Barry Grass | The Normal School | Spring 2014 | 18 minutes (4,537 words)
Late in every February, Major League Baseball players report to Spring Training.
Every year in Kansas City this is heralded by a gigantic special section in The Kansas City Star crammed full of positive reporting and hopeful predictions about the coming season. Each year it is another variation on the same theme: “This is Our Year” or “Is This Our Year?” or “Can the Royals Win it All?” or “Our Time” or “How Good are these Royals?” or “How Good are these Royals” or or or. It gets tiresome after growing up hearing it year after year, because the answer has always been the same. The answer is no. It’s not our time. It’s not our year. No, the Royals aren’t going to win it all. These Royals are not very good. No.
The Kansas City Royals won their first and only World Series in 1985, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. The Cardinals have since competed in four World Series, winning two of them, the most recent victory in the 2011 World Series being perhaps the most miraculous and exciting and charmed postseason run in baseball history. The Royals have since been arguably the worst franchise in any American professional sport. In the 29 seasons since that ’85 championship, the Royals have lost 90 games in a single season nine times. They have had 100-loss seasons four times.
I should say here that the Royals are my favorite sports team, and if I seem like I go through life with a measured pessimism, it is because of what I’ve seen from the boys in blue. I’ve seen a first baseman get hit in his spine by a throw from the outfield for which he was supposed to be the cutoff man. I’ve seen the same first baseman, an All Star in 2004, chase after a pop-up in foul territory only to get trapped in the rain tarp that was rolled up against a wall. I’ve seen an outfielder climb the outfield wall in an effort to make a home-run-robbing catch only to see the ball land in the outfield grass, far short of the fence. I’ve seen an outfielder lose a ball in the lights only to have it bounce off of his head and over the fence for a game-tying home run. I’ve seen a pair of outfielders casually jog to the dugout under the assumption that the inning was over while the fly ball that one of them was supposed to catch landed gently behind them. Over the course of my entire life there have been these moments, and there have been dozens more smaller, routine failures.
Their beloved owner, Ewing Kauffman, died in 1993, and the Royals went without an owner until 2000. That new owner, former Wal-Mart president and CEO, David Glass, implemented a Wal-Mart-like business approach to running a major league sports organization. Costs were cut at every turn, from minor leagues spending to charity work in the community to the post-game buffet spread. And while Glass has seemingly abandoned this approach in recent years, and while the organization currently enjoys one of the best farm system in all of the major leagues, and while there is a unanimously held opinion amongst baseball pundits and experts that the Royals will be very competitive for the next four to six years, most Royals fans are hesitant to believe any of it. I understand the baseball logic, and I should be hopeful, but I don’t believe. Until it happens, I’m always going to assume that the Royals are going to fail in devastating fashion. Expectations only make the fall harder. This is the Show-Me State, sure, but this time we’ve got our eyes closed, our hands cupped over our eyelids, and we know that we’ll peek through our fingers just long enough to witness the inevitable failure.
I want to think about why that is. Which is to say, I want to think about curses.
Sports fans and sports players love to talk about curses, love the very idea of them.
They adore superstition in general. Take the infamous “playoff beard” for instance. In the 1980’s, the New York Islanders made the NHL playoffs and resolved, as a team, to each grow beards until they were eliminated. This is now a tradition that spans the entirety of American sports. So fans now grow playoff beards, scraggly or course or thick, grow beards until their team loses, keep beards out of sadness that their team lost. People have lucky shirts, sun-faded and beer-stained, that they wear every game day; have lucky seats on the couch, have lucky nacho recipes. Routines that must be consistently followed. Fans seem to have an a priori understanding that small disruptions to their routine can cause a devastating butterfly effect resulting in an easy ninth–inning fly ball that is inexplicably dropped by their favorite outfielder. It’s about the level of investment one has in their team—not just at the psychic level but at the cosmic. You must have a cosmic stake in things because, as every sports fan knows, there are or can easily be cosmic forces at work against your team. Your team might be cursed.
I can’t help but think about “curse words” here, can’t help but talk about curses qua vulgarity. The typical sports fan has intrinsic knowledge of four-letter words, five-letter words, ten-dollar words, and all of the compounds and permutations possible. I’ve used the words “fuck” and “shit,” often in tandem, to express rage, worry, confusion, and elation—sometimes each within a two-minute span—and my experience is not uncommon. Perhaps we use vulgarity as an incantation. Our curses—said outright or asterisked for our children, self-censored, fudge and frick and heck and shoot and goddangit and gosh darn—plead with the sports gods, act as prayers, bless and anoint, tempt fate, willfully blaspheme.
