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Wednesday, October 25|
The Curse of the Balboni
By Rany Jazayerli
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: The team of writers from the Baseball Prospectus (tm) normally writes for ESPN.com Insider. This is a special free version of their work. You can check out their web site at baseballprospectus.com.
Once again, there's magic in the air. Once again, strange events are happening in baseball's postseason, things that can only be explained by the Curse.
The curse of that overweight ex-Yankee slugger that has brought tears and misfortune to any team brave enough, or foolish enough, to challenge it. Foolish, I say, because most baseball teams will deny that the Curse even exists, that it's merely a coincidence, that it's simply the product of an overactive imagination. And really, it's hard to blame them.
I mean, who would have guessed that Steve Balboni had such power?
Yes, Steve Balboni. The first baseman with the career .229 average. The hitter who led a league in only one statistical category in his career -- the AL in strikeouts in 1985. That Steve Balboni.
What, you were thinking of some other curse?
Curses are not that unusual in baseball, but you typically have to be a great player to place one. The greatest player in history, Babe Ruth, is responsible for the most powerful Curse of them all. Ron Santo's curse has haunted Cubs' third basemen since he retired. But Steve Balboni? Could a player who was a regular for barely three seasons have the power to start his own Curse? Apparently so. The facts do not lie:
1. Balboni's career began as a highly-regarded minor-league slugger in the Yankees organization, but after just 200 at-bats in pinstripes, the Yankees traded him to Kansas City after the 1983 season. The Yankees, who went to the World Series in the year Balboni made his major-league debut, 1981, would not reach the playoffs again until 1995 -- the longest playoff drought the Yankees had experienced since Babe Ruth arrived in town.
2. The Royals immediately made Balboni their starting first baseman and made the playoffs in 1984 and 1985, winning their only World Series in the latter year. He had excellent power, setting the Royals' team record with 36 homers in 1985, but he never hit even .250 and the Royals eventually gave up on him in 1988. The Royals haven't made the playoffs since.
3. Since 1985, no Royal hitter has matched Balboni's home run total from that season. Every other team in baseball -- with the exception of the Devil Rays, who have been around for all of three years -- has had at least one player hit more than 36 homers. Since the Yankees traded Balboni in 1983, the franchise of Ruth and Gehrig, Mantle and Maris has had a player top 36 homers in a season just one time.
But all that is just small potatoes, the natural byproducts of the Curse. The true Curse of the Balboni, simply stated, is this: since Balboni hit 36 home runs to lead the Royals to a World Championship, 100 different teams (through 1999) employed at least one player that hit 36 or more homers -- we'll call these players "Steves." Thirty-six of those 100 teams qualified for the postseason. None of them have won a World Series.
Statistically speaking, the chances that 36 different playoff teams would all fail to win the Big One is less than 1 in 400, or about the odds you'd get in Vegas on John Olerud winning the AL stolen base title next season.
And if John Olerud did win the stolen base title next season, you'd swear something was afoot, wouldn't you? Yet for 15 years, no one noticed anything peculiar about the astonishing lack of postseason success by teams that dared to play a slugger of Balboni-like dimensions.
Until now. Now, finally, it's time for the truth about the Curse to be revealed.
It's not surprising that no one noticed the Curse when it began, because no playoff team fielded a "Steve" in 1986 or 1987, and in 1986 the Curse of the Bambino took centerstage anyway. But in 1988, Balboni went to work.
The Dodgers won the NL West that year despite a shortage of power so acute that John Shelby finished third on the team with 10 homers. The Mets won 100 games that season and were heavily favored in the NLCS, but they also had Darryl Strawberry, who dared to hit 39 homers. The Dodgers defeated them in seven games. They then faced the A's, who won 104 games, in the World Series. No problem: Jose Canseco hit 42 homers in his MVP season, so naturally, the Dodgers axed them in five. Balboni was surely there when Kirk Gibson, who wisely led the Dodgers with just 25 homers, hit a homer that you might remember. As Gibby rounded the bases, Vin Scully intoned, "In a year of the improbable, the impossible has just happened." But as you shall see, when the Curse of the Balboni is invoked, nothing is impossible.
The next year, the A's won the AL pennant again and this time, with Canseco spending the first half of the season on the DL, no one hit more than 32 homers. The Giants blasted their way through the NL, led by Kevin Mitchell, who hit 47 homers. An easy sweep for the A's.
