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Goats, Cubs, and Colonel Sanders: Believing in Sports Curses Is All the Fun

Turn off that rational voice in your head

AP Images
AP Images

The way to break a baseball curse is simple: play better than the other guys. But what if — and hear me out — that isn’t always enough?

The World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians begins Tuesday night, and unless you set out for the wilderness now* (*last month), you are going to hear a lot about the Curse of the Billy Goat. You will hear about the Billy Goat Tavern and its one-time owner, Billy Sianis. You will hear about the two seats he bought for the 1945 World Series, the Cubs’ last championship appearance. You will hear about how dreadful the goat he supposedly positioned beside him in the stands smelled, and you will hear some version of his proclamation upon his and his ruminant’s removal from Wrigley Field, the gist of which was: The American people shall talk about Billys and goats for literal decades to come, and also the Cubs will not win any more World Series titles. All of these things have, until now, come true.

Here is an incomplete list of the ways in which Cubs fans and assorted sympathizers have attempted to break the curse over the years: a blessing of the dugout by a Greek Orthodox priest in 2008, Sianis’s nephew repeatedly escorting a billy goat into Wrigley Field with the team’s blessing, a goat-eating contest featuring competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi, a possibly mythical 1994 prayer circle hosted by Ernie Banks and robed monks beside Wrigley’s ivy, the recitation of a rhyme meant to transfer the curse to Houston (“You had your chance to let him in / But now no more will the Astros win”), the hanging of a butchered goat from the Harry Caray statue outside Wrigley (twice), the delivery of a goat head to owner Tom Ricketts, and the televised electrocution of the ball that Steve Bartman disrupted in the 2003 NLCS.

Here is an incomplete list of the ways in which the Cubs have broken their hearts in return: hacking up a massive division lead in 1969 and surrendering what would have been the team’s first playoff appearance in 24 years to the Mets (and providing the otherworldly imagery of a black cat sprinting past the dugout in what would be the deciding game), giving up a grand slam to James Loney en route to Chicago’s 97-win team getting swept by the Dodgers in the 2008 NLDS, allowing Daniel Murphy to set foot in the batter’s box in last year’s NLCS. Mostly, though, the heartbreak has been mundane, the kind no one would bother to write a song about, that features names like Keith Moreland and Turk Wendell and Ted Lilly, that shows up on the fringe of a family photo in a bad suit 20 years later and maybe went out with cousin Cynthia for a while.

You know this team is different. It was the best team in baseball through the 2016 regular season, winning 103 games and clinching the NL Central by the middle of September. It has Joe Maddon and Javier “the reason why my television has a dent in it” Báez and the Math King, Vanquisher of Hexes, Lord of Cherubs, the First of His Name. In the playoffs so far, the team has seen surprise ace Kyle Hendricks outduel Clayton Kershaw and has summoned Kyle Schwarber from the depths of the underworld. But then, of course, any really great curse has a way of coming for those seemingly most out of its reach.

Curses aren’t real: You know this. I know this, too, and yet I believe. There was a time when I didn’t, when I could watch sports and think, correctly, that nothing I did could influence what was happening on the field. Did I joke about the baseball gods too many times? Did I watch one too many no-hitters dissolve just as soon as I acknowledged them? Did Taylor Swift do this? (She still hasn’t released an album, by the way.) All I know is one day I woke up and I believed.

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe, in spite of the check-reality light blinking on your dashboard, you think that the cosmos has a hand in these things, that the colors you wear and the words you say have some power. Sports, after all, have never been about rationality. How else can a reasonable person devote themselves — their afternoons, their money, their happiness, their flesh and blood — to something through sheer happenstance of geography? And goats — well, they’re a hell of a lot more interesting than sabermetrics.

Getty Images
Getty Images

My favorite baseball curse is from Japan: the Curse of the Colonel. The story goes that in 1985, fans celebrating the Hanshin Tigers’ first-ever Japan Championship Series victory rampaged over to a local KFC, seized the life-size Colonel Sanders statue standing vanguard outside it, and chucked him into the nearby Dotonbori canal. (This, supposedly, was done to honor the American Randy Bass, the team’s MVP and winner of that year’s triple crown, who resembled the Colonel insofar as they both had arms and facial hair.) And then, for the next 18 seasons, the Tigers were miserable, finishing last or next to last in the standings in each.

The Tigers returned to the Japan Series in 2003. They won the first game, against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, and then dropped the next four: another lost season, just like all the others.

In 2009, Sanders was found. Divers working on a construction project dug him up in halves, reeling in his upper body and then his legs a day later. I like to imagine them sweeping through the murk, brushing off handfuls of mud and finding a grin. I envision them after they knew what they had and what it meant, reaching out and listening to the sound of their own breaths, trying to find a championship in a riverbed. Months after its discovery, the reassembled statue was brought to a prayer service at a Shinto shrine near the Tigers’ stadium. At its conclusion, the chief priest announced: “The curse is completely broken.”

The seven-odd years of nonchampionships since belong to no one but the Tigers, just as — if we’re rational for a moment — the 2016 Cubs season belongs to nobody but them.

But if you squint, can’t you see the glimmers of providence at the margins? How else to explain Schwarber on a private jet barreling toward Cleveland? What other way to reason out the return of Danny Salazar and the looming threat of another GOAT? Maybe the Cubs will do it. Maybe they won’t. You can’t control it either way. But fate? I don’t know, but I believe.