October 22, 2004

Ontology of "The Curse"

The Jonah Goldberg quote featured below ticked me off in an important way: there hasn't always been a "Curse" with Red Sawx fans (I know, I know, even writing such a thing is bad luck! After all, I come from a region of the country which has absolute faith in the idiocy of much of the rest of the country but has absolutely no problem with burying statues of St. Jude and St. Christopher in your lawn to sell your house more quickly). The Curse is a recent thing, an idea that started to appear around the time the "Yankees Suck" stuff started in the late 1970s, but didn't take full form until after the 1986 Series with the Mets.

I'm 38, and grew up rooting for the Sox. I can remember the 1972-73 season: my older brother, who was born in 1964, claims memories of the 1967 "Impossible Dream" season of Yaz, Conigliaro, and the Series against Bob Gibson's Cardinals. The 1975 Series I can remember, but I'm sure my memories of the Series have been shaped and formed by seeing the replays and recountings over the years. I remember the season clearly, though, with the emergence of Jim Rice and Fred Lynn. As a twelve-year old, I was marred by the whole 1978 season. But there wasn't a Curse that was talked of---old timers talked about the 46 World Series with Musial's Cardinals and Johnny Pesky's play, but not in terms of doom and gloom. It was a frustration, but not in the form of a twisted self-hating loathing that came later, following 1986 and the Mets.

If you run "Red Sox" and "curse" through Lexis Nexis for the dates 1918 to 1985, you get two hits to stories by Washington Post sportswriters.

The first is from this March 7, 1979 report from Spring Training:

The sun is warm here, the orange trees lean their full branches over the outfield fences. This spring retreat of the Boston Red Sox, so ripe with fruit, does not look like a haunted house. But it is.

For Carlton Fisk and many another Red Sox, the air still seems crisp, the sky a dazzling autumn azure and one solitary popup hangs high over Fenway Park. The Red Sox have long memories. It is their heritage, and curse.

"I was in the on-deck circle when Yaz popped it up, just like I was when he flied out to end the '75 World Series," said Fisk, recalling Carl Yastrzemski's final out of last October's American League East playoff.

"I knew the season would be over as soon as it came down. It seemed like the ball stayed up forever, like everything was cranked down to slow motion," he said, gesturing as though feeling his way through cobwebs.

"I was trying to will the ball to stay up there and never come down... what a dumb thing to have run through your mind. Even the crowd roar sounded like a movie projector at the wrong speed when everything gets gravelly and warped."

The Sox are an imaginative team -- more's the pity -- susceptible to haunting. They prove that those who cannot forget the past are also condemned to repeat it.

The evil that the Bosox do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their moans.

So it is this spring -- redoubled. Somewhere it must be written that the Carmine Hose shall suffer.

A meme was born. These two Boswell references were the only ones Lexis-Nexis picks up between 1978 (Bucky Dent) and 1986 (Bill Buckner). But after the 1986 series the meme took off, particularly with Dan Shaughnessy publishing One Strike Away, his account of the 1986 season and Series, and his 1990 The Curse of the Bambino. Between Buckner and Shaughnessy's book, there were only ten references in Lexis connecting "Red Sox" and "curse", but after the book was published Lexis counts 964 hits, which I think is an undersampling as they are hitting only newspapers, not magazines, ESPN, sports radio.....

You get the drift.

The point here is that "The Curse" was something that is not 86 years old (since the Sawx last won the Series with Ruth on the mound in 1918) but only 14, since Dan Shaughnessy, a notorious Boston Globe sportswriter, coined a term and decided to drive an entire region of the country into the loving arms of Mother Paxil. It was created to explain and address two bitter, crushing, and improbable defeats to two distinctively obnoxious New York teams: the 1978 Yanks of Billy Martin, Reggie, and the rest of the Bronx Zoo, and the 1986 coke hound Mets of Darryl Strawberry and the rest of their Grand Master Flash compadres (remember the jokes at the time of the Shea groundkeepers keep running out of lime because the Mets kept snorting the baselines?) There was no "curse" needed to explain defeats in 1946 and 67 to the Cardinals or in 1975 to the Reds. Musial and Gibson's Cardinals were outstanding teams from a modest and sincere city, and there was no dishonor or bizzaro coincidences, other than going the distance of seven games both times and coming up short. Ditto with the Reds, which I still hold out as the last "real" World Series----the last World Series before free agency.