But in 1990, the A's got cocky again, and unwisely let Mark McGwire hit 39 homers. The Reds, who won the NL pennant, were led by Chris Sabo's 25 homers. In Game Two, Billy Bates led off the 10th inning against Dennis Eckersley, who that year had the best season by a reliever in history. Was it just a fluke that Bates beat out a squibber that rolled no more than 10 feet, setting up the game-winning rally? It was just the seventh -- and final -- hit of Bates's career. The Reds shocked the A's, and baseball, with a four-game sweep.
In 1991, the Twins and Braves became the first two teams in history to go from the cellar one season to a pennant in the next. It can't be a coincidence that neither team had a Steve.
In 1992, the Toronto Blue Jays, who had choked away so many late-season leads that they were known as the Blow Jays, faced off against the A's, who had won 12 of their last 13 ALCS games. But McGwire once again tried to defy the Curse with his 42 homers, and in Game Four, it was the A's that choked, blowing a 6-1 lead after seven innings that would have knotted the series at two. In extra innings, A's utilityman Eric Fox tried to score from third base on an infield grounder, despite explicit instructions not to go on contact. He was out, the A's lost the game, and the Blue Jays won the series in six games on their way to their first World Championship.
The next season, the Blue Jays beat the Chicago White Sox, who got 41 home runs from Frank Thomas, to reach the World Series. In the NL, the Braves squeaked past the Giants in a thrilling pennant race with 104 wins, and no one expected the Phillies to give them any trouble. Yet again, no one counted on the Curse of the Balboni, as David Justice hit 40 homers for the Braves. Curt Schilling emerged from obscurity during that series, and in the decisive Game 6, Mickey Morandini lined a ball off of Greg Maddux's leg in the first inning. Maddux would stay in the game, but gave up six runs and the Braves lost.
In 1995, with home runs flying out at a record pace, it was hard to find a team that didn't have a Steve. The Cleveland Indians, led by Albert Belle's 50 homers, went 100-44 during the regular season, cruised to the World Series, as both of their playoff opponents (the Red Sox and Mariners) also had Steves. The Braves didn't, though, and despite a regular-season record 10 games worse than the Indians, they won their only World Championship of the decade.
Which brings us to 1996, and the beginning of the New Yankee Dynasty. The Yankees had not had a Steve since they traded Balboni in 1983, and once again they would not. They faced off against the Rangers in the Division Series, and despite Juan Gonzalez's five homers in four games, the 47 homers he hit during the regular season proved too much for the Rangers to overcome. Then came the ALCS against the Orioles, led by Brady Anderson's 50 dingers. And in Game One, the Curse came to bear, as Jeffrey Maier -- are we sure he's not related to Balboni? -- turned an out into a home run and a loss into a win. The Yankees then became only the third team in history -- the first was Balboni's 1985 Royals -- to win a World Series after losing the first two games at home
But the following year, Tino Martinez hit 44 homers, the most by a Yankee since 1961. Without the Curse of the Balboni on their side, they didn't even escape the first round. Just five outs away from eliminating the Indians in Game Four, the Yankees let Sandy Alomar hit a game-tying homer. Don't think that was the work of Balboni? What if I told you Alomar hit that homer off of Mariano Rivera? Rivera would not give up another run in his next 33.1 postseason innings, a major-league record, but it was too late to save the Yankees from being eliminated in five games.
The Indians reached the World Series that year, where they faced the Florida Marlins, the first wild-card team to ever reach the World Series in 1997. Jim Thome led the Indians with 38 homers; no Marlin hit more than 23. The Indians took a one-run lead into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7, but were unable to protect the lead, losing the game and the World Championship in the 11th.
In 1998, seven of the eight playoff teams had a Steve, but the only team that didn't, the Yankees, won 114 games anyway. Maybe Balboni had something to do with the call on that 2-2 pitch that Mark Langston threw to Tino Martinez, one pitch before he hit a grand slam in Game 1. Probably not; the Yankees didn't need his help anyway.
Last season, the Yankees and Red Sox were the only two playoff teams that didn't have a Steve. The Red Sox fell behind the Indians two games to none and looked to be without Pedro Martinez -- and to the surprise of just about everyone, scored 44 runs in the next three games to win the series. They were also the only team to win a game against the Yankees, who went 11-1 in the postseason for their second straight championship.
