2003 Curses, Inc.

The Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox solidify their historic reputations as baseball’s two unluckiest teams, and deepen the belief among many that they’re both destined for eternal suffering—but is that a curse, or a blessing?

Chicago Cub outfielder Moises Alou has a fly ball infamously stolen away by Wrigley fan Steve Bartman; the New York Yankees’ Hideki Matsui pounds the exclamation point on a crippling rally that once again helped seal the Boston Red Sox’ fate shy of glory.

No major league baseball team had gone longer without winning a World Series than the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. Entering 2003, there unlikely was anyone alive who bore witness to the Cubs’ last championship in 1908, while maybe a few were around to chat first-hand about the Red Sox’ last hurrah in 1918. The Chicago White Sox, which actually last won it all a year before Boston, are arguably exempt since they should have won it a year later, in 1919, but decided to give it away for a price.

Both the Cubs and Red Sox had endured repeated heartbreaks in their quests to return to the top. The Cubs were good enough to reach the World Series seven times through World War II, but lost them all. They haven’t been back since. The Red Sox have been there once every generation, but someone always messed it up for them, whether it was Johnny Pesky hesitating a relay throw in 1946, Dick Williams prematurely bragging about “Lonborg and Champagne” in 1967, or Bill Buckner letting the ball go through his legs in 1986.

The continued failures defied logical explanation. People began to believe something higher was at work. Such theories gave rise to the curses: The one placed on the Red Sox after Babe Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees in 1920; the one placed on the Cubs by a tavern owner whose goat was refused entry into Wrigley Field for the 1945 World Series.

With each passing year, through every defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, as both teams annually finished second to someone else, each curse became a skewed blessing so rich in tradition, it had practically developed into a brand that could be licensed and profited from. Heavens forbid if the Cubs or Red Sox actually won a World Series; such an event would violate corporate guidelines, ruin the mystique and return the team to Earth as just another major league ballclub.

In 2003, both the Red Sox and Cubs were mere outs away from facing one another in a World Series to decide whose curse would finally fall. Instead, they enhanced their aura even more by finding new ways to be denied.

Adding insult to injury, the World Series that appeared ready to reward one of baseball’s long-suffering would instead go to an 11-year old wild card of franchises that still had yet to win a divisional title and, in only its second-ever finish above .500, won its second-ever World Series.

The Cubs’ road to eventual disappointment was led by manager Dusty Baker, who understood the hard pain of heartbreak after a decade of failing to reach the top with consistently good teams in San Francisco. As with the Giants, Baker connected in the Cub clubhouse and became instantly respected by the roster he inherited—which included All-World slugger Sammy Sosa and a young, highly promising starting rotation of fireballers (Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano) that helped reset the all-time mark for team strikeouts at 1,404, which they broke the year before.

A player’s favorite as always, Baker’s warm and passionate presence was a perfect fit within the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, and it helped lift the Cubs to their first divisional title since 1989. Baker kept his club upright through a rather difficult first half for Sosa, who suffered a rare, prolonged power outage after a beaning incident at Pittsburgh cracked his batting helmet in two; an ensuing toe injury kept him out for 16 games, and once back, the still-slumping Sosa was caught using a corked batSosa claimed he grabbed a batting practice bat by mistake; baseball checked out his other 76 bats, none of which tested positive for cork. . But Sosa’s knack for white-hot horsepower emerged in the second half, smashing 30 home runs over the Cubs’ final 80 games to help win the National League Central race in the final week over rivals Houston and St. Louis.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, were nearly grounded through the season’s first few months by a horrendous bullpen that blew just about every lead handed to them by a steady base of starters (including effective yet fragile Pedro Martinez). But the hurlers’ woes were often made moot by an immensely productive batting order with no weak spots—as proven by American League highs in batting (.289), runs scored (961) and slugging percentage (an all-time record .491); Boston’s 238 home runs were just one shy of AL leader Texas. All-Stars like shortstop Nomar Garciaparra (.301 average, 28 home runs, 105 runs batted in) and left fielder Manny Ramirez (.325, 37, 104) were accompanied by a strong and capable list of supporters, no fewer than six of whom knocked in at least 85 runs.

The Oakland A's lost nine straight games in which they could have clinched a series, from 2000-03.

