Superstition has always been a part of sports, baseball specifically. Players all have pregame routines and particular ways they go about doing things with regard to what they wear, what they eat, and the equipment they use. When they’re on a hot streak they refuse to change anything, but when they go cold, they irrationally look something to change. But there’s a fine line between superstition and compulsion, and no player better exemplifies that than Kevin Rhomberg.
As a player, Rhomberg had a rather unexceptional career. Over the course of three seasons with the Cleveland Indians from 1982 to 1984, he played in just 41 games, only garnering 47 career major league at-bats. To be fair, he had 18 hits in those 47 at-bats, good for a career major league average of .383. But Rhomberg is most remembered for his compulsive nature, which by today’s standards, most people would describe as a rather serious case of OCD.
Rhomberg’s most infamous impulse was the need to touch anyone that touched him first. He was essentially a kid playing tag with his friends who refused to lose the game. The compulsion earned him the nickname “Touch Me, Touch Me” from Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove. Rhomberg described the compulsion as “simply a form of concentration,” but in reality, it created a number of comical and memorable instances.
When Rhomberg was playing in the minors, Dan Rohn, a teammate at the time, touched him and purposely ran off, eluding Rhomberg for hours. It wasn’t until three o’clock the next morning that Rhomberg came knocking on Rohn’s hotel door so he could touch him, concluding the game of cat and mouse.
He looked for me for two hours. I was hiding under desks, in the shower, the bathroom. He couldn’t find me.
In another incident, Rhomberg’s Indians teammate Rick Sutcliffe reached under a bathroom stall to touch Rhomberg’s toe. Not knowing who had touched him, Rhomberg was forced to go around the clubhouse and touch every one of his teammates to ensuring he touched back the teammate that got him.
His compulsion didn’t just apply to people either. During a minor league game, former all-star Brook Jacoby tagged Rhomberg and then threw the ball out of the stadium. Since it was the ball that touched him, Rhomberg had to touch the ball back. Jacoby contends that Rhomberg spent two hours searching for where the ball had landed so he could touch it.
Of course, Rhomberg did have a contingency plan. If a person ever got away from him before he could touch back, Rhomberg would simply send that person a letter, pronouncing that receiving the letter “constitutes a touch.”
Rhomberg’s quirks extended beyond touching. Like most players, he had a ritual every time he stepped into the batter’s box. Rhomberg’s ritual consisted of tapping his bat, helmet, and cleats four times each and then taking four practice swings. He would also make sure he turned left into the batter’s box, rationalizing that baseball has no right turns.
I finally forced myself to quit it when I realized my kids had become aware of what I was doing. We were in a shopping mall and they started making left turns in order to make a right turn. When my family started getting involved in it, I figured it was time to end it.
It’s a bit unfair that Rhomberg is most remembered for his oddities and compulsions, but it’s also unfortunate that he didn’t have a more accomplished big league career on the field. He consistently posted impressive numbers throughout his time in the minors and even won a minor league batting title, beating out Don Mattingly and Willie McGee, who played in the same league that year. Despite being an accomplished minor league hitter with speed to burn, making him an ideal leadoff hitter, the Indians gave him few opportunities to prove himself in the big leagues.
Unfortunately, Rhomberg is best remembered for his quirks and not what he could do on the field. It’s even more unfortunate that he walked away from the game with so much untapped potential. But because of his unique compulsions, Rhomberg will be remembered for something, and just like his unusual propensity for touching everything and everyone that touched him, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.