When we say “Fuck you” or “Go to Hell” we are invoking a curse in the traditional sense, like the “evil eye” —a desire that someone or something experience misfortune or bad luck or hardship or injury or loss or (most often) emotional hurt. And so fans will shout curses down from the cheap seats in addition to the guttural boooooo-ing in hopes of causing our team’s opponents to screw up. It rarely happens of course, the screw-up, but we keep on booing and we keep on swearing, believing that this one time our words might work.
Though the term “Curse of the Bambino” is relatively recent, the notion that Babe Ruth had cursed the Red Sox was the defining characteristic of the Boston Red Sox for generations.
And while all of our memories of Ruth seem to be lined with Yankees pinstripes, he started off as a key member of the Boston Red Sox. Back in the early 1900s, Boston was a powerhouse franchise and the New York Yankees had played in a pitiful zero World Series. Babe Ruth played on Boston’s 1915 World Series–winning team, and was vital to Boston’s additional World Series wins in 1916 and 1918.
So why was Babe Ruth traded to the New York Yankees for the 1919 season? Apocryphal speculation abounds: the franchise owed money to the mob, maybe, or the Sox owner wanted to finance a Broadway musical and needed some more capital. Whatever the case, The Bambino was traded to the lowly Yankees, and baseball was never the same. Ruth went on to become arguably the greatest player ever, winning four World Series with the Yankees. In fact, in the ninety-four years since the Sox traded Ruth, the New York Yankees have played in an astonishing forty World Series, winning twenty-seven of them. A number double that of any other franchise in baseball.
Until 2004, the Red Sox went on to play in only four World Series. They lost each one in heartbreaking fashion, going seven games long out of seven each time. Many fans embraced the losing. It was all they had ever known. Those 2004 Red Sox finally lifted the curse. The Sox would go on to win additional World Series in 2007 and 2013. But those victories have come at a cost that might prove, in its own way, to be a sort of curse. The Red Sox spent beaucoup bucks and basically acted like the Yankees in many ways. Generations of fans self-identifying as the team that fate wouldn’t let win must now struggle with their new identity: just another rich team; no longer loveable; Yankees North.
To paraphrase the great football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant: I ain’t never been nothin’ but a loser.
My teams don’t win. I put an unhealthy amount of energy into rooting for my sports teams. I follow their day-to-day operations through various sports message boards. I will stay up all night arguing the finest minutiae of cornerback play versus a read-option offense or the defensive metrics of a backup shortstop in the minor leagues. I invest so much of myself into every detail of the teams I follow, but they do not pay back that investment.
The Kansas City Chiefs were one of the most dominant NFL teams of the entire 1990s. No NFL team has more regular-season victories during that decade. They made the playoffs seven out of ten years. The franchise is still coasting off of that decade’s success, but it all feels empty. The Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since 1993. They have gone eight consecutive playoff games without a victory, most recently losing seven key players to injury over the course of the 2013 matchup against the Colts, squandering a gargantuan 38-10 3rd quarter lead to lose 45-44. In 1995, 1997, and 2003, the Chiefs were the number one overall seed in the playoffs, only to play miserably in their first playoff game. The franchise has wasted Hall-of-Fame talent at numerous positions; all-time greats like Willie Roaf, Will Shields, Tony Gonzalez, and Derrick Thomas. The Chiefs have only won a single Super Bowl, the fourth one, way back in 1969.
I couldn’t find much solace in the college ranks growing up, either. I was born into being a fan of the University of Missouri Tigers. The Tigers have been historic underachievers who will snatch defeat right out of the jaws of victory. But the Tigers don’t always shoot themselves in the foot. How else but evoking the cosmic to explain how Missouri had its heart torn out so many times in the 1990s, on plays so improbable and controversial that they each have their own Wikipedia pages. Like the time where a diving Nebraska wide receiver kicked the ball up in the air—that’s supposed to be a penalty, mind you—where it traveled in an arc like a planet’s orbit, like it had no choice but to end up in the hands of another Nebraska receiver, who was able to come down with it for a game-tying score. Or the time against Colorado, when the officials lost track of the sequence of downs and gave the Buffaloes a fifth down, on which they scored the game-winning touchdown.
