My father has a surefire way of scouting future sports stars. Whenever a player he’s interested in steps on the field/ice/court, he says, ‘I like so-and-so. He makes shit happen.’ He believes in the karma that surrounds the athletes, in the sorcery that affects their doings.
Shit does happen on the playing fields, but only some of it can be explained. A single event—a powerful personality even—can curse or charm a sports team forever. Curses can be levied or built on, but they never wither: instead, they’re either absolved or outright defeated by more powerful magic. Trapped in our desire for victory, sports fans are the ultimate atheists in the foxhole, fingers crossed and praying for relief.
Here’s a look at the curses currently affecting (or avoiding) franchises around New York.
Baseball: the Yankees
The Yankees are the most famous, most winning sports franchise in American history. They seem the antithesis of a cursed team; still, an unspoken wickedness lurks in the Bronx, near second base.
The curse started, as curses do, in the darkest period in recent Yankee history. During the early ‘90s the team was awful, utterly unbearable to watch. George Steinbrenner, their bloat-faced, egomaniacal owner, had been temporarily banished from baseball due to his gambling contacts. Like Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, his form had dissipated, an evil shadow waiting to reform. During the darkness, the Yankees signed second baseman Steve Sax, who had already established ‘Steve Sax Disease,’ a condition whereby a second baseman suddenly becomes unable to throw accurately to first base.
It’s a disorder of the brain, and a terrible one. It had been diagnosed in pitchers before (see ‘Steve Blass Disease,’ no relation to Bill or his handbags) but never before in a middle-infielder. Sax, who once got picked off two times in the same All-Star game, seemed over his disease, and had a few good seasons in the Bronx. But the spore was planted, lying dormant until another high-profile second sacker donned the pinstripes: Chuck Knoblauch.
The affectionately-monikered Knobby, previously an All-Star, a Gold Glove winner, and one-time Rookie of the Year and World Champion with the Minnesota Twins in 1991, caught the disease, got sick, and repeatedly fielded routine grounders straight into the dugout. Despite his affliction, the Yankees won a number of championships during his hazardous tenure. And now, Alfonso Soriano, current second baseman and the best Yankee prospect since Derek Jeter, can’t field a three-hop grounder without backing up, tensing with fear, and butchering the play. Like Knoblauch, Soriano has never had a history of fielding problems. While his throws to first are accurate, we still have to ask: has the scourge returned? Will we see another brain-melting onslaught? We’ll see.
Baseball: the Mets
Are the Mets cursed? It’s tough to say. At the very least, they’re strange. Sprung from the ashes of the departed Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, they began their franchise life as the most inept team ever to take a major league field. Then in 1969 they became the ‘Miracle Mets,’ who won the World Series behind the heroics of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and team of lovable no-names. My father, a student at Bard College at the time, described how all the kids—longhaired addicts, crazies, artists—would go down to a dive called Adolph’s to watch the game and drink cheap beer with the farmers, all brought together by the underdog Mets.
The ‘70s were no less strange for the Mets. They made another miracle run in 1973, behind Seaver and Tug McGraw, who coined the most perfect philosophy of the 20th century: ‘Ya gotta believe.’ They believed right up until the seventh game of the World Series, where they were defeated by Reggie Jackson and the mustachioed, renegade Oakland A’s. In 1977, they traded Tom Seaver, and the prophet Jeremiah wandered the grim Flushing tarmac, muttering under the roar of incoming flights, ‘You never shoulda done that…it’s too late now…repent if you still have breath to do so.’
In 1986, led by Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, the Mets resurfaced to win it all with one of the least likeable teams in major league history. Despite their arrogant, blazing talent, they still would have lost the Series if they’d been playing anybody other than the Boston Red Sox. Famously cursed for their 1920 trade of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, the Sox have been doomed ever since to never win the World Series. The Mets won, but there was a price; to benefit from another’s curse can carry a burden as well. Strawberry and Gooden destroyed their careers with drugs and booze, and the team has had few moments of brightness since. True, they went to the World Series again in 2000. It’s also true they lost, to the hated cross-town Yankees, and Mike Piazza was almost impaled by a broken bat handle thrown by Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens. Piazza survived but the Mets didn’t, going down in five, tight, hard-fought games.
