The Curse of the Damned
It was Halloween as I sat down at the keyboard, bereft of ideas and hope, for the Fall Classic had failed to extend into a climactic weekend. This story was supposed to be about baseball, dammit. Chicago White Sox fans were ecstatic about their lads’ sweep of the Houston Astros, but this World Series pulled the lowest television ratings ever. What was there to say?
Grumbling, I ran out to the convenience store to buy trick-or-treat candy for the neighborhood goblins and ran smack into my column. Arms laden with Mounds and Kit Kats and Kisses, I was stuck behind a lottery wizard with $40 to parlay into this week’s disappointment. “Give me three of these and five of those,” he began as smoke belched from my ears.
I had stood behind hope junkies more often than not my last few trips here. Why didn’t the store managers just dedicate one of their registers to servicing the addicts and let the ice cream and gas buyers, the normal folk, go about their business?
I didn’t get off my high horse till I got back home and reflected that maybe all of us were oscillating between hope and dread, and that those who risk some — maybe much — of their paychecks on the luck of the draw might better be admired than scorned. Gambling is not about the prospect of winning, the psychologists will tell you; it is about the certainty of losing and thus confirming that God does not love you any more than your parents did. Lottery players are gamblers, and addicts too, no matter how slim the action, but with each play they ask the oracle to rule on their fate, and they bravely accept the verdict, so often unfavorable.
Suddenly, this seemed not so different from the drama enacted by Chicago’s White Sox fans, and Boston’s Red Sox Nation before them, for all those years (88 and 86 seasons, respectively, of weirdly hopeful wandering in the wilderness). Outwardly bitter or dismissive of their team’s prospects, hardened by near misses, the true fans still believed and trudged on. Keeping their spirits up were the concocted curses of two of the game’s greatest hitters, Joe Jackson and Babe Ruth. The Curse of Shoeless Joe was rooted in his conspiring with seven other members of the White Sox (known today as the “Black Sox”) and a bumbling bunch of gamblers to toss the World Series to Cincinnati in October 1919. By year’s end the Curse Industry was black and white and red all over as Boston’s Sox traded their Bambino to the New York Yankees and were likewise cast into a darkness of their own making.
What is a curse but an extended period of bad luck, a drought of good fortune, akin to failing to win the jackpot week after week, year after year? Yet lottery players have more dignity than baseball fans. Both know they have no reasonable expectation of ultimate victory and are content to be “in the game” because otherwise their infinitesimal chance would be reduced to naught. But lottery players are a stolid crew: unlike fans, they do not prattle on about the law of averages being in their favor, or their new prospects or schemes holding high promise. No, these convenience-store gamblers are nobler than those who invoke historic curses to explain current ineptitude or even bad luck.
Thankfully, after the Series outcomes these past two Octobers we no longer have to read about eight-manned or seven-gabled guilt. Yet we still must bear the inane Billy Goat Curse that has purportedly kept Chicago’s Cubs out of the World Series since 1945 ... and Merkle’s Revenge, which has denied them a championship since 1908. And Cleveland must expiate (though exterminate would be fine with me) the Curse of Rocky Colavito, which has denied them a championship since they traded him to Detroit for Harvey Kuenn (the Indians also hadn’t won a World Series in the decade before he was traded, but logic and Lake Erie don’t go together).
What curse explains the three-decade journey of the Knicks and Jets without a championship? The Curse of Bernard King? The Revenge of Ken O’Brien? Winning a championship is not an entitlement. If the Law of Averages does not exist (trust me on this, kiddies), neither does the Law of Momentum (in which good things continue to happen to those for whom things are going well, and bad things, you know). If you toss a coin 100,000 times, it will come up heads 10 times in a row once or twice. This will not demonstrate good luck, only mathematical principle, but if one’s vantage point is near or within that ten-heads run, it is easy to be deceived. It is not farfetched for the New York Rangers to go from 1941 to 1993 without a championship, unless you mean to say that it is farfetched for one team’s management to be so consistently inept. Ditto for the Texas Rangers, who have never made it to the World Series since their birth as the newfangled Washington Senators in 1961.
Do the Yankees win so often because they are really lucky, or really good, or really rich? Yes to all. Branch Rickey said, memorably paraphrasing a greater mind, “Luck is the residue of design.” Yes, and it is wise planning to have a wealthy owner (or parents) and it is smart to be lucky. Trumping all, everything looks different in the rearview mirror. Ex post facto, Reggie is Mr. October and Dave Winfield Mr. May.
One of the great chimeras in baseball today is the existence of “clutch hitting.” Do players of great character come through when the game is on the line, say in a close game in the late innings, more often than lesser individuals might? Derek Jeter, an admirable human being, always comes up in this debate, though statistically he is no more clutch than anyone else. Do those who save their best for last shortchange their teammates early in the game? The argument is a philosophical one, sure, but the numbers indicate that UFOs are more likely to exist than clutch hitters, even though we all believe we have witnessed the latter.
We want to think that big-time players come through in big-time situations — that they can be relied upon to perform heroically when the need arises. Ask Alex Rodriguez, who seems to labor under an October curse of some sort. We want to think any number of things that would give us comfort in a time of stress—that when we are broke the boss will offer us a raise, that when we are lonely the perfect mate will somehow materialize, that when we are bereaved something will help us forget. We want to think that we have a special relationship with fate, that despite the blows of the moment, our happy destiny will be fulfilled.
Herein lies our curse, and our glory. In striving for something that much of the time seems beyond our grasp, we take risk—not foolish risk that would presume upon the benevolence of the fates, but risk enough that in failing we will seem foolish to ourselves. Like a solo flight in an airplane or climbing a mountain, or publicly rooting for a chronically bad team, taking the risk of hope provides a certain clarity about whether one enjoys being alive or not.