No escape from 'Curse of the Bambino'

Boston's 86-year jinx in baseball's World Series fuels US sport's bitterest rivalry.
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To Understand the tortured relationship between the great city of Boston and the equally great city of New York - in life as well as in baseball - look no further than Game One of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday evening.

To Understand the tortured relationship between the great city of Boston and the equally great city of New York - in life as well as in baseball - look no further than Game One of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday evening.

Imperious and disciplined as ever, the New York Yankees swept to an 8-0 lead over the Boston Red Sox. Unkempt and unpredictable as ever, the Boston Red Sox staged a late recovery to get within one run, at 8-7. But then the Yankees moved up a gear. Their stone-faced, all but unhittable closing pitcher, Mariano Rivera, was summoned to end the rally. Then New York collected two more runs, and Rivera dispatched the Sox in order at the top of the ninth inning. Game over, and a 10-7 Yankee win. A rebellion had been quelled, and the natural order of the universe had been confirmed. New York had beaten Boston. For Sox fans, there was that familiar bitter contemplation of what might have been.

Like fans of baseball's other great lost cause, the Chicago Cubs, devotees of the Sox are connoisseurs of defeat - but in a very different way. Cubs fans expect defeat, wallow in defeat, even joke about defeat.

"Hey, anyone can have a bad century," laughed one recent Cubs manager, referring to the franchise's failure to win a World Series since 1908.

For Boston fans by contrast, failure is tragic and utterly unfair. The members of that faith-based community in the north-eastern US known as Red Sox Nation expect to win. But they never do. And invariably, in one shape or another, the reason is the city of New York. And the result is a catalogue of misery that has created the most bitter rivalry in American sport.

The dates are etched on the soul of anyone who claims to love the Sox: 1978, when the Yankees overcame a 14-game deficit to beat Boston for the AL pennant; 1986, when the Mets - the other New York team - snatched the World Series after a catastrophic error by the Sox's first baseman Bill Buckner. And then last year's epic ALCS, with the Sox within five outs of victory and a place in the World Series, only for the Yankees to snatch a dramatic, yet somehow inevitable, victory in extra innings.

But 2004 was supposed to be different - and to be fair, it might yet be. At the time of writing, the Yankees lead 2-0 after Rivera did in Game Two exactly what he did in Game One, 3-1 the scoreline. But this is a best-of-seven affair, and last night the Sox were at home for the middle three games of the series.

Boston had spent the close season strengthening their line-up, especially their pitching. The Yankees, as usual, had trumped them by signing Alex Rodriguez, commonly regarded as the best player in baseball, whom Boston had also coveted. But New York's starting pitching was deeply suspect. Hard-nosed odds-makers in Las Vegas made the Sox favourites.

But such crude commercial calculation ignores the supernatural. There are two other dates even more painfully seared into the collective psyche of Red Sox nation. One is 1918, when the Sox last won the World Series, largely thanks to a virtuoso hitter and pitcher named Babe Ruth. The other is 1920, when Harry Frazee, the owner of the Sox, sold the Babe to the Yankees in order, it is said, to finance production of the new Broadway musical No, No, Nanette. Boston, who won five of the first 15 World Series, have never won one since. The Yankees in the meantime have won 26 - in the first four of them led by Ruth himself.

Thus the "Curse of the Bambino" (as Ruth was known), the unbreakable jinx which Red Sox fans are convinced has settled on their team. They have tried everything to exorcise it. They dredged a lake south of Boston where Ruth's favourite piano is said to lie, they leave cans of beer on the gravestone at the Gate of Heaven cemetery 20 miles north of New York, where the famously bibulous slugger is buried.

The Sox players have tried everything as well. Last year they shaved their heads and dubbed themselves the "Cowboys". For 2004, they have let their hair grow (so that lead-off hitter Johnny Damon looks like John the Baptist in a baseball helmet). To loosen up the fans, they call themselves "the Idiots", behaving like a bunch of endearing goofballs to contrast with the clean-cut, pinstriped Yankees.

But nothing has worked. The Curse has settled like a shroud over the "Hub", or "Hub of the Universe" as Bostonians' conceit would have their city. The real hub of baseball in the Bronx merely laughs at the antics, certain of what will happen on the night. This week, the Yankee Stadium faithful needed only to unfurl banners saying simply, "1918". Bostonians could only scream obscenities in reply.

On the field, too, the feud between the teams is tangible. Last year's ALCS saw a bench-clearing brawl between the teams, there was another on 24 July during the regular season when the Sox catcher pushed Rodriguez in the face.

By the law of averages, another dust-up will happen during this ALCS. Boston may win the brawl. But, in the dark recesses of their heart, their fans must already know that the enemy will triumph in the contest that counts.