The play that most hurts to think about is the game-winning play for UCLA against Missouri in the second round of the 1995 NCAA basketball tournament. Missouri had a 74–73 lead with 4.8 seconds left in the game. If you’ve ever watched a “One Shining Moment” video package that CBS plays during March Madness, then you’ve seen what happened. UCLA’s Tyus Edney, with 4.8 seconds left, runs the entire length of the court and scores. On a layup. The odds of that happening are basically impossible. UCLA would go on to win the entire tournament.
After the Tyus Edney play, my father stormed out the back door, got in his truck, and didn’t come back ’til the next day. My grandfather, by contrast, didn’t move at all. He stayed in his tan leather chair, eyes tearing up, cast away from the television. This is what it is like to be a fan of Kansas City–area sports teams. This is what it is like to never win. You get it in your heart to believe in a team, to believe that this is the one time that they will get the better of fate. But you got it wrong. Hope isn’t just fleeting; it was never there in the first place. Your team lost as soon as the first pitch was thrown, as the ball was being kicked-off, during the opening tip-off. Your team lost once they put on their uniforms, once they got off the bus, once they got on the bus. Your teams lose before the games are even played. That’s just what cursed teams do.
The power of language in sports remains mysterious.
Sports fans mostly recognize that swearing and jeering, no matter how sincerely, is unlikely to move cosmic forces to action against an opponent. It’s all part of the game. The time our words seem to matter most is when they are directed at ourselves. A single fan’s actions can ruin a game for his or her team; this is a deep-seated superstition amongst sports fans. We call this phenomenon the jinx. Jinxes are a subspecies of curses, it seems to me. They are provoked by words, brief mishaps or long droughts caused by a magic tongue.
The list of jinxes in sports is enormous. If you’re a baseball player, and a pitcher on your team is throwing a no-hitter, then you must not mention it; the second that someone in the dugout mentions it, then that pitcher will give up multiple hits. This mentality has, of course, spread to fanbases. Don’t talk around the couch about how you feel comfortable with your football team holding onto a lead because your team’s running back never fumbles; your words will become dense as iron. Your words will dislodge the ball from his hands at the worst possible moment.
Jinxes come about from larger invocations as well. Universal acclaim tends to result in a reality check. Take for instance the infamous Sports Illustrated cover jinx. A player or team featured on the cover of the nation’s most prestigious weekly magazine of sports journalism will inevitably suffer a crushing loss or an injury or at least a significant decline in performance from the season that landed them the cover spot, often in the week after the issue hits newsstands. The list of SI cover jinx victims numbers in the tens of dozens dating back to the 1950s.
A similar jinx is associated with the cover of the annual Madden NFL video game. It basically always happens, and after their jinx year, the player returns to his normal standards of success. And yes, you can pick nits and claim that Ray Lewis only missed two games in 2005 with a wrist injury, or that Drew Brees’s 2010 season wasn’t jinxed because the Saints still made the playoffs before being upset by an 8 and 8 Seahawks squad, but the true sports fan will not be converted to your jinxless atheism.
The Madden jinx has won over the minds of players as well as fans. LaDainian Tomlinson declined the cover (and paycheck) for Madden 2008. For Madden 2011, publisher ElectronicArts began a new system where the cover athlete would be voted on by fans. EA internally believes that fans didn’t vote for their favorite players because they were afraid to jinx their own team. Some at EA even believe that fans were voting for players they would most like to see become jinxed. Cleveland’s lukewarmly regarded Peyton Hillis won the fan vote. Hillis, of course, was dismal in 2011, eventually rupturing his hamstring. “Things didn’t work in my favor this year,” Hillis said in an interview after the season. “There’s a few things that happened this year that made me believe in curses. Ain’t no doubt about it.”
One of the most powerful jinxes in sporting history is also one of the silliest.
Because of a goat—not the abbreviated term for “scapegoat,” but the actual animal. Chicago, Illinois: where Chicago Cubs are the reigning “Lovable Losers” of baseball, having not been to a World Series since 1945, the longest championship drought of any team in all of American professional sports. The Cubs appeared in six World Series between 1908 and 1945, winning none of them. No one thought of the consistently good Cubs as cursed then, just a bit unlucky perhaps. Until that ’45 Series and Billy Sianis. The owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, Sianis had a beloved pet goat, Murphy, who served as the bar’s mascot. Sianis purchased two $7.20 tickets to the game—one for himself and one for Murphy.
