their work, the unlikely pair have formed an improbable friendship and originated a good-luck ritual that brings thousands of Fenway’s bleacher creatures to their feet.
It goes like this: In the late innings with the Sox clinging to possible victory, manager Terry Francona walks to the pitcher’s mound and motions with his right arm to summon his All-Star closer. Rock music fills the park . Dunn flings open the bullpen gate and Papelbon steps onto the field. Papelbon and Dunn then square their fists and knock knuckles to the delight of Red Sox fans everywhere.
Dunn shuts the bullpen door. It’s then up to Papelbon to slam the door on the opposing team.
The knuckle knock started last season when an especially pumped-up Papelbon bumped fists with Dunn on a whim. After he had a good outing, the 26-year-old pitcher said, he told Dunn, “All right Billy, now we’ve got to do it every time.”
“I think it’s his way of giving me a little recognition, to say thanks,” says Dunn, a former Marine who has two large tattoos etched into his meaty forearms: “Born to Raise Hell” and “USMC.”
With the Red Sox boasting the best record in the majors, the knuckle knock has captured the imagination of Sox fans from the bleachers to the blogosphere.
Red Sox Nation likes to speculate about the workaday guy who has become a big-league good luck charm. “Papelbon giving that cop a high-five on his way out of the bullpen is one of my favorite things in baseball,” one Sox blogger recently mused. “That cop must be a god to his friends and family.”
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