SPORTS ATHEISM: WHY CURSES DON'T EXIST
Monday, October 30, 2006
With Halloween coming up, it is the perfect time to examine an area of sports culture often passively accepted: curses. Many cultures across the world are superstitious, but Americans, being supposedly well-educated, still believe that Babe Ruth haunted the Boston Red Sox from when he was sold to the New York Yankees in 1920 until 2004, when the Red Sox broke the curse by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. They believe this in the same way that they believe that crossing the path of a black cat brings them bad luck.
Superstition is defined as "a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like."
Nomar Garciaparra has a superstition of adjusting his batting gloves and wristbands, and kicking the dirt in the batter's box. Almost all baseball players observe the superstition of not talking to a pitcher who is throwing a perfect game. Some players refuse to wash their uniforms, equipment, or even their bodies while on a streak of good performance.
However, we will focus on sports curses, such as that of the Bambino, Billy Goat, and Billy Penn, and even the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, among others. You will see why curses, like other forms of superstition including belief in supernatural beings, is irrational.
The Curse of the Bambino
The Story: Babe Ruth, a star of the Boston Red Sox that won three World Series in the six years that he was with the team (and five in fifteen years), was sold to the New York Yankees by owner Harry Frazee on January 3, 1920. Frazee used the money from the Ruth sale to finance a play called "No, No, Nanette." Ruth went on to prosper with the Yankees and is now known as arguably the best player ever to play the game.
Since Ruth was traded, the Red Sox appeared in only four World Series in 86 years, while the Yankees appeared in 39 World Series, and won 26 of them. The Curse, however, gained its notoriety not with the Yankees' success, but with the Red Sox method of failure -- they lost each of the four World Series that they appeared in since the Ruth Sale until 2004 in seven games. And they found special ways to lose, even in the regular season, every time.
- 1946 World Series: In the seventh game, with the score knotted at three apiece, Harry Walker hit a double into the gap, and the runner on first base ignored his third base coach's signal to stop. On the relay throw, Johnny Pesky seemed to hesitate on the relay throw home, and the runner scored to make it 4-3. In the top of the ninth, the Red Sox had runners on the corners with only one out, but couldn't get the tying run home.
- 1949 Season: With two games left, the Red Sox needed to win only one of them, but dropped both to the Yankees.
- 1978 Season: The Red Sox had a 14-game lead in mid-July, but squandered it by the end of the season to force a one-game playoff with the Yankees. With Boston up 2-0 in the seventh inning, Bucky Dent, a below-average hitter with marginal power, hit a three-run homerun to give the Yankees the lead and the victory.
- 1986 World Series: With a 5-3 lead going into the tenth inning, the Red Sox appeared to be on their way to a championship. However, the New York Mets tied the game, then won it on the infamous ground ball that trickled undernearth first baseman Bill Buckner's glove. The Red Sox had been within one strike of the championship twice that game, and then went on to blow a 3-0 lead in the seventh game to lose the World Series. It is this World Series that prompted the "Curse of the Bambino."
- 2003 American League Championship Series: The Red Sox took a 5-2 lead into the eighth inning of the seventh game. Instead of utilizing his bullpen, manager Grady Little stuck with a worn-out Pedro Martinez, who gave up three runs to tie the game. In the bottom of the eleventh inning, Aaron Boone, a below-average hitter with marginal power (like Dent), hit a walkoff homerun to send the Yankees to the World Series.
Why It Never Existed:
- The failure of the Red Sox precedes the sale of Ruth.
- "No, No, Nanette" was not performed until five years after the sale.
- Until 2004, the pitching staff of the Red Sox had been notoriously mediocre, pitching in a hitter's ballpark.
- The Red Sox had always been competitive, for the most part, over the years, but never an elite team (not even in 2004). Statistically, they only barely underperformed, and the Yankees only barely overperformed.
The Curse of the Billy Goat
The Story: Vasili Sianis brought his pet goat to Wrigley Field for Game 4 of the 1945 World Series, but allegedly placed a curse on the Cubs when he and the goat were ejected from the game as a result of the odor of the goat. Additionally, popular belief claims that a team is doomed to fail in the playoffs if it has three or more former Cubs on its roster (known as the "Ex-Cubs Factor").
