On the Subject of Curses

The Con


The most fun I have had in the past week was watching Michael Wilbon suffer on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption.  I admit my shame.  Grown adults shouldn’t get any pleasure out of the suffering of another human being.  Admittedly, it is our lot, to suffer and to gather what highs we can out of the canyon-esque lows that are thrust upon us by life.  But this is a special circumstance. 


Wilbon and a clique of professional victims known as Chicago Cubs fans have found reason to turn their woe is me I root for those guys from Wrigleyville reverse egotism into stunning, nausea inducing arrogance.  As the Los Angeles Dodgers, led by the underrated Joe Torre (and it hurts me, a New York Yankee loather to admit that) are poised to sweep the Cubs out of the 2008 Baseball Playoffs, those professionally victimized Cubs fans are now blaming their ‘Curse of the Billy Goat’ for the failure of the team to win a World Series for 100 years.  Some Cubs fans claim the curse has subsets: the Black Cat Incident (1969) or the Steve Bartman Incident (2003).  So serious are these fans that Steve Bartman, a fan who reached out for a ball he thought foul and took away a sure thing out from leftfielder Moises Alou was actually blamed in Cubs Nation (and the national sports media!) for losing the 2003 National League Championship Series.  Bartman was forced to move out of Chicago due to threats made on his person as well as against his family.  (Even the Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich recommended the Witness Protection Program for someone who wanted to catch a foul ball during a baseball game.  It’s not like Steve Bartman turned State’s Evidence against Sam Giancana or Al Capone.  Ah, the elected moral authority of the state of Illinois, gotta love it.) This week on PTI, Mike Wilbon and his partner Tony Kornheiser, actually debated whether the Curse of the Billy Goat was now the Curse of Steve Bartman.


It’s outrageous to think that a modern group of athletes, trying desperately to win in order to get that big contract would actually think their team is cursed by anyone.  It’s not like the Salem Witch Trials have come to the modern stadium or pitch.  As fans we would like to think our teams aren’t winning because of some other wordly power holding them back from greatness.  Such is the lot of those that are willing to toss chicken bones and chant in tongues just to see a group of grown men achieve what we couldn’t as children.


I am a member of such a fan base, albeit a new group of fans brought into the idea of sports team curses.  In an effort to explain the 50 years of futility the Detroit Lions have endured, the Detroit News has published an article entitled “The Curse of Bobby Layne.”  During the course of the piece, Lynn Henning argues that once informed of his trade to the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 6, 1958, Layne laid a curse on the Lions to be unable to win a championship for fifty years.  If true, then the curse ends Monday at 11:59pm.


Bobby Layne was a larger than life figure in Detroit during the 1950’s.  He led the Lions to three NFL League Championships 1952, 53 and 57 while leading the league in after hours partying.  He made the cover of Time Magazine, posing as the poster boy for tough guys and was known to get his own players drunk in the huddle.  In short, he was a one man show of excess and dominance in a era that saw at least four other ‘classic’ quarterbacks of all time: Otto Graham of the Cleveland Browns (whom he beat two out of three in championship games) Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts, Bob Waterfield of the Los Angeles Rams and Norm Van Brocklin of the Los Angles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles.


His trade did mark the end of the Detroit Lions dynasty of the era, after winning the championship in 1957, the Kitties went 4-7-1 in ’58.  Who would drink with my great-Uncles after-hours at the Lindell AC or the Golden Lion?  Would there ever be a chant as eloquent as the one the denizens of the bleachers in Tiger Stadium would level at Layne (Bobby sucks/Bobby’s drunk)?  But did Booby Layne actually curse the Detroit Lions?  His teammates, including legendary middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, laugh at the prospect.  Schmidt feels if he actually said something close to that statement it was meant in jest.


Lion fans have long been aware of the ‘Curse of Bobby Layne’ and laugh at the very idea.  Although there is more than enough reason to believe the franchise must be cursed: the death of wide receiver Chuck Hughes on the field in 1971, the loss of a franchise running back in 1984 to a freak knee injury, two star players paralyzed in the ‘90’s, another budding star killed while cutting his front lawn by an out of control semi-trailor truck in ’93, not to mention the inexplicable retirement at 29 of Barry Sanders, no Lions fan actually believes this team is cursed.


The real problem in Detroit is ownership.  Since 1963, the Detroit football franchise has been owned by the William Clay Ford and the Ford family.  Let’s face it, these guys can’t run one of the Big Three at a profit, with HUGE government incentives, bailouts and the like.  How can we expect them to run a football franchise properly? 


Note to Cubs fans, namely Mike Wilbon: we Lions fans have looked and looked and this is the closest thing to a curse we can find.  There is nothing supernatural about it.  We have inept ownership and they hire inept management who draft ineptly.  No secrets from beyond, no feeling like Jonah, no whining.  Just the cold hard fact that the Lions will continue to be a miserable excuse for a football team until the Ford’s sell the team. 


As I write this, the Cubs have just been swept out of the 2008 National League Division Series by the Dodgers.  It must be hard for Cubs fans to take after having a priest perform an exorcism on your dugout and all but newsflash: THERE WASN’T A CURSE TO BEGIN WITH!  The Chicago Cubs lost because they couldn’t pitch, couldn’t hit and the Dodgers were just the better team in the best of five series.


One of them major issues facing the country right now is one of blame: how did we get so far into the hole?  Was Bush to blame?  Was it Clinton or al-Qeada?  No, it was Wall Street and the Sub-Prime lenders or some unseen force like the Jewish bankers or the Russian-Chinese Communist conspiracy re-born.  No, it was us, the average American who refused to live within our means and question politicians on both sides of the aisle as they squandered our good will and tax dollars.


So as Wilbon and Kornheiser try to place the blame for the latest Cub flameout on some deep, dark unseen force that is out to destroy the goodness of the Chicago Cubs, they perpetuate the newest American personality flaw: victimization.  It’s easier to blame the overzealous or the ravings of the mad goat owners than realize your team has just sucked or has been good but not great for nearly 100 years.


Then again, leave it to the fans of Chicago to want to be victims instead of wanting to be champions.  It’s more fun to watch the Super Fans on Saturday Night Live than it is to hoist the World Series trophy, right?

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