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Georgia Southern is 'Pineapple Nation'

Eagles take superstition to a new level

Georgia Southern is 'Pineapple Nation'

Georgia Southern is 'Pineapple Nation'

Georgia Southern pitcher Sam Howard (...

    There was one question on everyone’s mind when Georgia Southern was playing in last week’s Southern Conference tournament.
    “What the heck is taped to Sam Howard’s head?”
    Turns out, it was the top of a pineapple, and it had a perfectly good reason for being there. It may have even helped the Eagles win the conference championship.
    The story began last Thanksgiving on the island nation of Haiti. Jason Richman, now a sophomore pitcher for GSU, was on a trip there, and for a reason not apparent at the time, a street vendor approached him and gave him a porcelain pineapple.
“I didn’t even buy anything. I just met him and he gave it to me,” Richman said. “He was super nice. He gave me a bracelet and the pineapple, so I went back later and bought some stuff from him.”
    Richman kept the pineapple on display in his room, though it seemed out of place.
    Fast-forward to the 2014 preseason and an idea by GSU pitching coach B.J. Green.
    “I like to talk to the pitchers about their breathing,” Green said. “I think that’s a part of the game that gets overlooked. Everybody will start yelling at a guy, ‘Hey! You need to relax! Breathe!’ Everyone’s yelling at them and their heart rate goes up. They’re in the moment and the moment is getting to them. I wanted to find something to help them relax.”
    A week before GSU opened the season in Athens against the Georgia Bulldogs, Green asked the pitchers to come up with a word to yell when a pitcher gets in trouble — something to lighten the mood a bit.
     “Ryan Frederick said, ‘Why not “pineapple”?’ Everybody said, ‘Sounds good to me,’” Green recalled.
    Easy enough.
    Then, Richman remembered the random porcelain pineapple sitting in his room. He brought it to the team.
    “It was a little eerie that somebody said it, and Richman had that thing sitting in his room,” Green said. “Then, we’re talking about pineapples and Richman getting that thing in Haiti, and out of nowhere Caleb Pressey — he wasn't even part of the conversation — he starts talking about, ‘I went on a mission trip to Haiti.’ Guys were like, ‘Coach, maybe there’s something to this.’”
    “I brought it to the field, and a baseball fit on top of it perfectly,” Richman added. “It was the weirdest thing.”
    Ever since then, the game ball has sat on the porcelain pineapple until the starting pitcher gets ready to warm up with it. The pineapple is given something to eat and drink. It has become quite a ritual.
    “The starting pitcher’s baseball has to sit on the pineapple, and the starting pitcher has to have something to feed to the pineapple,” Green said. “Swedish Fish mostly. After a win, Richman eats the Swedish Fish.”
    The pitcher feeds the pineapple, and leadoff hitter Kody Adams — because one needs water to survive, too — pours out some water for the pineapple.
    So “pineapple” became the pitchers’ safe word, the ritual was put in place, and the Eagles started the season with a bang. After a shutout — a 23-0 win over Maryland-Eastern Shore — the Eagles ate a pineapple, cut off its top, labeled it and saved it.
    They went 15-1 out of the gate, and “pineapple” was working so well, the hitters came up with a safe word of their own — “indigo.”
    The magic seemed to wear off when GSU began SoCon play. From March 14 until April 30, the Eagles went a disappointing 13-17. Richman figured out what the problem was and called a team meeting on May 2, at Furman.
    “Me and (pitcher) Matt McCall got together and said, ‘Why do we even have ‘indigo’?’ We thought about what coach (Rodney) Hennon has been preaching all season, ‘We’re one. We’re family.’ So we got rid of ‘indigo’,” Richman said.
    The pitching staff threw back-to-back shutouts against Furman following that meeting and tossed 20 consecutive scoreless innings on the way to a sweep. They have a pineapple top for all four shutouts on the season, and those travel with the team.
    Georgia Southern went 11-2 in the month of May, and won the SoCon, but it wasn’t easy.
    The Eagles dropped the opener against Appalachian State, and after Howard started the next game —  GSU eliminated No. 1 seed Western Carolina — they found themselves in a scoreless tie through three innings in an elimination game against App. Howard took matters into his own hands, grabbed one of the pineapple tops, and secured it to his head with athletic tape.
    “We were stuck in a close game,” Howard said, “so I went and grabbed one of the pineapples and put it up there. Right when I taped it up there, (Aaron) Mizell got a single and Stryker Brown hit a two-run bomb. I was just like, ‘Well, guess I’ve gotta wear it every game.’”
    Outfielder Kyle Streicher helped, too. He taped a pair of bats to his back, and used them to support a backpack, which, of course, contained another pineapple top.
    The Brown homer was the difference in the 2-1 win, and Howard’s pineapple top stayed fastened to his head until the top of the ninth in the SoCon title game, when he pitched a 1-2-3 inning in relief. Josh Wirsu took over pineapple duties when Howard took the mound.
    Said Hennon, without a laugh: “Whatever works, right?”
    The Eagles, and the pineapples, of course, will be in Tallahassee, Florida, beginning Friday in the NCAA tournament with a 6 p.m. first pitch against Florida State. Howard and Wirsu will still share pineapple duties on the head, and Streicher will still keep one on his back.
    And if Howard, who is starting the opener against FSU, gets into trouble, expect to hear “pineapple” being yelled from the dugout, because sometimes in big spots, all a pitcher needs is a deep breath and maybe a chuckle.
    “Sometimes in those pressure-packed moments,” Green said, “it starts to feel bigger than it really should. Just take a breath and relax.”

    Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.

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