- 1969 Season: The Cubs squandered an August 8.5 game lead in the Eastern Division to the New York Mets, who eventually won the World Series.
- 1984 National League Division Series: After winning the first two games of the five-game series, the Cubs dropped the next three to lose in heart-breaking fashion. In the fifth game, first baseman Leon Durham misplayed a ball that went through his glove, akin to Buckner's botched play.
- 2003 National League Championship Series: The Cubs had the series lead, three games to two. In the top of the eighth inning of the sixth game, with a 3-0 lead, the Cubs recorded the first out to bring Luis Castillo to the plate. Castillo hit a foul ball down the left-field line, with left-fielder Moises Alou giving chase. A fan, later identified as Steve Bartman, also tried to catch the foul ball and prevented Alou from recording the second out of the inning. The umpire did not rule fan interference, and the Cubs gave up eight runs that inning, eventually losing the series to the Marlins, who went on to win the World Series.
Why It Never Existed:
- The Cubs' championship drought dates back to 1908, 37 years before the "Curse of the Billy Goat" was placed.
- The law of averages dictates that some players from the Cubs would invariably go on to win a championship elsewhere.
- The Arizona Diamondbacks proved the "Ex-Cubs Factor" to be untrue (or broke it, depending on your beliefs) by winning the 2001 World Series against the Yankees. The team featured ex-Cubs Mark Grace, Luis Gonzalez, and Mike Morgan.
The Curse of Billy Penn
The Story: In 1987, the One Liberty Place skyscraper was erected, becoming the tallest monument in Philadelphia at 945 feet tall. The title was taken from the statue of William Penn, which stood 548 feet tall. Since the skyscraper was erected, Philadelphia-based sports have endured a run of failure, as opposed to the run of success between 1974 and 1983, when the Phillies appeared in two World Series, winning one, the Eagles appeared in Super Bowl XV but lost, the Flyers won back-to-back Stanley cups in 1974 and '75, and the Sixers won the NBA championship in 1983. Since the One Liberty Place skyscraper came into existence, the Phillies, Sixers, and Eagles have appeared in one championship (1993, 2000, and 2005, respectively), each resulting in a loss. The Flyers have appeared in two Stanley Cups (1987 and 1997) and lost them both. The curse even extends to horse racing, when Smarty Jones failed to win the Triple Crown in 2004. In 2006, Barbaro was favored to win the Triple Crown, but suffered a fractured right hind leg.
- 1993 World Series: The Phillies were down three games to two to the Toronto Blue Jays in the sixth game of the World Series. They brought a 6-5 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning to be secured by closer Mitch Williams. Rickey Henderson walked to lead off the inning and Paul Molitor singled with one out to bring up Joe Carter. With two strikes, Carter hit a three-run walk-off homerun to win the World Series.
- Phillies Stretch-Run Failure: In 2003, the Phillies had the Wild Card lead for much of the second-half of the season. On September 19, they had a half-game lead over the Florida Marlins with eight games left, and finished the season five games behind them. In 2001, the Phillies were tied for the NL East lead with the Atlanta Braves with 12 games to play, and finished two games behind them. In 2005, the Phillies lost the Wild Card on the final day of the season when the Astros defeated the Cubs to maintain their one-game lead over the Phillies. Similarly, in 2006, the Phillies had a half-game Wild Card lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers with seven games left to play, and finished three games behind them.
- Super Bowl XXXIX: Wide receiver Terrell Owens, who had been out with an injury following a horse-collar tackle by defensive back Roy Williams of the Dallas Cowboys (the injury was believed to be caused by the curse), returned for the game and performed spectacularly, but the Eagles lost by three points after starting their last drive at their 4-yard line with 46 seconds left and failing to score. McNabb, whose final pass was intercepted, was reportedly sick on the last drive, and had trouble calling plays as a result.