There’s research that indicates Murphy was denied entrance at the gate, but the prevailing wisdom is that he was allowed inside Wrigley Field. It had been raining, and the damp funk of Murphy’s coat was irritating the other fans in Sianis’s section. Sianis was asked to leave the stadium, a request that outraged him, which brought the jinx of jinxes down upon Wrigley’s boys. Sianis boldly declared, with a booming voice that understood the power of language, that “Them Cubs, they aren’t gonna win no more.” Sianis’s family members say that Billy dispatched an angry telegram later that night to Cubs owner Phillip K. Wrigley that read, in part, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.”
The Cubs have come tantalizingly close to earning a World Series berth a few times over the years, but The Curse of the Billy Goat has proved potent. There have been official attempts at excising Wrigley’s curse—mostly by bringing Sianis family members out onto the field with assorted goats as a means of apology, a reckoning with the past. Sianis himself even rescinded his jinx in the years before he died, but he should have known better. He should have known that curses are too powerful, that once we invoke them they are beyond our control.
If you’re not a sports fan, you might be wondering why I stick with these pitiful Missouri teams.
It is because they represent where I am from. Rooting for a team that I have no connections to, just because they are successful, would be lying to myself. I can’t bring myself to do it. There’s always a feeling that the second I abandon my team they will immediately become successful, and I will be shamed for giving up on them. The people who don’t believe this in the pits and corners of their hearts are vilified as “bandwagon fans.”
So I am forever stuck rooting for my Kansas City Royals, and you already know how historically bad they’ve been since ’85. What I haven’t said is that I was born in 1986. I’ve never seen my Royals have a good season. Nineteen ninety-four would have been good—they were the best team in the American League—but that season was cancelled because of the player’s strike. The Royals were a premier franchise in baseball, much more competitive rivals to the Yankees than the Red Sox were.
And then I was born.
Am I the curse?
Am I the cosmic reason that my teams so routinely fail? Am I the unlucky one? I’ve always sort of blamed the Royals failures on the death of owner Ewing Kauffman . . . but maybe I killed him. Maybe he died because I exist. The Royals have experienced nothing but misery since I was born. The Chiefs have felt nothing but heartbreak. The Missouri Tigers keep innovating new ways to lose games. All since I’ve been alive.
My most successful team has been my college alma mater’s football team. The Northwest Missouri State Bearcats played in the Division II playoff finals every single year I was doing my undergrad. Four consecutive trips through the playoffs to play in Florence, AL for the national championship game. Each game was a loss. They became the Buffalo Bills of Division II football. 2005: a Grand Valley State defender stops a Bearcats wide receiver four yards short of the end zone as time expires. 2006: a wide receiver fumbles the ball in Grand Valley State territory on what might have been the game-winning drive. 2007: Northwest loses off of an extra point that was blocked and returned by Valdosta State all the way for a score. 2008: Northwest appears to have recovered an onside kick to have a shot at tying the game, but the ball somehow is stripped from Northwest possession and awarded to Minnesota-Duluth.
In 2009, Northwest did something entirely unprecedented —it reached the D2 football national championship game for a record fifth consecutive year. Northwest defeated Grand Valley State in that game, winning the school’s third national championship. I watched the game on a cheap computer monitor at my job in an addiction detox and rehab facility. I had no one to celebrate with, no one to hug and laugh and dance and cry with. Sadder than that was the realization that they only managed to win once I graduated. I am that cosmically entropic. I am the curse. I have cursed those that I love.
I never intended to curse anyone.
Most curses are intended, I think. Boston intended to profit from Babe Ruth’s sale; Billy Sianis intended to cast a shadow over Wrigley Field. But some curses come from the most well-intentioned places. My favorite curse in all of sports is one of these cases. Japanese baseball’s Hanshin Tigers have, for all of my life, suffered through the Curse of the Colonel.
