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October 17, 2001

The Curse Lives

The Real Reason the A's Were Doomed

by Rany Jazayerli

All across America, people are incredulous that the New York Yankees have a date with the Seattle Mariners, while the Oakland A's have a date with their golf pros. Everywhere you look, people are at a loss to explain what happened. How could the Oakland A's, who many picked to go all the way, let the Division Series slip away? How could the Yankees, whose epitaph had already been written by more than one sportswriter, rise from the dead to advance to the ALCS?

My question: why is everyone so surprised? Didn't everyone know this was inevitable?

I've heard lots of arguments as to why, just five days ago, so many people had written the Yankees off as already defeated. Here's just a sampling:

  • The A's were already up, two games to none, having won both games at Yankee Stadium.

  • No team in the history of baseball had ever lost the first two games of a best-of-five series at home, and recovered to win the series. In fact, just one team in that situation (the 1981 Brewers) had even forced a Game Five.

  • To even force a Game Five, the Yankees would have to win both games in Oakland, where the A's had won 17 games in a row.

  • The A's were the best team in baseball in the second half of the season, going 58-17 after the All-Star break. They hadn't lost two in a row since August 24. They had lost three games in a row just once since June 18.

  • The A's were, like, the better team: they won 102 games on the year, seven more than the Yankees.

  • The Yankees' Game Four starter, Orlando Hernandez, had been battling arm problems all year and was not completely healthy for his start. Their Game 5 starter, Roger Clemens, had pulled a groin in the first game of the series, and he wasn't supposed to be completely healthy either.

All reasonable points, certainly. Reasonable, but irrelevant. The A's might have had every reason in the world to win their series--every reason but one. The only one that meant anything at all.

The A's, you see, had invoked the Curse of the Balboni. The Yankees had not. And that, my friends, is all that matters.

Some of you, I fear, are not even aware that the Curse of the Balboni exists. To those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, and for those who do but would like a refresher, I recommend you read the article that broke the story.

The abridged version is this: in 1985, Steve Balboni hit 36 home runs for the Kansas City Royals, who won the World Championship. Since then, no team that has had a player hit 36 or more homers has gone on to win a World Series.

It's not for lack of trying. Between 1986 and 2000, 80 teams qualified for the postseason. Forty-three of them had a 36-homer hitter--what I euphemistically call a "Steve"--on the roster. None of those 43 won the World Series.

Since 1995, only 15 of 48 playoff teams have been without a Steve, and yet they've won all six titles in that span. The probability of that occurring solely by chance? Less than 1 in 5,400.

In 1998, and again in 2000, only one of the eight playoff contenders lacked a 36-homer hitter. Naturally, that team, the Yankees, won both titles, even though the 2000 team had the worst record of the eight teams (and the second-worst record ever for a World Champion).

Since 1986, there have been a total of 29 playoff series between a team with a Steve and a team without. Steve-less teams have gone 25-4, and have won 17 straight.

Make that 18 straight. Hey, Oakland, you were warned.

For the third time in four years, the Yankees are the only team to reach the postseason without benefit of a 36-homer hitter. Some teams gave it their best shot. The Mariners, 116-win juggernaut that they are, almost turned the trick, as Bret Boone wisely stayed on 35 homers for more than three weeks before foolishly hitting his 36th and 37th homers on the season's final weekend. The A's made it to the final week of the season before Jason Giambi hit his 36th homer, on his way to 38. (Given that Giambi, alone among the A's, invoked the Curse of the Balboni, you could make the case that while he may have been the MVP of the regular season, from the Yankees' standpoint he was also the MVP of the Division Series.)

Still not convinced as to the power of The Curse? Still think that the Dodgers' shocking victory over the A's in 1988 was a fluke, just as the Reds' sweep of Oakland in 1990 was? Still think that the cancellation of the 1994 postseason wasn't orchestrated by some higher power (every potential playoff team that year was in danger of finishing with a 36-homer hitter on their roster)? Still think that it's a coincidence that the Atlanta Braves won their only World Series in the one year that their opponent had a Steve on their roster, even though said opponent, the 1995 Indians, had a .694 winning percentage, the highest of any team in more than 40 years?

Then consider this. The most famous--and effective--baseball hex of all time is the Curse of the Bambino. Bambino. Balboni. The two words differ by just one letter. Hell, even Nostradamus missed Hitler's name by one letter.

I don't think it's a coincidence that on the same day that Barry Bonds broke the all-time home run record, his Giants were eliminated from postseason play. You reach 72 homers in a season--doubling Balboni's output--and you accept the consequences.

Some say that the Mariners, with the most regular-season wins in major-league history, are team enough to smash the Curse into oblivion. But if greatness alone was enough to end the Curse, why is it that the 1998 Yankees, who previously held the AL record with 114 wins, were so intimidated that they didn't have a single player finish with even 30 homers? Their reward for appeasing the Balboni was an 11-2 record in the postseason on their way to an easy title. The Mariners have already lost a pair of games this postseason, and had to battle back from a two-games-to-one deficit to reach the ALCS.

And if Jim Thome hadn't hit 49 homers to count out the Indians' chances, the Mariners wouldn't have even made it this far. If Bud Selig is really serious about insuring parity throughout the major leagues, he won't waste his time worrying about revenue sharing or labor agreements. He'll simply pass an edict suspending any player who reaches 35 homers for the rest of the season.

Until then, we all better get used to the idea that the Yankees are on their way to another championship. And there's nothing you, I, or anyone else--except Steve Balboni--can do about it.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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