In a nutshell, "The Curse" emerged as a meme to explain losing to New York teams in the age of free agency. "The Bambino" angle emerged as a metaphor for losing to New York teams buying victory---remember the distinctive thing about the 1986 Sawx was that their entire starting lineup in the field had all come up through their farm system.

And what made it together with "Yankees-suck"dom a pathology over the past ten years were two things: first, the introduction of the Wild Card which allowed for the Yankees/Red Sox post-season series to occur, and shortly later the reification of Southie Chic with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. But that's a different post.

Here's Shaughnessy in today's Globe:

Let's get one thing straight: the Curse of the Bambino has not been lifted. The job is not yet done.

Let's get one thing straight: Dan Shaughnessy needs to shuthispiehole. He created "The Curse" and it would kill him if it were "lifted." It would be as if The Donald could no longer fire anybody.

What happened in Boston and New York in those magical four days may stand as the most satisfying moment in Red Sox history. Coming back to beat the Yankees four straight times - putting the choke tag on the haughty New Yorkers - may be the ultimate in satisfaction for Red Sox Nation. If the Sox never win a World Series again, citizens of the Nation will forever have an answer for pinstriped knuckleheads who make fun of the Red Sox.

Knock yourself out, Yankee fans. Taunt all you want. In the words of Bogey to Bergman, "We'll always have Paris."

However, it would be pathetic for Sox fans to be satisfied with merely making it to the World Series. The object of any team's baseball season is to win the World Series. Beating the Yankees should not be the only goal - even if it's as pulsating and heartstopping as the event we just witnessed.

This is why Shaughnessy to me epitimizes the charictature of the evil sportswriter Max Mercy played by Robert Duvall in The Natural, the writer who whips up fear, hatred, loathing, and angst as a way to sell papers. Give me loud mouths like Kornheiser or Wilbon any day, and Tom Boswell--a true writer--twice on Sunday. But leave Shaughnessy in the minor leagues, in the stands at the local little league, bloody pen in hand writing a column to wreck the marriage of a local board of ed member because he slighted him at a party.

It was troubling yesterday to hear so many fans and some Sox personnel saying that the Curse is lifted. Headline writers and television teasers also seized the theme.

No, people. Beating the Yankees, great as it is, is not the ultimate goal. The Sox have finished ahead of the Yankees 18 times in the last 86 years. But they are still waiting for a World Series win.

No, people, the ultimate goal is selling books and papers, and if there's no Curse, folks will wake up to the fact that Shaughnessy is a hack, the Mike Barnacle of sports writers.

Disclosure here. I wrote a book entitled "The Curse of the Bambino" in 1990. It was your basic dark history of the Red Sox, tracing the many frustrations and near misses after the Sox sold the greatest player of all time to the Yankees for cash. The title is catchy and the idea of the Curse became an easy theme every time things went wrong for the Red Sox. It spawned a cottage industry of musicals, board games, screenplays, ice cream flavors, cookies, and all forms of signage. But it was never exclusive to Red Sox-Yankees.

Understandably, the Curse has become a tired cliche in these parts. ESPN's Peter Gammons described it as "a silly mindless gimmick that is as stupid as The Wave."

Right. What we have here is the Cheers Bar Complex. The Bull & Finch Pub, a neighborhood bar we loved, became an annoying place to sell T-shirts after Sam and Diane went national. Locals fled the Bull & Finch while tourists filled the joint and took pictures. Same thing with the Curse. Sox fans are sick of it. It's something for out-of-towners.

Personally, I think even Diane Chambers would have boxed Shaughnessy's ears, but hey, that's just me, Mr. Vegas.

John W. Henry and friends were ridiculed when they bought the team and said they wanted to break the Curse. Yet it remains part of the official club mission statement. On page 10 of the Red Sox press guide, under the heading of "A New Day, The Story of the New Red Sox," reads the following: "To end the Curse of the Bambino and win a world championship for Boston, New England, and Red Sox Nation."