Much like the Kansas City Royals, the Hanshin Tigers—pride of Osaka—won their only championship in 1985. The spirited, boisterous Hanshin Tigers fanbase marched down to Osaka’s Ebisubashi Bridge. Beneath the bridge lies the Dotonbori Canal, a heavily polluted river that cuts through the heart of Osaka. When the Tigers won it all in ’85, fans organized a highly symbolic plunge: one fan would jump into Dotonbori Canal for each player on the team. The idea was that whenever a given player’s name was called in a sort of ritualized celebration chant, one fan that physically resembles that player would come to the edge of the bridge, become outfitted with that player’s jersey, and cast themselves into the drink. The plan was charming and funny; a sweet tribute to a once-in-a-lifetime victory.
It would have been perfect except that Tigers fans forgot to account for Randy Bass.
Randy Bass, current Oklahoma state senator, was the American-born slugger that helped lead the Hanshin Tigers to that ’85 championship. Large, bearded, and most certainly a white male, there was no one physically resembling Bass when his name was called in the celebration song. Tigers fans worried about the possibility of a curse, that to leave the ceremony incomplete would bring gloom upon them. So they found the closest thing that they could to a large, bearded white man—a statue of Colonel Sanders outside of a nearby KFC. You may not know this, but Kentucky Fried Chicken is quite popular in Japan. They have had much success in positioning themselves as a Christmastime treat. Nearly every KFC has outside its front door a monstrous, glossy statue of the Colonel. Tigers fans lifted a Colonel statue from its base, wrapped a Randy Bass jersey over its bulging, sculpted white jacket, and tossed him over the bridge. The ceremony continued without incident and no one thought anything of it until the fans realized years later that the Tigers hadn’t had a good season since the Colonel sank to the bottom of the canal.
Replacing the statue did not lift the curse. It wasn’t until 2009 that diver teams were able to find a significant chunk of the Colonel’s upper body. The torso and head were intact. The next day saw a return of the lower body. The statue could be reasonably reconstructed but not in full. Still missing are the Colonel’s left hand and his glasses, unlikely to ever be discovered. At every KFC in Osaka now you’ll see that, at the Colonel’s feet and lower legs, he’s been bolted down.
I’d like to think that I’m not naturally a curse for my teams, that my very existence isn’t itself the curse.
Because the only way to reverse that curse would be, well, undesirable. It’s easier to think that I made a mistake—even a well-intentioned one. Maybe it was sitting in a room full of Royals memorabilia while savoring the defensive stats on the back of a baseball card of St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith. Maybe it was the brief turn toward Dallas Cowboys bandwagon fandom that my cousin Nick and I had in 1994. I’d like to think that it’s all been my fault and that I could have done things differently.
I know I’m not the curse, though. I couldn’t be. There are thousands of other people in Kansas City who were born after 1985. Who have never seen their teams do anything significant. Who have never known what it was like to cry into the shoulders of a stranger on the street, only he’s not a stranger, he’s your brother, because everyone is family when your team wins, everyone knows how to love. We know we can sidle up to a bus seat or a bar stool and share our memories and anxieties and pain about “Marty Ball”; about the Scott Pioli era; about Oklahoma having Missouri’s number in 2007; about Gil Meche throwing 132 pitches in a single, meaningless game and blowing his arm out; about the huge things and about all the little things; all the things that make us what we are. If I’m the team’s curse, then so is everyone else.
And that’s the scariest realization of them all: that there isn’t a curse. If you’re a fan of a moribund team, then you want a curse. Curses make things easy. They create an automatic level of distance. “My team lost the big game? Oh, that curse. Can’t shake that curse. Oh well.” That distance allows us to say “Look out for next year!” sarcastically, ironically. Curses are playful myths that cover up the acceptance of failure.
It’s the toughest part of being a fan of my teams. We’ve got no curse to act as the easy scapegoat. No charming animal or statue to blame things on. While my teams have seen their fair share of devastating trades, none of them were curse-worthy. Kansas City’s teams have seen numerous small, human failures. We just want them to be cosmic so that we can put the blame on something.
It’s all about blame, in the end. If we can blame something for the source of our pain and our grief, then we can still justify our fandom. We can still justify the money we spend on a team, justify the time we spend away from friends and loved ones, justify the notion that we just might need sports to be able to feel things. We want things to be cosmic. Magic. Out of our control. We’re just little kids there in the outfield where our coaches stuck us, squinting through our mitts because of the overhead sun as we lose the pop fly in the light: we’re just afraid of the ball.
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