Superstitious or ‘a little stitious,’ Rays hope change does them good
HOUSTON — As bad as things were going with his hitters, Chad Mottola figured he had nothing to lose.
Well, maybe except for his dignity and some respect from his wife.
Trying to lighten the mood among the struggling players, the Rays’ hitting coach decided before last Sunday’s game to darken his more-salt-than-pepper facial hair with dye.
“It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing,” Mottola said. “I saw the product in somebody’s locker, so I figured I’d give it a shot. Unfortunately, some people thought I was serious and were looking at me side-eyed, like, Are you trying?’
“It was definitely scary-looking, just passing the mirror every once in a while. But I did it just trying to loosen the guys up, bring some humor to a day game. There’s stuff I can do at times we need it, to try to mix it up.”
Mottola isn’t the only Ray trying something different.
Whether being superstitious or, as pitcher Zach Eflin said — stealing from Michael Scott of “The Office” — “a little stitious,” the Rays are open to altering whatever they can to amend their results.
After posting the majors’ best record through June 30, losing 15 of their first 21 July games can have that effect.
So, if they can do something different to change things — hair, facial or regular; uniform pants, socks or accessories; walk-up songs; seats on the plane or in the dugout; they’re going to try it.
Catcher Christian Bethancourt switched from his usual long-pants look to high socks and knee-length pants for a handful of recent games, and used different colors of gear behind the plate, but to no avail.
Eflin did the same with his pants. Outfielder Randy Arozarena tried mixing in the Devil Rays socks usually worn only on home Fridays.
“Just trying to find something, a little motivation,” Bethancourt said. “But I guess none of that plays. At the end of the day, we have to swing the bat, we have to throw the ball.”
First baseman Yandy Diaz also was hoping change would do the team good, trying different cleats and colors of arm sleeves based on results.
“I’ve changed a lot,” he said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “But there isn’t one that’s working.”
Neither is reliever Pete Fairbanks’ usual method of limiting losing streaks.
“I’ve been switching my socks a lot this July,” he said. “I rotate after every loss, so I’ve been switching pretty frequently. That hasn’t seemed to work for most of the month, but maybe we can get on a winning streak.”
Justin Su’a, the Rays’ head of mental performance, said he’s heard players and staff discussing all kinds of ways “to change the mojo or the juju or whatever it may be.”
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At times, he said, it really can be just the thought that counts.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to sometimes you need an adjustment shift or an attitude shift or a mindset shift,” Su’a said. “And sometimes that comes in a form of a kinesthetic thing that you can say, ‘OK, I changed something that you can actually label.’
“It’s hard to change your mindset sometimes. So, I’m changing my shirt, which symbolizes my attitude or symbolizes my approach. That’s a very common thing. Whatever we can do to tell ourselves ‘Hey, we’re trying to make adjustments in order to not continue down the path that we’re going,’ and we do that individually all the time.”
Bearded outfielder Josh Lowe got a little deep, speaking a potential change into the universe in hopes of not having to follow through with it.
“I have pondered shaving,” he said. “Maybe the route of shaving down to a goatee, and then if that doesn’t work go to a mustache, and if that doesn’t work shave it all off. But I’m still saving that. I don’t think we need to get there. We’re not there.
“It’s a conversation that I had. This is out there. I’m putting it out there to let my facial hair know that if we don’t change something right now, then it might happen.”
The change order even extends to the radio broadcast booth. Andy Freed — admittedly obsessively —puts his pens, markers and water bottle in different spots to line up a winning streak. Neil Solondz changes his shoe style and shirt color if there was a loss.
Second baseman Brandon Lowe is one of eight Rays who changed their walk-up/walk-out songs in July.
And, for whatever reason, he feels he has hit better since returning from the injured list early in the month and hearing the short snippet of “I Love This Life” by LoCash rather than “Burn the House Down” by AJR, which he had used for years.
“Changing little things to feel different and make yourself feel better can definitely impact and change the way that you’re feeling,” he said. “And this game is so much about feel, it can spark certain guys in certain directions.”
Also switching, or adding, tunes in July were Diaz, Bethancourt, Isaac Paredes, Wander Franco and Jose Siri, as well as relievers Calvin Faucher and Robert Stephenson.
There are also some players who do things just to do them. Less than a month after sitting for 12 hours to have blond-tipped dreadlocks attached, Siri decided they were too much work and had them removed.
Franco for some games has worn one blue cleat and one red one, saying via Navarro, “I think they look nice with our uniforms.”
Mottola decided quickly he had gone too far — even in the name of four-digit OPS — borrowing the dark-beard look from video coordinator Chris “Chico” Fernandez.
“I knew it was coming off immediately,” Mottola said. “I was not going to stick it out. If we actually won, I would have showered and washed it off and then reapplied it for the next game. So there’s some grace that we lost, I guess.”
Mottola’s wife, Emily, wasn’t quite as understanding.
“It caught a lot of people off guard, including my wife,” he said. “She was actually at our daughter’s volleyball game and was getting blown up by texts — What did your husband do? — And she had no idea.
“She thought it wasn’t the wisest idea to be messing around at a time like this. And I said, ‘No, these are the times you mess around like this.’”
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