Pennant? Yes. Championship? Probably not.

I’m sure every American has heard these numbers repeatedly, for what seems like thousands of times: until this month the Chicago Cubs have not won the National League pennant since 1945—that is 71 years—and they have not won the championship in the World Series since 1908—that is 108 years. No other professional sports team in the United States has existed for one hundred years or more without winning a championship. Those teams that have never won a championship have existed for only a few decades or less.

I am a Cubs fan. I have been watching every game they played in the play-offs this month, although I had to join some games late because of classes I teach. I have been wearing blue every day this month. The Cubs and baseball have been on my mind day and night, yet I have not written a word about them to anyone—not on this blog, not on Facebook, not even in an email to family or friends. Why this silence? I have not written about the Cubs because of a personal superstition.

I am not normally a superstitious person. I share my house with a black cat and we cross paths often. I treat Friday the 13th like any other Friday. Yet as a baseball fan, I do follow certain superstitions, and one of those involves the fact that, whenever I write something about the Cubs, they immediately begin losing.

Now superstitions are the scientific method gone wrong. The scientific method is observation, interpretation, and testing the interpretation with predictions. Biologists and chemists and sociologists all use this method to learn about what they are studying. Why did something happen? Can we observe it happening, interpret its cause, and make predictions based on that interpretation? If the predictions come to be, we believe that our interpretation is valid. Every superstition involves some sense of cause and effect that is mistaken. Superstitious people do certain things expecting certain results, but other observers can see no connection between the actions and the results.

Not every tradition or custom is a superstition. When driving on the highway, I always look over my shoulder before changing lanes. A person who knew nothing about traffic might call that action a superstition, but I know that looking over my shoulder reduces the chance that my car will collide with another car.

Baseball superstitions are based on observations that appear to be cause and effect. Two friends are attending a game and their favored team is losing. Late in the game they exchange seats, and their team pulls ahead and wins the game. If this happens a second time, they will probably exchange seats every time they are at a game and their team is losing.

It is considered bad luck to mention that the pitcher is pitching a no-hitter. Many announcers scorn this superstition because they believe that they have a duty to keep their audience informed. Many fans groan when an announcer mentions the no-hitter, because often the other team gets a hit right after the no-hitter is mentioned. My father says it is bad luck for a pitcher to strike out the first hitter of the game. I have heard no one else mention this superstition, but I have observed that the prediction came true twice this month for the Cubs—both times the pitcher for the Cubs struck out the first batter of the game, the Cubs lost that game.

Whenever I write about the Cubs, they begin losing. Therefore, I have not written about the Cubs all this year. They won 103 games, which is a very good record for the regular season. They beat the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers to earn the National League pennant. Now they are in the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. But the Indians have won three of the four games played so far; to win the championship, the Cubs need to win three more games. If they lose just one more game, the World Series is over and the Indians have won.

A sage has said, “It’s bad luck to be superstitious.” Like fans who exchange seats to try to reverse the luck of their team, I’ve tried to reverse the Cubs fortune. If I fly a Cubs flag and they win, I fly it again for the next game; but if they lose, I put it away. If they lose while the flag is away, I fly it again for the next game.

Researchers say that sports superstitions serve a purpose: they allow fans to feel as though they take part in the teams’ successes. Superstitions allow fans to say “we won!” instead of “they won!” after a game. Obviously, the reverse is true: when a team loses, the team’s fans might blame themselves. This is why it is also healthy for fans to remind themselves, “It’s only a game.” Fans root for their team, they celebrate the wins, and life goes on in spite of the losses.

My name is Salvageable, and I am a Cubs fan. J.

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Magical thinking and sports superstitions

[Note: this post was written a few days ago, but I waited to post it because I did not want to jinx my team.]

The phrase “magical thinking” has slightly different meanings when it is used in different contexts. In the context of mental and emotional health, magical thinking is a symptom of various disorders, including OCD. A person who expects things to change just because of thoughts in that person’s head or actions that person does, in spite of the fact that there is no connection between the thoughts or actions and the expected change, is subject to magical thinking. Let me add two thoughts to this paragraph. First, I am not an expert in psychology, and other people can explain this symptom better than I can. Second, I am in no way mocking anyone suffering from a disorder that includes magical thinking. What I am writing is sincere, and it is largely based on observing my own thoughts and actions.

In the sports world, many athletes have customs so ingrained that they are considered superstitious. Some pitchers, for example, will be careful to enter and leave the baseball field jumping over the chalk line instead of stepping on it. Some batters will continue to wear the same socks every game as long as they are in a hitting streak. It is considered bad luck to talk to a pitcher who is pitching so well that the other team has not gotten a hit. Many other customs are followed by athletes, even though their customs should have nothing to do with their performance. Some studies indicate that these superstitions become self-fulfilling prophecies. People perform better in sports when they have been convinced that luck is on their side.

The athletes are not the only ones who are superstitious. Fans can also believe that their traditions or actions might affect the outcome of a game. If two fans go to the ballpark and their team is losing, they might exchange seats to see if that changes the team’s luck. Many fans, in the ballpark and watching on television, believe that the clothes they are wearing will bring their team luck. Some fans even choose not to attend the games because “they lose every time I come to the ballpark.”

The Chicago Bulls won enough games this season to enter the basketball playoffs. Their first opponent was the Milwaukee Bucks.  I was able to watch the first two games, both of which the Bulls won. The third game was not available where I live, but I checked the internet for the score a few times during the game, and the Bulls won that game too.

The Chicago Bulls won six championships back in the 1990s when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were on the team. My children and I watched the games on television, and we had a bowl of pretzels for a snack. To keep the children from emptying the bowl early in the game, I limited the number of pretzels each could eat. Somehow we started the custom of each eating one pretzel after one of the Bulls players had done something especially well. “Give that man a pretzel,” I would say, and we each would eat a pretzel.

So, after the third victory, I went to the grocery store and bought a bag of pretzels. During the fourth game, I ate a pretzel for every basket and every good defensive move by a Bulls player. The Bulls lost that game, but it was a close game. For the next game, I watched again with my bag of pretzels, again eating a pretzel for every good play. They lost again.

For the sixth game, I decided to leave my pretzels upstairs. This time the Bulls won, meaning that they would next play the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the first game of that series, I again left the pretzels upstairs. The Bulls won the game.

Can you see where this is going? There is no way that my eating pretzels or not eating pretzels can change the course of a professional basketball game. Even so, I want the Bulls to win, and if they lose while I am eating pretzels, then I will not eat a pretzel on game day.

For this reason, when the Bulls lost their second game to Cleveland, I went upstairs after the game and ate some pretzels. Magical thinking or not, I will do everything I can to help the team win another championship.

J.

[Postscript: The day after I wrote this post, the Bulls began a three-game losing streak that knocked them out of the playoffs. Feel free to tell me that it’s not my fault; I won’t believe you. J.]