Overall, since Balboni hit 36 homers in 1985, 26 different playoff series have pitted a team with at least one Steve against a team without a Steve. Teams with the power hitter have gone just 4-22 in those series, and have lost 14 straight since the Mariners edged the Yankees in 1995:
Year Series Team HR Leader
1995 WS ATL McGriff (27)
1996 ALDS NY Williams (29)
1996 NLDS ATL Klesko (34)
1996 NLDS STL Gant (30)
1996 ALCS NY Williams (29)
1997 NLDS ATL Klesko (24)
1997 NLDS FLA Alou (23)
1997 WS FLA Alou (23)
1998 ALDS NY Martinez (28)
1998 ALCS NY Martinez (28)
1998 WS NY Martinez (28)
1999 ALDS NY Martinez (28)
1999 ALDS BOS O'Leary (28)
1999 WS NY Martinez (28)
Opponent HR Leader Result
CLE Belle (50) Atlanta, 4-2
TEX Gonzalez (47) New York, 3-1
LAD Piazza (36) Atlanta, 3-0
SDP Caminiti (40) St. Louis, 3-0
BAL Anderson (50) New York, 4-1
HOU Bagwell (43) Atlanta, 3-0
SFG Bonds (40) Florida, 3-0
CLE Thome (40) Florida, 4-3
TEX Gonzalez (45) New York, 3-0
CLE Ramirez (45) New York, 4-2
SDP Vaughn (50) New York, 4-0
TEX Palmeiro (47) New York, 3-0
CLE Ramirez (44) Boston, 3-2
ATL Jones (45) New York, 4-0
Which brings us to 2000. For the second time in three years, the Yankees fielded the only Steve-less squad among the eight playoff teams. (Realizing that they needed a true power hitter in the lineup but not wishing to test the Curse, the Yankees came up with an ingenious solution: trade for a power hitter in mid-season. David Justice hit 41 homers this season -- but only 21 of them came in pinstripes.) But unlike the 1998 squad that set an AL record for wins, the 2000 Yankees limped into the playoffs with the worst record of the eight playoff teams. In fact, only one team in history -- the 1987 Twins, who didn't have a Steve on their team either -- has won the World Series with a worse record than this year's Yankees.
But none of it has mattered. The A's had the Yankees on the ropes, but the Curse hit Gil Heredia bad in the first inning of Game 5, and the A's couldn't recover. The Mariners were then disposed of in the ALCS, as Balboni put a special hex on Arthur Rhodes. The losing streak has now stretched across an astonishing 16 series.
Which brings us to the contest at hand. The Mets may be the Team of Destiny, but they also have Mike Piazza and his 38 homers, and if the first two games are an indication, Destiny is no match for the Curse. Do you think it was a coincidence that Todd Zeile hit a fly ball that missed clearing the fence by the width of a finger? When Zeile's foul grounder hit the lip of the infield grass and made a right-turn into fair territory, who do you think was there? Who made Lenny Harris' home run down the left-field line twist into foul territory by scarcely a foot?
Babe Ruth? Please. The Curse of the Bambino is nothing to be trifled with -- it's been a blight on New England for over 80 years -- but keeping all of Red Sox Nation in a state of constant depression takes work. The Babe simply doesn't have time to spread his curse to other teams, what with his being dead and all.
But Balboni is alive and well, and we're sure he's having a blast wreaking havoc on those teams that dare to challenge him.
Still not convinced? How, then, do you explain that the most infamous blown call in baseball history -- Don Denkinger calling Jorge Orta safe in the 9th inning of Game 6 of the 1985 World Series -- occurred with Balboni standing in the on-deck circle, scarcely 100 feet away? And how do you account for the fact that, when Balboni then came to the plate, his easy foul pop-up fell harmlessly between Darrell Porter and Jack Clark? Balboni then singled, keying the two-run rally that won the penultimate game for Kansas City. Even then, see, Balboni had the power to decide the fate of a playoff series.
So what's a power-hitting team supposed to do? Well, one of these years a team is bound to come along that's so strong, so deep, so invulnerable that they'll be able to take on the Curse and win. Then again, the 1998 Yankees were that team, and even they didn't dare to challenge Balboni. Nobody on that team hit even 30 homers.
So if you're really looking to break the Yankees' stranglehold on the World Series Trophy, we suggest more extreme measures. If you're the Indians, let Manny Ramirez walk. Trade Jim Thome for Rico Brogna. The Braves? Need to institute a new rule: no more than one Jones in the lineup at a time. The Cardinals? Re-sign Will Clark and make Mark McGwire your permanent pinch-hitter. That might limit him to 35 homers. The Astros? Time to implode Enron Field and move back to the Astrodome. The Rockies? Easy solution: dig a 5,000 foot crater and drop Coors Field into it.
But all of those are solutions for another time. If you're a member of the Mets and want to know how to win right now, I'm afraid there is no easy way out of the hole that's been dug. You've got two options: you can hope that through talent, fortitude, and sheer will, you can win all three of the remaining games and smash the Curse into oblivion.
That's one option. I think the other one has a better chance of success: release Mike Piazza, and hope he takes the Curse with him.
Rany Jazayerli, MD, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.