The Bat of Damocles

A Horrifying Look at the Red Sox’s Other Curse

As much as baseball fans love to pore over the whole Curse of the Bambino myth — the one where Harry Frazee irrevocably torpedoed the future of the Boston Red Sox franchise by selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, thereby dooming Boston’s preeminent baseball team to a whole bunch of not much, championship-wise — I figure they’ve got it wrong. I don’t mean that they’re wrong about the Red Sox having supernaturally bad luck for the better part of a century; when they’ve been denied, they’ve been denied, and you don’t need to show another frame of Dent/Buckner/Boone footage to dredge up any more arguments to the contrary. It’s just that, well, I doubt that Ruth himself would have much animosity towards his former team for not wanting him anymore once he realized that playing for New York is what helped make him the most mythical figure in professional team sports history. In fact, I figure he probably had a decent amount of sympathy for the poor dopes — enough to help them with a little karmic payback every once in a while. You see, there’s still a curse attached to the Boston Red Sox. But it’s not a curse that keeps them from winning it all, as 2004 clearly proved. It’s actually a curse on all the teams that beat them.

Two things of note happened in the baseball world in 1948: Ruth passed away (on August 16th), and the Cleveland Indians beat the Red Sox in a one-game playoff on October 4th to determine who would win the American League pennant. The Indians would, as Indians fans will tell you with a sigh of nostalgia, go on to win the World Series. But then some weird things started to happen: Ken Keltner, who’d singled, doubled and blasted a three-run homer in that playoff game, went from hitting .297 with a .395 on-base percentage and 31 home runs in 1948 — arguably his finest year, offensively — to hitting just .232 with 8 homers in 80 games the following year, and by 1950 his career in the majors was more or less over. Lou Boudreau, the player/manager who went 4-for-4 with two home runs and won the 1948 American League MVP award, saw his average/OBP/slugging line plummet from .355/.453/.534 in 1948 to .284/.381/.364 in 1949; after that he wouldn’t play more than 82 games in a season and he was done as a player by 1952. (His last at-bat was as a member of the Red Sox.) And then there’s the matter of the Indians’ winning pitcher, a rookie knuckleballer named Gene Bearden, whose victory over the Sox on one day’s rest gave him his 20th win of the season. His 1948 stats — 20 wins, seven losses and a league-leading ERA of 2.43 — were remarkable for anyone, much less a rookie. The next year? He was 8-8 with a 5.10 ERA, and the only thing he led the league in was wild pitches. And then there’s the matter of the Cleveland Indians’ subsequent trips to the postseason:

1954: Swept by the New York Giants in the World Series, a series most famously-known for Willie Mays’ iconic over-the-shoulder basket catch

1995: Beat by the Braves in the World Series, where three of Cleveland’s four losses came on a one-run margin (including Game 6’s one-hit shutout)

1996: Beaten by the Orioles in the ALDS, a series that was sealed by Roberto Alomar hitting a top-of-the-12th home run in Game 4

1997: The notorious World Series loss to the Marlins, where Jose Mesa blew a one-run lead in the bottom of the 9th in Game 7

1999: Defeated in the ALDS, where they blew a 2 games to none lead — coming off a 11-1 Game 2 victory, no less — against, yes, the Red Sox. (The Indians had previously defeated the Red Sox in the 1995 ALCS and the 1998 ALDS.)

2001: Lost to the Mariners in the ALDS, where they took a 2-games-to-1 lead against Seattle after beating them 17-2 (!!!), only to lose the next two games

2007: Beaten by the Red Sox in the ALCS after blowing a 3-games-to-1 lead and losing their next three games by a combined score of 30-5

Indians fans like to pin these losses and many of the other misfortunes that have befallen their franchise — the alcoholism of star pitcher Sam McDowell, the mental breakdown and subsequent early retirement of promising hitter Tony Horton, the 1993 boating accident that killed pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews — on the “Curse of Rocky Colavito,” which apparently hexed the Tribe when the popular slugger was traded to the Tigers in 1960. But the further we go into the fates of the other teams that made the mistake of ruining the Red Sox’s World Champion hopes, the more it becomes clear that it’s a completely different jinx causing this hard luck. Here’s where the Other Red Sox Curse comes in, and we discover just how it works:

1967: The St. Louis Cardinals

Since all four St. Louis victories in the 1967 Series were pretty decisively won without any weirdness on either team’s part, the Other Red Sox Curse doesn’t hit them nearly as hard — insofar as the worst you could say about the Cardinals’ fortunes for a while is that they wouldn’t win the World Series again for 15 years. But the postseason series they lost, before and since they beat the Brewers to become champs in ’82, have a whiff of strangeness and misery around them:

1968: The Detroit Tigers beat the Cardinals in the World Series. Two pivotal moments that may have cost the Cardinals the Series: in Game 5, Lou Brock killed a potential two-out 5th-inning rally when he attempted (and failed) to score by knocking over Tigers catcher Bill Freehan rather than sliding, while the Bob Gibson-pitched Game 7 — a sure thing if there ever was one in ’68 — saw Curt Flood fall down while chasing Jim Northrup’s two-out, 7th-inning fly ball, turning it into a two-run triple that broke the game open.

1985: The Cardinals suffer what is possibly the most famous blown call in sports officiating history. Going into the bottom of the 9th of Game 6 and three outs away from winning the World Series, Cardinals pitcher Todd Worrell gave up a routine grounder to Jorge Orta — a grounder that, after being fielded by first baseman Jack Clark and tossed back to Worrell covering the bag, should have resulted in an close out if it weren’t for the blown “safe” call by first base umpire Don Denkinger. Clark and catcher Darrell Porter then failed to catch Steve Balboni’s routine pop foul, eventually leading to Balboni reaching on a single, which gave the Royals two on and nobody out when by all rights it should’ve been the other way around. One out later, Porter committed a passed ball with runners on first and second, putting both into scoring position, and after Hal McRae was intentionally walked, Dane Iorg singled home the tying and winning runs. The defeat was so psychologically devastating that the Cardinals lost Game 7 11-0, despite starting the usually lights-out John Tudor.

1987: The NL Champion Cardinals were 95-67. The AL Champion Minnesota Twins were 85-77. Seven games later, the Cardinals went down in the history books as the team that lost to the World Champions with the worst regular-season record. (At least until 2006, where the 83-78 Cards became the World Champions with the worst regular-season record.)

1996: The Cards lose the NLCS in 7 games. Game 7’s score: Atlanta 15, St. Louis 0.

2001: The Diamondbacks, a team with roughly 116 years’ less tradition than the Cardinals, beat St. Louis in the NLDS. The decisive Game 5 was won off a two-out, run-scoring single from Tony Womack in the bottom of the 9th.

2002: The Cardinals lose the ALCS to the Giants, and while it only takes 5 games, the ending of Game 5 — another two-out, bottom-of-the-9th walk-off single, this time by Kenny Lofton — is demoralizing all the same.

2004: Swept in the World Series by the Red Sox.

The fact that the Cardinals then win the World Series two years later — despite their best late-season efforts to avoid the playoffs entirely — posits the possibility that when a previously-cursed team loses to the Red Sox in a subsequent series, the curse is then lifted — though the Indians might tell you otherwise, and we’ll get to another counterargument to that theory later.

1975: The Cincinnati Reds

Maybe it’s because the Red Sox, in the process of losing the World Series, get the consolation of winning arguably the most exciting and memorable World Series game of all time — the Fisk-waves-it-fair Game 6 — but the Reds’ misfortunes aren’t particularly horrific; in fact, they’d go on to reduce the Yankees to a grey smear upon sweeping them in the ’76 Series, stagger around in the darkness for 14 years, then sweep the A’s in 1990. (More on that Oakland team later.) But who was the MVP of the 1975 World Series? That’s right — Pete Rose. In fact, 1990 was the first full season Cincinnati played after Rose was banned from baseball for gambling, so even with the World Series victory there was still a pall over the team. Also, in a particularly weird if somewhat tangential and fairly tasteless postscript, the date Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s career hits record — at least until box score research discovered a couple of Cobb’s hits being counted twice — was September 11, 1985. And while this might be stretching things a bit, Ken Griffey — whose two-out RBI double in the 9th inning of Game 2 put the Reds on top for good that game — later fathered a son who, after being traded to the Reds, went from a spectacular talent that sportswriters picked to break Hank Aaron’s career home run record to an injury-prone coulda-been. If you want to really, really stretch things, Joe Morgan helped win the World Series for the Reds with a two-out, top-of-the-9th go-ahead single in Game 7, and now he has to deal with a website dedicated to how awful his commentating is (http://www.firejoemorgan.com/).

1978: The New York Yankees

Long story short: Boston has a colossal 14-game lead in the American League East Division as of July 18; Boston blows said lead to the New York Yankees, forcing a one-game playoff; Bucky Dent hits a go-ahead home run; the Yankees win that game, the ALCS and the World Series; Bostonians have to console themselves with the fact that Don’t Look Back and the Cars’ debut album could at least do their city proud. The following year — and even though I’ve already invoked the Crews/Olin accident, I’m a bit uneasy bringing this up — Yankees team captain Thurman Munson is killed in a plane crash. Manager Billy Martin is killed in a car accident ten years after that. In 1988, Reggie Jackson loses thirty vehicles from his classic car collection in a fire; estimated damages total some $4 million. And aside from a humiliating six-game loss to the Dodgers in 1981, the Yankees wouldn’t even reach the World Series again until 1996, the longest span without a World Championship in franchise history. The fact that the Yankees would go on a huge tear in the latter half of the ’90s is proof that the Other Red Sox Curse is not necessarily permanent, but as we’ll see, it’s a good idea to avoid stirring it back up again.

1986: The New York Mets

If you’re a current baseball fan, you’re probably thinking two things right now: “Oh man, Bill Buckner” and “Oh man, The Collapse”. Just as Game 6 ’86 is emblematic of the Curse of the Bambino, with the notorious 10th-inning, two-out, two-run-lead collapse punctuated by Mookie Wilson’s game-winning grounder through Buckner’s legs to score Ray Knight, the fate of the Mets since that momentous year is emblematic of the Other Curse. It’s manifested most recently in this year’s epic implosion — blowing a seven-game division lead on September 12th, losing 12 of their last 17 games and missing the playoffs entirely — that made the ’78 Red Sox collapse look like an ether frolic. But there’s other signs: stars Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry wasted their careers on drugs and alcohol. Manager Davey Johnson would fail to win another World Series (his Reds lost the first two games of the ’95 NLCS to the Braves in extra innings, and his ’97 Orioles lost in six to the Indians, twice in walk-offs and the decisive Game 6 in an 11-inning 1-0 heartbreaker). And Bob Ojeda, the Mets’ starter for Game 6 ’86, was a passenger in the Olin/Crews accident. (He also nearly lost a finger on his pitching hand due to a hedge trimmer mishap. Really.) On top of that, their playoff history’s been pretty mortifying:

1988: Lost to the Dodgers in the NLCS in seven games. Game 4 might have proved to be the margin of error; Mike Scioscia’s game-tying home run in the top of the 9th and Kirk Gibson’s lead-taking home run in the top of the 12th evened the series and ensured that it would have to end in Los Angeles.

1999: Lost to the Braves in 6 games, made all the more frustrating by the fact that Game 5 — featuring the complete insanity of Robin Ventura’s famous 15th-inning walk off “grand slam single” — was answered by the Braves winning Game 6 and the National League pennant off Andruw Jones’ bottom-of-the-11th bases-loaded walk.

2000: Lost the “Subway Series” to the Yankees. Three of the Mets’ losses came off a two-out, 12th-inning walk-off RBI single from Jose Vizcaino; a five-run 9th-inning rally that brought the Mets from being down 6-0 to getting within a run of tying the game, only to see defensive replacement Kurt Abbott strike out looking against Mariano Rivera; and Game 5’s two-out, two-run tiebreaker single from Luis Sojo in the top of the 9th.

2006: Lost the NLCS to the Cardinals in seven games. In the top of the 9th, with the game tied 1-1 and one runner on, the Cardinals’ weak-hitting catcher Yadier Molina — who hit .216 with six home runs in the regular season — crushed a two-run homer off Mets reliever Aaron Heilman to put the Cards up 3-1. In the bottom half of that inning, the Mets’ Carlos Beltran ended the game by looking at a called strike three with the bases loaded.

1988: The Oakland A’s

Dennis Eckersley owned the Red Sox, and he knew it. The A’s played four games against Boston in the ALCS, beat them each time, and Eckersley pulled off the impressive feat of saving all four games of the sweep. All he had to do to notch his next save opportunity, in Game 1 of the ’88 World Series, was to preserve a 4-3 lead against the Dodgers in the bottom of the 9th. He managed two outs, a walk to Mike Davis. . . and then he faced Kirk Gibson. Injured, gimpy, barely mobile, last-resort Kirk Gibson. Who, with two strikes on him, wound up hitting one of the most famous game-winning home runs in World Series history. The A’s lost the World Series in 5 games. And things didn’t get much better:

1989: The A’s sweep the World Series, a triumph severely mitigated by the fact that the World Series in question is interrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake. Imagine that you are an A’s fan that wasn’t around for the Finley-assembled wrecking crews of the early ’70s, and the only moment in your lifetime that your team won it all is overshadowed by a natural disaster that killed dozens of people.

1990: In the first instance of a Cursed vs. Cursed postseason matchup, it is discovered that the Other Curse will not, in fact, cause both teams to lose and the postseason to be forfeit. The A’s are swept by the Cincinnati Reds, so assuming that the Other Curse did have a sway in the outcome, it’s easy to determine that the A’s sweep of the Red Sox in the 1990 ALCS outweighed the lingering traces of the Reds’ ’75 World Series victory. (Incidentally, the “Bash Brothers” that formed the core of those late ’80s/early ’90s A’s offensive assaults — Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco — would both be implicated in the rampant use of performance-enhancing substances in the early 2000s.)

1992; 2000-2003; 2006: A string of playoff losses that, while rarely spectacular in their misery and probably not even really worth dissecting , at least attest to some form of bad luck or another. Besides, I have a headache, and as a Twins fan I’d really rather not go over any aspect of that 2006 A’s postseason, even where they lose.

1999; 2003: The New York Yankees, again

This is why you don’t tease the Other Curse. The Yankees beat the Red Sox in the 1999 ALCS, then went on to win the World Series against the Atlanta Braves. (As an aside, it’s interesting to consider the Braves’ role in this curse — the only thing keeping the Atlanta incarnation of the Braves from being the most luckless postseason team in sports history is the solitary World Championship they notched between 1991 and 2005 — which, of course, came at the expense of the Indians.) In 2000, the Yankees beat the Mets in another Cursed vs. Cursed showdown; presumably the burden of Game 6 ’86 outweighed the dismay attendant in the somewhat uneven ’99 ALCS defeat. And here’s where things get interesting:

2001: The Yankees take the underdog Diamondbacks to Game 7 of the World Series, and lead 2-1 going into the bottom of the 9th with the automatic lights-out Mariano Rivera on the mound. This is what happened: Rivera gives up a single to Mark Grace, then makes an errant throw to second on Damian Miller’s bunt attempt to put two runners on; third baseman Scott Brosius tags out David Dellucci (running for Grace) on Jay Bell’s bunt attempt but fails to throw to first, which would have likely completed a double play, Tony Womack hit a game-tying double, Rivera hit Craig Counsell with a pitch to load the bases, and Luis Gonzalez loops a single over Derek Jeter’s head to win the Series for the Diamondbacks. Man.

2002: After beating the Angels in Game 1, the Yankees lose the next three games of the ALDS. The deciding Game 4 is won by the Angels 9-5, with eight of those runs coming in the 5th inning.

2003: The most notorious Yankees-Red Sox matchup since 1978 ends in Game 7 of the ALCS, with Grady Little leaving Pedro Martinez in too long and watching his starter give away a 5-2 lead, eventually leading to Aaron Boone hitting the game-winning home run in the bottom of the 11th. The Other Curse subsequently hits the Yankees like a wrecking ball, its first manifestation arising when they lose the World Series to the Marlins in six games.

2004: The second manifestation, of course, being the 2004 ALCS. Picture what happened to the Red Sox in 1986 or 2003, imagine the gut punch of watching a two-run lead evaporate before your eyes... and draw that out over the course of 44 innings and 18 1/2 hours. All the Yankees had to do was win one little game against a franchise they’d had on the ropes since the Wilson Administration, and they failed — spectacularly and singularly, on the wrong end of the first blown 3-games-to-zero lead in postseason baseball history. They failed by slim margins and by a blowout, in nine innings and fourteen, through unlucky bounces and childish slapping and timely stolen bases and towering home runs and just plain bad mojo. This, ladies and gentlemen, is not normal. And that bad luck continues to this day: the Yankees haven’t even gotten within striking distance of the ALCS in the last three years, much less winning a World Championship. And if handing the ’04 ALCS to the Red Sox on a silver platter couldn’t free the Yankees from the burden of the Other Red Sox curse, what in the world could?

2005: The Chicago White Sox

And so we come to the most recent manifestation of the Other Red Sox Curse: it’s unspectacular, to be sure: after sweeping the Red Sox in the process of bulldozing their way through one of the most dominant postseasons in recent memory, the 2005 World Champion Chicago White Sox slowly started to fall apart, falling into 3rd place in the AL Central in 2006 (albeit a strong, 90-win third, behind the out-of-nowhere Twins and the juggernaut Tigers) before injuries, cold bats and an inexplicably terrible Jose Contreras doomed them to a 90-loss season, just three games out of last place. It’s too early to say how entrenched this particular downturn in the White Sox’s fortune is going to last, but history — and mythology — is probably not going to be kind.

The weird thing is, the Other Red Sox Curse doesn’t necessarily directly affect the players you think it might — Bucky Dent, Aaron Boone, Ray Knight and Mookie Wilson all wound up more or less maintaining their health and career abilities before retiring relatively unscathed (the still-active Boone excepted). And maybe it’s just a weird series of coincidences that tie in to the unpredictable ebb and flow of sports dynasties. But after watching the Red Sox fight their way to another World Series, I have one piece of advice for the Colorado Rockies: For your own sakes, wait ’til next year.