There's always a story behind the story, and when it comes to Monday's ballgame between the Inland Empire 66ers and visiting Visalia Rawhide, that story's a particularly good one.
The 66ers entered the contest in the midst of a horrendous slump, having lost 12 of their past 15 games. The most ignominious defeat of this dispiriting stretch occurred just the night before, a 17-2 shellacking at the hands of the Visalia Rawhide.
Clearly, something had to change. But what? The team had already prematurely shaved their mustaches after their "Mustache May" initiative failed to produce anything but morale-puncturing losses, and ideas on how to stop the ship from continuing to sink were few and far between.
So how about a good old-fashioned voodoo baseball ritual?
As part of an initiative led by veteran left-hander Harold Williams, the 66ers approached groundskeeper Jason Hilderbrand with a request: they wanted to exorcise their losing demons via the cleansing power of fire. This could be achieved with minimal effort, the list of necessary materials consisting of a garbage can, lighter fluid, a match and flammable offerings to the baseball gods.
Hilderbrand granted the request after running it by team management, and on Monday afternoon at 4 p.m. a somber group of red shirt and shorts-wearing professional baseball prospects emerged from the Arrowhead Credit Union Park home clubhouse and walked as a unit to the groundskeepers' area beyond the center-field fence. There waiting for them was a plastic bin of offending items -- broken bats, batting gloves, infield sod and other reminders of the team's losing ways. The bin was dumped into a metal garbage can, and pitcher Ariel Pena liberally dumped lighter fluid onto this heaping mass of cursed baseball detritus. He was told "that's enough!" by several of his teammates, but Pena just smiled and said "No, it's okay!" as he emptied the bottle.
Before lighting the match, Williams approached the garbage can and remarked that the fire to come "symbolized a new start" and that the team was going to "burn out" their losing ways. There was more to it, of course, and profanity may have been involved. Many of his teammates nodded along with him and occasionally added their own two cents ("I see guys smiling after a loss and I'm sick of it!" came a voice from the crowd), but others merely tried to contain their laughter as they silently smirked at the absurdity of it all.
But the appearance of fire brought forth a true moment of silence. Deep orange flames sprang high from the barrel, accompanied by opaque gray smoke. The smell of the wood bats was undercut by a far less appealing aroma, that of smoldering plastic. And less than a minute later, it was all over. Hilderbrand took a fire extinguisher to the garbage can, and the players quietly marched back in the direction they had come. Though bat handles were still visible from the top of the garbage can, the contents inside was nothing but a thick black mush.
The 66ers late-afternoon exorcism might seem ridiculous to some, but you can't argue with results. Rian Kiniry and Matt Long walked to start Monday's contest, and Michael Wing then smashed a home run to left field. Casey Haerther, whose broken bats were prominent in the garbage can fire, then launched a dinger of his own to right-center. Kole Calhoun, not to be outdone, followed with homer to dead center.
The 66ers five-run first resulted in an easy 7-1 win against the overmatched Rawhide, who were stymied by pitchers Kyle Hurst, Matt Oye, and David Carpenter. This was, truly, a game that was over before it began. For one day, at least, the 66ers' losing ways had been burnt to a crisp.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog.