Athletes searching for that magical extra

by Scott Taylor

For those professional athletes who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the mere idea of having a superstition, seems counter-intuitive.

After all, if you believe, and if you believe that God is in your corner, there is no need to concern yourself with playoff beards, old t-shirts and what number you wear on your jersey.

But history tells us, nothing could be further from the truth.

Take my friend Corey Koskie as an example. There is no better promise keeper that I know. Corey is committed to his faith, walks daily with the Lord, is a great husband and father and is totally committed to Scripture. And yet during his nine-year Major League Baseball career with Minnesota, Toronto and Milwaukee, Koskie wore the same 1998 Team Canada hockey t-shirt under his uniform from the first day of his big league career to the day he retired.

You should have seen it at the end.

“It’s a tribute to Team Canada,” he said back in 2004, “but it’s also for good luck. I’d be lyin’ if I told you otherwise.”

Whether he follows the Lord or his own cosmic muffin, today’s athlete probably has some kind of superstition. There seems to be something deep down in his DNA that tells him he has to wear the same socks on Tuesdays or he’ll go into a prolonged slump. Or worse yet, his team will lose.

As Canadians we’ve all watched our share of Stanley Cup playoff games and most of us know the importance of the playoff beard. While no one is absolutely certain of the origin of the playoff beard, Butch Goring tells me it dates back to the New York Islanders of the early 1980s.

For the uninitiated, players start growing their “playoff beards” when they begin the Stanley Cup tournament in mid-April and don’t shave again until their team has been eliminated or they are hoisting the Cup. It has become as much a team superstition as an individual superstition and it’s thought that a curse will be placed on the player who defies the ritual of the playoff beard.

However, according to Goring, it started because of the schedule. Back in the early 80s, the players didn’t get a prolonged playoff run with games spread apart every two or three days. In fact, they might play four games in five nights. Because a player’s freshly-shaven face would become irritated by the inevitable sweat that dripped off his chin during a game, the Islanders, almost as a group, would just stop shaving. Goring said that he and teammates such as Bobby Nystrom, Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies and goalie Billy Smith loved how the beards made them “look tougher.” As a result, they kept the beards throughout the playoffs. In fact, for the rest of his career, Goring himself always kept a little growth, just to remind opponents that he was tougher than he looked.

Then there is the story of Larry Walker, the great baseball player from Maple Ridge, B.C., who played for the Montreal Expos, the Colorado Rockies and the St. Louis Cardinals. Walker is, arguably, Canada’s greatest MLB player. While he became the 1997 National League MVP through hard work, dedication and freakish natural talent, Walker will probably tell you it was the No. 3 that got him to the top of the game.

Walker was different. He was one of the rare players who had his own “official” theme song. It was Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.” It was appropriate.

Walker was so obsessed with the No. 3 that his jersey number was always 33. This is a guy who married his first wife on Nov. 3 at 3:33 p.m. The only reason he didn’t get married in March was because of spring training. He took practice swings in multiples of three. He once told a reporter that he set his alarm clock for 33 past the hour and, because he loved doing things for other people he purchased 33 season tickets in Section 333 at Olympic Stadium and gave them to disadvantaged children in Montreal.

However, marrying in November may have been ‘unlucky.’ He and his first wife eventually divorced, but according to Ken Leiker’s Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions From Around the Major Leagues, Walker offered his ex a $3 million settlement. Seriously.

Walker hit 383 home runs in his career. The Bill James’ Baseball Abstract always wondered if his final 50 home runs were unintentional.


Scott Taylor is a Winnipeg-based sportswriter and broadcaster.