Coastal Baseball - Getting their mojo working

April 2017
Written By: 
Joe Oestreich & Scott Pleasant
Photographs by: 
Randall Hill

As a new season heats up, we look back at the Chanticleers’ College World Series Championship, a run fueled by talent, togetherness—and a few lucky charms and superstitions.

As strange as it sounds, years from now the most enduring image from CCU’s 2016 baseball season probably won’t be of the Powerade-soaked Chanticleers holding the national championship trophy aloft. More likely, it will be of Rafiki the rally monkey, the stuffed animal who rode with the team into the postseason and off to Omaha, where his positive mojo—along with other superstitions of the players and fans—helped Coastal bring a College World Series victory home to the Grand Strand.

In case you haven’t heard the story: Late in the regular season, after the Chants were swept in a three-game series at Georgia Tech, relief pitcher Bobby Holmes bought a stuffed monkey at a truck stop on the long bus ride back to Conway. Holmes says he wasn’t initially thinking of the animal as a good luck charm, but more as a way to lift the spirits of his teammates. “We were in a bad mood,” he says. “We needed something to make us smile.”

Holmes wanted to name the monkey Richard, but other players started calling it Rafiki, after the mandrill from The Lion King. The name stuck, and the team started keeping him in the dugout during games. Holmes took on the role of Rafiki’s handler and guardian, dressing him, feeding him (bananas, of course) and carrying him just about everywhere he went.

Call it a coincidence if you want, but after adopting Rafiki, the Chants won nine of their last ten regular season games. As the team had learned from multiple viewings of Bull Durham, you never mess with a streak, so come postseason time they weren’t about to abandon their new mascot. Holmes kept Rafiki well fed with bananas, and Coastal qualified for the College World Series. On the plane trip to Omaha, Holmes buckled Rafiki into the seat next to him and made sure that the monkey had all the water he needed. “You gotta keep him hydrated,” Holmes says, “or the magic stops working.”

An inflatable shark that the team picked up in Omaha wasn’t quite so pampered. Someone on the grounds crew at TD Ameritrade Park had rescued it from among the many beach balls and other inflatable toys thrown on the field. That person then dropped it off in the CCU locker room, where the players found it after losing to TCU in their second game in the CWS. Coastal had just been dumped into the losers’ bracket, and, looking for a way to turn their luck around, they named the shark Bruce and added him to the team’s game-day entourage.

When Coastal rebounded with three straight wins to make it into the championship series against Arizona, it looked like Bruce had earned a permanent place in the Chants’ dugout. Even Coach Gary Gilmore, a self-described traditionalist who in past seasons had discouraged such superstitious shenanigans, was won over by the mascots and their positive effect on the team.

Gilmore says that before leaving for Omaha he called other coaches who had taken their teams to the College World Series and come away without a championship. When he asked each coach what they would do differently, all of them said they wished they had let their teams have a little more fun. So Gilmore decided to allow his players to enjoy the ride their own way, even if that meant standing behind him and shaking an inflatable shark while he did interviews on ESPN.

The Chants were staying loose, playing well and, most importantly, winning games. “If Coach Gilmore agrees to let a monkey and a shark in the dugout,” Assistant Athletics Director Mike Cawood says, “you know it’s because we’re winning.”

But after Coastal lost game one of the three-game championship series against Arizona, the players decided that Bruce had to go. Cole Schaefer, Holmes’s roommate on road trips, says the team broke the news to the shark in a private ceremony: “We said, ‘Thank you for doing your job, but now we’ve got to sacrifice you.’” And then the players stabbed Bruce with a ballpoint pen.

You’ll never prove it scientifically, but these kinds of rituals often seem to make a difference. Coach Gilmore says baseball players are the most superstitious of all athletes. He doesn’t necessarily believe in good luck charms, but like most baseball people, when a routine is working, he’s not going to change it. This mantra of not changing it sometimes includes his socks, which he’ll wear day after day as long as the team is on a winning streak. “When we finally do lose a game, those socks are beyond washing,” Gilmore says, laughing. “I’ve got to burn them.”

In their Omaha hotel room, Holmes and Schaefer took the don’t change what’s working adage a step further. They hung the “do not disturb” sign on their door every day to prevent the housekeepers from making the beds and taking out the trash. Schaefer says that when the team finally checked out of the hotel after their two-week run at the CWS, it took two industrial-sized trash bags to get rid of all the pizza boxes and garbage that had accumulated. “I normally like to keep things clean,” says Holmes. “Omaha got a little gross.”

The Chanticleers are far from unusual in the baseball world. Over the years, players have developed a host of superstitions that form a kind of supplemental rulebook. Don’t step on the baseline when you take the field. Never talk about a no-hitter in progress. If you get hit by a pitch, don’t rub the spot. Violate any of these unwritten directives, and you risk destroying whatever mojo is working for you.

