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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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