- 2001 NBA Finals: After winning the first game against the Los Angeles Lakers, the 76ers dropped the next four games as a result of the play of the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, a Philadelphia native.
Why It Never Existed:
- The failure of Philadelphia's sports teams dates back to 1983, while the skyscraper wasn't built until 1987.
- Mitch Williams gave up the homerun to Joe Carter not as a result of a curse, but because of overuse by manager Jim Fregosi. Williams pitched eight innings in seven postseason games.
- With the exception of 2003, the Phillies had been underdogs in every season since the skyscraper's creation, so their eventual failure was to be expected.
- The Eagles simply ran into an almost unbeatable team in Super Bowl XXXIX with the New England Patriots. The Patriots' victory gave them their third Super Bowl championship in four years and cemented them as one of football's rare dynasties.
The Madden NFL Cover Jinx
The Story: Whomever is featured on the latest cover of John Madden's video game series is said to perform poorly or become injured the following season.
- Barry Sanders: The first person to be featured on the cover (Madden NFL 2000) other than John Madden himself, Sanders retired a week before training camp.
- Dorsey Levens: Levens had a career year in 1999, which led him to be featured on the cover of the 2000 cover (released in PAL regions) of Madden NFL. He only 224 yards the next season, and was cut by the Packers.
- Eddie George: Although George had a great year following his appearance on the 2001 cover, the curse is said to have caused him to bobble a pass in the playoffs against the Baltimore Ravens. The bobbled pass was intercepted by Ray Lewis, who returned it for a touchdown.
- Daunte Culpepper: Culpepper was featured on the 2002 cover, and led the Vikings to a disappointing 4-7 record before a season-ending knee injury.
- Marshall Faulk: Faulk never broke the 1,000-yard rushing mark after appearing on the 2003 cover. He also missed five games with an ankle injury.
- Michael Vick: During a preseason game, just days after the Madden NFL 2004 was released with Vick on the cover, he was injured with a fractured right fibula. He missed eleven games and the Falcons didn't make the playoffs.
- Ray Lewis: For the first time in his career, Lewis didn't record one interception in the season in which he was featured on the 2005 cover. Moreover, Lewis missed the final game of the season with a broken wrist, the Ravens missed the playoffs, and Lewis suffered a season-ending injury the following year.
- Donovan McNabb: Featured on the 2006 cover, McNabb revealed that he had a sports hernia injury after the first game of the season against the Atlanta Falcons. Additionally, McNabb and Owens feuded publicly throughout the season, and Owens was eventually suspended from the team. The result was the Eagles missing the playoffs for the first time in the decade. McNabb played his last game of the season in Week 11.
- Shaun Alexander: The reigning MVP, Alexander, who was featured on the 2007 cover, chipped a bone in his left foot in the first game against the Detroit Lions. Currently, he has missed his last four games and has only 187 rushing yards in the three games he has played.
Why It Never Existed:
- Barry Sanders was neither injured nor performed poorly; he left the team of his own volition.
- Statistically, this is only slightly unlucky. The covers feature a combined four running backs, three quarterbacks, and one wide receiver. Prominent players are injured every year; these nine players just happened to be the unlucky recipients.
- One could make the case that Eddie George and Ray Lewis weren't cursed by the cover. George only had one poor performance in the playoffs. Interceptions are a secondary statistic for linebackers, so Lewis' lack of one is not cause for concern. Moreover, his injury the season of his cover apperance wasn't serious.
As for the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, there are only twelve notable instances of the jinx in the fifty-two year history of the magazine. Superstition, especially in sports, implies that correlation is causation, which is never the case. Fans love the curses, though, especially if it's on their team (those masochists). The White Sox recently broke the curse of the 1919 Black Sox with their 2005 World Series championship, one year after the Red Sox ended the "Curse of the Bambino." As a result, most people were predicting the Cubs to win the 2006 World Series because they were the next most-publicized team with a curse. Instead, they faltered to a 66-96 record, proving that curses and the trends that result from them don't mean a thing.
Become a sports atheist: don't believe in the irrationality of curses, however fun they may be.