Amidst a four-game losing streak, veteran players of the Arizona State Sun Devils approached head coach Tracy Smith with a request.
To let the players, well, let loose.
“We were not in a good place after Wednesday’s game,” said Smith after Friday’s series-opening, walk-off win over Long Beach State. “Just lethargic, we weren’t playing well. When things like that start to maybe make a turn for the worst, there’s two choices: You can either feed into all the negativity and all the noise that’s around you, or you can circle the wagons a little bit and pull yourself in and tighten your ranks from within.
“I would say the latter happened.”
Many will attribute the Sun Devils’ recent rebound to their play and the final product on the scoreboard, however, a re-introduced pre-game ritual—the “Energy Circle”—is in some way or another responsible for that, and has keyed their turnaround.
Before each of ASU’s first two games against Long Beach State, the Sun Devils could be seen standing in a large circle towards the right side of the outfield, calling out to another before coming in for a huddle. In the center of it (during Saturday’s rendition, at least) was pitcher Fitz Stadler jawing at teammates as they swayed around.
Planted in the field just beside the group: a large silver fork, which freshman infielder Carter Aldrete says the team brought out from its kitchen just for the new custom.
“Upperclassmen took it upon themselves to make it ironic with a big pitchfork—but it’s just a fork. To us it’s a pitchfork,” Aldrete said following Saturday’s 9-4 win over Long Beach State. “It’s been working ever since we brought it out; Took two games, and we’re trying to build off of that.”
Indeed, the routine is something ASU has incorporated ahead of each of its past two wins, but senior catcher Zac Cerbo says it hasn’t been around since his freshman year.
“Right now, it’s just me and (senior pitcher Eder Erives) who have ever really been a part of it,” he said. “It’s kind of one of those things that you kind of just let loose and get vulnerable in front of your team and lay it all out on the line, and get the guys going.”
The Sun Devils needed to find something to spark them. On the verge of sustaining the longest losing streak the program had incurred in over a decade, Smith said there were some long, hard talks as a team regarding the importance of ownership from his players.
“The seniors, the upperclassmen got together and said ‘we’d like to do this,’” Smith said. “Absolutely. If it’s going to bring an energy level that we’ve been lacking lately, then by any means. I love it when I see teams take ownership of the locker room, take ownership of the dugout, take ownership of what’s going out on the field. I love to just manage baseball; You shouldn’t have to manage effort, kick guys around to get them jump-started. So if guys are handling that internally, it makes my job a lot easier.”
The management from within came via the upperclassmen of the team, and while Cerbo himself has been identified by Smith and other players as the catalyst for the resurge, he deflects the notion by suggesting it was the upperclassmen group as a whole.
“All the older guys have really stepped up and kind of said, ‘We need to figure something out,’” Cerbo said.
“Credit to them. They wanted to do it,” said Smith, who offered further backing of the pre-game action Saturday, despite it probably not suiting him.
“In our locker room, we tell our kids be into winning and don’t worry about who gets the credit. Well, the same thing applies to coaches and whomever. If that makes them feel good and get up and get into the game or whatever—is it necessarily my thing? I don’t know—but if it makes them feel good, absolutely have at it,” the 51-year-old coach said. “That’s the upperclassmen wanting to do that and the guys are into it.”
Now, baseball is no stranger to the superstitious. Rally caps, curses, and the like are embedded in the sport’s lore, and argument can be made a touch of late-inning Muni Magic exists on the premises of Phoenix Municipal Stadium. But as for the pre-game huddle and its accompanying fork, Smith hinted there may be relation to them and ASU’s recent results.
“A coincidence we play with more emotion the last two games? I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think guys are generally into it,” Smith said. “Biggest thing you want guys to do hold each other accountable at the beginning of the game. If that’s a jump-starter for us to do that, you know what? By all means... by all means...”
Cerbo acknowledges the impact the new procedure has had on player engagement.
“I think with how this last weekend’s been for us, in regards to team-building stuff, I think it was something that guys look forward to,” he said. “It kind of has given us that new spark, and change of attitude.”
Though willing to embrace what soon could quickly become a new pre-game tradition, Smith remains noble to his “don’t get too high, don’t get too low” approach.
“We’ve got a bit of momentum boost going here, but what you’re looking for is consistency,” he says. “So what we need to do tomorrow is still strive to get better every single day.”
Or maybe his Sun Devils could just continue to take part in their pre-game Energy Circle. As the saying goes: “If it ain’t broke...”