Currently they’ve revamped to little avail. The many free agents brought over last winter haven’t panned out, and their new second baseman, Roberto Alomar, a future Hall of Famer, repeatedly boots easy grounders. Has Sax’s Disease oozed into Queens? Or was the ESPN commentator accurate when he prognosticated, ‘Alomar needs to get his head out.’ Whether cursed or plain old head-up-the-ass’d, with the Mets it’s hard to tell.
Football: the Jets
The Jets are definitely cursed. Their greatest moment doomed them. In 1968, ‘Broadway’ Joe Namath guaranteed a Super Bowl victory over Don Shula and the Baltimore Colts. At the time, the Colts were huge favorites over the outlaw AFL Jets, and no one—no one—guaranteed victories in those days. It was too brash, too arrogant, and too much. But Namath and the Jets backed up the boast, won the Super Bowl, and ever since, as the team flounders through mediocrity, its hapless fans can only mutter ‘same old Jets.’ Draft day is dreaded, as team officials gas up on nitrous oxide like deranged Dead Heads to pick the worst possible prospects in the Western Hemisphere. The slow, the dumb, the weak, the lame, the unlucky, the crippled, all are plucked off the board by Jets scouts while future Hall-of-Famers are passed by as being ‘a wrong fit.’
There is, however, hope for Jets fans. No matter how middle-of-the-road the team remains, they are always able to mess up the Miami Dolphins, allowing New Yorkers to torment family and friends down in the Sunshine State. Is it because Don Shula left the Colts to coach the Miami Dolphins, carrying on his shoulders the permanent mark of Namath’s boast? Maybe so. Ruining Florida’s grapefruit brunch makes rooting for the ‘same old Jets’ almost worth it.
Football: the Giants
Despite popular belief, the Giants are not cursed. Instead, like Jimmy Hoffa who’s rumored to be buried under their field at the Meadowlands, the Giants usually get exactly what they deserve.
Basketball: the Knicks
Not only are the Knicks cursed, they are a curse. For every other team that takes home a title, N.Y. fans must live with the Knicks. They’re a darkness in the Gotham horizon, a disease upon any who wants them to win. During the first of Jordan’s forty-five retirements, they had a chance to win it all. Instead, it didn’t happen and no one knows why. Their loss in the 1994 championship series to the Houston Rockets was so horrible that everyone blocked it out, and New Yorkers still have no memory whatsoever of that terrible June collapse. When asked what happened, fans merely squish up their features and murmur, ‘I think I went to a party that night and missed it. Or a funeral for one of my in-laws.’
How bad is the team? Not even Latrell Sprewell could choke some sense into the franchise.
Basketball: the Nets
For the first time since Dr. J, the Nets are truly a good team. Not cursed, not great, they too play at the Meadowlands, and thus usually get what they deserve. Currently they benefit greatly from ‘Not Being the Knicks.’
Hockey: the Rangers
The Rangers are the Knicks-on-Ice. Similar to six Tanya Hardings, they’re an obscene, stick-wielding torment on skates. Management spends money like the Romanovs, and with the same disastrous blindness. Yet, they’re unable to make the playoffs. Only once, in 1994, did they rise above their shame, when Mark Messier, Jedi-brother to Wayne ‘The Great One’ Gretzsky, single-handedly beat the Ranger-curse of not winning a Stanley Cup for 50-plus years.
The Ranger curse has never been fully explained: perhaps losing steadily for that long is its own curse, and the air currents of Madison Square Garden move in mysterious ways. Now, there’s little hope for Rangers fans. Messier is old, beat-up, unable to enforce his will to win. His saber flickers softly in the Garden, fizzles at the last.
Hockey: the Devils
The Devils aren’t cursed. Despite bearing the brunt of Messier’s magic in 1994, the Devils have since brought the Cup home twice. Also, because they’re called the New Jersey Devils, they’re immune from all normal curses. They’re vulnerable, however, to French-Canadian accents, and become listless and weak whenever they hear Celine Dion or Patrick Roy sing ‘Love Train.’
Hockey: the Islanders
The Islanders aren’t cursed either. Despite a proud history, they play in Long Island, and are more akin to aliens from Mars than Americans. Go Aliens! Go Isles! Besides, ever since Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs replaced Jay Gatsby, West Egg has gone to the dogs.