But the players aren’t the only ones with superstitions and in-game rituals. Myrtle Beach-area resident Ed Smrdel is a season ticket holder who traveled to Omaha for the CWS. He says he put on his favorite Coastal golf shirt, walked into the stadium and found himself seated next to the father of ace pitcher Andrew Beckwith. “And after that first game Beckwith won,” Smrdel recalls, “his dad said to me, ‘You gotta wear that shirt tomorrow.’ And I did.” Beckwith went 3-0 in Omaha, thanks in part, no doubt, to Ed’s lucky shirt.

Teresa Burns and Brian Bunton—professors in the CCU Physics Department—have bought season tickets together for almost 10 years. They attend just about every home game with a group of fans who sit in what they call “the pit,” the seats just behind home plate. Most of them went to at least a couple of games in Omaha, too. These are the truest of the true fans—the ones you’ll find in the stadium under blankets during early-season games in February.

In the classroom, Bunton and Burns are methodical, rational science-types, so you’d probably think they’d be skeptical when it comes to good luck rituals. But you’d be wrong. Recently, at a local breakfast spot, they talked about the customs and routines their group has developed over the years.

If the Chants aren’t hitting well, the fans in the pit trade seats. When the CCU defense lets in an unearned run, they trade seats again. They’ve also developed an elaborate system of hand gestures to accompany certain pitch counts. It’s pretty complicated, but if you want to join this elite group in the pit, participation is not optional. Burns and Bunton say that even if none of it actually has the power to generate good luck, they hope their game day rites motivate the players by letting them know that their closest fans—closest in both an emotional and physical sense—are paying attention.

Despite all of these coordinated rituals, Bunton maintains that he’s not the superstitious type. He goes along with the group “to enhance the fan experience.” But when he breaks the pit code, he pays a price. Like the time Wake Forest was in town and he accidentally wore their gold and black colors. As soon as he got to the stadium, the pit shamed him into changing his shirt.

At another game, with Coastal ahead in the late innings, he awarded a win on his score sheet to a CCU pitcher before the final out. This was a clear case of tempting fate, so the others made him go sit somewhere else until the victory was secure. Telling that story now, Bunton rolls his eyes a little, but then he admits that at another game he awarded the win to a CCU pitcher early and the Chants lost.

“See?” Burns says with a playful wag of the finger.

She’s the more superstitious of the two. A longtime fan of the New York Yankees, she’s convinced that the Bronx Bombers lost the 2001 World Series because she watched game one on TV instead of maintaining her usual custom of following the Yanks online or in the newspaper. Whenever she happens to catch a game on the tube, the Yankees seem to lose. In 2009 she didn’t watch a single inning on TV, and New York won the World Series. She credits her lack of TV discipline for the Yankees’ World Championship. “If something seems to work locally,” she says, now in full physics professor mode, “it feels like it works globally, even if the stats don’t verify it.” In other words, if whatever you’re doing is working, don’t stop—even if it doesn’t make logical sense.

In the 2016 postseason, the Chants stuck with what was working. That meant rolling with Rafiki. Perhaps Coach Gilmore sums up the situation best: Last year’s team had talent and togetherness, but to pull off a CWS win, Coastal needed some good fortune. Baseball is that kind of game. Championship teams always need a little luck along the way.

Thinking back to the weather delay that gave his pitching staff an extra day of much-needed rest before the third and final game of the championship series, he leans forward and says, “All that lightning and not one drop of rain on the field. I want you to think about that. Not one drop of rain.”

It’s true. The Chants waited through a rain delay without any rain. Coach Gilmore shakes his head in near-disbelief when talking about this particular lucky break. Those precious extra hours of rest between games allowed him to start his worn-down ace, Andrew Beckwith, the guy he had relied on all season—the coach’s human good luck charm.

If lightning hadn’t flashed and if that game had been played as scheduled, it’s hard to imagine the Chants’ overworked pitching staff would have been able to pull off a win. “When you think about all the little things that had to go right,” Gilmore says of the postseason run, “all I can say is there was some kind of divine intervention at work.”

Now a new season is underway, and Rafiki the rally monkey is happily retired. A permanent display is being prepared for him in the CCU clubhouse. “Rafiki is over,” Bobby Holmes says. “He was last year.” If the 2017 Chanticleers are going to find a way to repeat their 2016 success, they’ll have to find another source of magic.

Rafiki may not have thrown a pitch or fielded a ball during CCU’s championship season, but he definitely helped the Chanticleers believe. And that’s the most important thing about rituals and good luck charms. The more you believe, the more they work.