There. Breaking the Curse officially is part of the Henry/Werner/Lucchino manifesto. And it involves winning a world championship. Not just beating the Yankees.

Sox CEO Larry Lucchino last night said, "Beating the Yankees damages the Curse considerably, but I think that we've always seen our task here as winning a World Series championship."

Asked if he feared the Sox might be content with just beating the Yankees, Lucchino said, "I think human nature being what it is, that is always a danger, but I don't think our players are guilty of that. And I hope our fans are not guilty of it. We recognize that we've got to keep our eyes on the prize and the prize is winning a world championship."

Hope so. But I get nervous when Werner tells the Herald, "The World Series is great, but we've done something historic."

The World Series is great, but . . . ???

Not the attitude you need to finish the job. Red Sox Nation does not serve its team well by indicating ultimate satisfaction with what the Sox have done thus far.

Late last night, Werner amended his position, saying, "In the end, we'll only be satisfied with a World Series win," but added, "whether we win a World Series or not, nobody can take away what this team just did. But obviously, the ultimate way to break the curse is to win the World Series, and that's our goal."

Sox manager Terry Francona certainly gets the message. While his ballplayers were pouring champagne over one another early yesterday morning, he had the presence of mind to say, "There's more baseball to be played."

That's it. The 1946 Red Sox were the best team in baseball, but did not win the World Series. The 1967 Red Sox gave New England a hardball summer like no other and there was not much disappointment and certainly no disgrace when they failed to win the World Series. Ditto for the 1975 gang. The 1986 team couldn't close the deal against the Mets and permanently planted the idea that the Sox might be operating under a black cloud.

Now the 2004 Sox have a chance to bring a World Series championship to New England for the first time since the doughboys were fighting World War I.

The Yankees series was great, perhaps the greatest baseball event in our town. Ever. But the Curse is not lifted. The job isn't done yet.

There it is---"The Curse" exists only as a marketing plan, one that works in the Sawx favor.

I'm going to stop here before the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, the Chimperor and Halliburton work there way into this. But the final point is this: there was no curse, never was. Just a number of people who liked making money off a run of bad luck and the willful desparation of the secular Calvinism of the New England faithful.

Posted by Steve at October 22, 2004 03:46 PM | TrackBack

Excellent history. Would you believe I did not know this? As far as I was concerned, because of when I was born (I'm 2 years younger than you), there was always a curse, from the second that fatal trade was made, lo those many years ago. But of course it's a meme!! I should have guessed.

Posted by: red at October 22, 2004 04:06 PM

You bury St. Joseph in the yard, not Christopher or that other guy. And you bury him head first. I know for a fact this works because an acquaintance couldn't sell her condo for months. She buries the statue and gets her price the next day.


I think not.

Posted by: Gary at October 22, 2004 04:23 PM

Like Red, I've lived with the Curse my entire 37 years. I'm grateful to have the meme deconstructed, though. I especially like this part:

Here's Shaughnessy in today's Globe:

Let's get one thing straight: the Curse of the Bambino has not been lifted. The job is not yet done.
Let's get one thing straight: Dan Shaughnessy needs to shuthispiehole. He created "The Curse" and it would kill him if it were "lifted." It would be as if The Donald could no longer fire anybody.


Posted by: jen at October 22, 2004 04:52 PM

I think what you mean is that the Curse was only "discovered" -- "constructed" if you will -- after the '86 failure (the one time in my life I've ever rooted for the Sox, the Mets team of that year was so easy to hate, from Gary Cater's poodle haircut to the rest of the cocaine snorting bunch of a******s).

The curse has existed since 1918, even if no one knew it.

if a curse falls in a forest and no one hears it . . .

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at October 22, 2004 04:58 PM

Very nice post.

'Shank' Shaugnessy is clearly guilty of aiding and abetting enemies of the Red Sox Nation.

Posted by: Dan at October 23, 2004 04:24 PM

In '86 the Curse became manifest to everyone, just as on 9/11 it became clear to everyone we were at war with Islamic fascists. There was a pre-existing, unadvertised condition preceding both catastrophes.

Posted by: TSO at October 26, 2004 01:17 PM
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