The Situationist

Big Papi Magic

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on April 15, 2008

Last June, we wrote about Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz and how attributional biases may have explained his increased acrimony toward umpires. Back then, Ortiz was slightly off his normal torrid pace at the plate. One of the top three or four hitters in baseball had morphed into a player about 95% as good and seemingly (if not actually) as clutch. In other words, still one of the best players in the game, if subjectively seeming a bit less heroic, particularly given his constant bickering with umpires over called balls and strikes.

If only Ortiz could go back in time to June 2007. Though the 2008 season is still in its infancy with only 13 of the Sox’s 162 games having been played, Ortiz has the lowest batting average of all Major League Baseball players who have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Put differently, Ortiz–who was second in all of baseball last season in OBS (on base plus slugging) and who led the American League in home runs in 2006 — has been the worst hitter in baseball this season. Until last night, he was batting .070, which even if you are not a baseball fan, you can probably tell is awful. What makes it especially damaging for Ortiz is that he is a designated hitter and thus does not contribute defensively. He’s paid to hit, and he’s currently the worst hitter in baseball. Big Papi has lost his pop!

No doubt, Ortiz will rebound at some point, just like he did last season. But he’s been dogged with assorted questions about why he is slumping so badly. There is speculation about whether minor surgery on his right knee after last season may be a problem, whether the Sox season-opening trip to Japan may have have affected his performance, whether he’s devoted too much of his attention to starring in advertisements, whether his weight and age are beginning to take a toll on his ability to swing the bat, or whether something else is going on. Ortiz has responded by saying the problem is in his head:

This game is very mental. Your mind takes over. I know in my my situation, my mind works more than anything else. Once you get physically prepared your mind takes over and sometimes you’re fighting, fighting, fighting (yourself). Sometimes you have to chill out and come back with a fresh mind . . . I’m fine. I don’t get frustrated at all. I’m just trying to get back to being Big Papi again.

He has a point. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, baseball players are no less dependent on their minds for their job performance than rocket scientists are on theirs–albeit in different ways. Despite the obvious physical nature of sports and the related demands for elite athletic talent, social psychologists and related mind scientists have found that baseball players, like other athletes, depend almost exclusively on the unconscious brain, and its ability to streamline information, to actually play the game. (For related Situationist posts, see The Situation of a Baseball Pitch, (Young) Minds Over Body, The Batting Situation, and the Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players.)

It is in part because of the unconscious automaticity of their behavior that leaves them vulnerable to the potentially harmful interference of conscious or subconscious intrusions–athletes can end up “fighting, fighting, fighting” themselves. As David Ortiz struggles “to get back to being Big Papi again,” some of his fans and foes are left also guessing as to the cause of his aberrational slump.

As noted above, they offer and debate numerous possible causal sources, but there is one that we especially want to highlight (in part because it evinces another common theme on this blog): namely, the surprisingly widespread belief in magic:

Often we don’t even register our wacky beliefs. Seeing causality in coincidence can happen even before we have a chance to think about it; the misfiring is sometimes perceptual rather than rational. “Consider what happens when you honk your horn, and just at that moment a streetlight goes out,” observes Brian Scholl, director of Yale’s Perception and Cognition Laboratory. “You may never for a moment believe that your honk caused the light to go out, but you will irresistibly perceive that causal relation. The fact remains that our visual systems refuse to believe in coincidences.” Our overeager eyes, in effect, lay the groundwork for more detailed superstitious ideation. And it turns out that no matter how rational people consider themselves, if they place a high value on hunches they are hard-pressed to hit a baby’s photo on a dartboard. On some level they’re equating image with reality. Even our aim falls prey to intuition.

(For a sample of previous Situationist posts on magic go to “The Situation of Magical Thinking,” “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!” and “The Magic of Jonathan Papelbon’s ‘Knuckle Knock,’” “Red Sox Magic,” and “Think You’ve Got Magical Powers?“)

So, here we go: David Ortiz’s sudden struggles at the dish are analogous to the street light going out.

What is the honking horn? As it happens, the other big Red Sox story this week is about the faith that baseball fans as well as certain baseball-team owners seem to place in the power of a curse. The New York Post had reported that a Red Sox fan, attempted to curse the Yankees’ new stadium by burying a Red Sox jersey at the site. Not just any Red Sox jersey, it turns out, but a David Ortiz jersey. (For more details, see the remarkable four-minute video below; for a legal analysis, check out Geoff Rapp’s post on Sports Law Blog.)

How do you explain Ortiz’s struggles? Honk! Or, as one blogger put it:

The big news on this chilly Sunday in the Fens is that David Ortiz has been given the night off, a chance to clear his head while in the throes of a 1-for-29 slump since April 2. The other big news comes out of New York, where a David Ortiz jersey has been removed from the new Yankee Stadium, after workers jackhammered their way through to remove the offending article. The thought was that the Sox jersey in Yankee foundation would curse the Yanks. But maybe it’s been the other way around? Maybe the jersey, ensconsed in Yankee foundation, was cursing Ortiz.

Last night, Ortiz did something very Big Papi-like: he got two hits. No, they were not big hits. Nor were they clutch hits. Still, it was a noticeable improvement, and the Papi mojo seemed, perhaps, to be returning. His batting average even managed to trickle into the three digit range.

What caused the light to go back on? Easy: the Yankees had jackhammered their way through concrete to find and remove the (apparently backfiring) hex: Deadspin‘s post, “Ortiz Slump Officially Over. Thanks, Yankees!” says it all:

Here’s the thing, Yankees fans. You may have thought that you were heading off some sort of curse by digging up that David Ortiz jersey that was buried beneath your new stadium. But consider this: While the jersey remained buried, it’s owner was hitting .070; last in the majors. In his first game back since the cloth was extricated, Ortiz went 2-for-5, raising his average 34 points, as the Red Sox beat the Indians 6-4. Hank Steinbrenner : “Re-dig the hole! Turn those machines back on!”

We’re hoping the Ortiz light shines brightly this week as the Sox head to Yankee stadium for two games later this week. If not, we urge Red Sox Nation to crank up the voodoo.


6 Responses to “Big Papi Magic”

  1. Keith said

    So true. In the late 70s (I think that’s when it was), I plugged in my iron and the big blackout struck NYC. As I saw all the lights go out, in my apartment and out in the city as viewed the scene from my window, I gasped and thought, “what have I done?!”

  2. Nooree Lee said

    I love how Professors Hanson and McCann combine their love of situationalism and sports. No doubt some of Ortiz’ struggle is mental, but we’re also talking about a 32 year old baseball player who spent all last year struggling with knee and shoulder problems. And pre-steriods era, 32 is about the age that player started declining. I too hope Ortiz bounces back and hits 40+ homers, but some of this decline has to be physical, no? After hitting an average of 47 homers in the three previous seasons, Ortiz only got 35 last year. Doesn’t it make sense that players peak around 29 and start declining a bit?

  3. Garrett said

    Great article. This is something I’ve always been interested in, as we athletes seek out seemingly illusory correlations to explain almost any occurrence, good or bad. I recently wrote a sarcastic piece about it for the Sporting News, explaining my first win in AA this year:

  4. […] Papi Being Big Papi There is no question that on the Red Sox the two biggest stars are Big Papi Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. Both Dominicans are enormously talented ball players and have proven their star […]

  5. Vanessa Gonzalez said

    I am looking to use the image in your article–of Ortiz pointing. Where did you find that image? I’d love to buy it for usage.



  6. Mix said

    Useful post.Thank you.In my humble opinion few of the best for wordpress are : Enlightenment and Adaline. I think most those made by Studiopress are simply super.

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