Under second-year manager Grady Little, whose previous claim to fame was managing the Durham Bulls while Bull Durham was being filmed, the Red Sox finished second to the YankeesFor those pining for parity in baseball, the AL East was a source of frustration; for the sixth straight year, all five of its teams finished in the same order.—since 1918, they always seemed to—but were good enough to snare the AL Wild Card and stay alive for the postseason.

Both the Cubs and Red Sox were expected to make quick bows out of the postseason as decided first-round underdogs. But they were facing teams that had made an astonishingly bad habit of underachieving in the playoffs: The Atlanta Braves and the Oakland A’s.

The Cubs, with the worst record (88-74) of any postseason participant, took on a Braves team that had the best (101-61)—and Chicago won three games to two, as Kerry Wood’s two sterling starts helped tame a prodigious Atlanta offense almost every bit as good as Boston’s.

The Red Sox, after losing the first two games to the A’s, fought back to take the series For those pining for parity in baseball, the AL East was a source of frustration; for the sixth straight year, all five of its teams finished in the same order. with three edge-of-your-seat victories, thanks mainly to a startlingly stingy contribution from an unlikely source: The bullpen, which shut down Oakland bats in the clutch.

Baseball fans, fanatical and casual alike, began to wax nostalgic about the possibility of a Red Sox-Cub World Series to determine who best could exorcise their curse. But one step remained: Advancing past the League Championship Series.

The Red Sox had the unenviable task of knocking off the team they loved to loathe: The New York Yankees. The Cubs looked to have it easier, taking on a complete upstart in the NL Wild Card Florida Marlins.

In the owners’ contraction-enhanced merry-go-round of the past few years, Jeffrey Loria had escaped the derelict Montreal Expos by selling the franchise to Major League Baseball—and in exchange, bought the Marlins from John Henry, who was on his way to becoming the prime mover in a staggering $660 million purchase…of the Red Sox.

Assuming control of the Marlins in 2002, Loria might have wondered if he had it better in Montreal. The Marlins, still showing the aftereffects of Wayne Huizenga’s spending binge of 1997, had a trail of losing seasons, little bucks to work with and, in 2002, avoided finishing last in major league attendance when an unnamed person bought enough tickets in the Marlins’ final home game to push their season total just above that of the Expos’. Entering 2003, only four teams had lower payrolls than the Marlins.

Jack McKeon did what most managers in his situation usually do; he told his players to go out and have fun, because no one expected them to win anyway. As usual, the advice worked.Despite the addition of spirited bulldog catcher Ivan Rodriguez—who many thought the Marlins were taking a $10 million chance on, given the ex-Ranger’s recent penchant for serious injury—the Marlins started out 2003, as always, as a young team with some promise playing subpar baseball, well behind the Braves and expected chasers in the Expos and Philadelphia. Loria decided it was time to shake things up, so in mid-May he fired manager Jeff Torborg In a bizarre sideshow, Loria and Florida general manager Larry Beinfest also fired pitching coach Ed Arnsberg—who was said to react violently to the news. and replaced him with Jack McKeon.

At 72, McKeon had managed sporadically since 1973 and had never made it to the playoffs, and he was viewed as another retread from the old boy’s network trying to keep someone’s house standing. But with apt father-figure guidance, McKeon did what most managers in his situation usually do; he told his players to go out and have fun, because no one expected them to win anyway.

As usual, the advice worked.

Under McKeon, the Marlins charged into winning territory and played the best baseball of any team in the season’s second half. They claimed the NL Wild Card and, in the NLDS, promptly foiled the NL West-winning Giants in five games, as Rodriguez led the way with total omnipresence in the clutch.

Rodriguez again provided the heroics in Game One of the NLCS at Chicago, but when the Cubs won the next three games—giving the Cubs three games to win one and advance, at long last, to the World Series—it appeared that the Marlins’ magic had finally run out.

As the Cubs strolled early on, the Red Sox were all but at war with the Yankees in the ALCS. The flashpoint would be Game Three and a dream duel pitting Boston ace Pedro Martinez and ex-Boston ace Roger Clemens, who earlier announced that 2003 would be his final year. One of baseball’s longest-running cold wars boiled over when Martinez plunked the Yankees’ Karim Garcia in the back, and when Manny Ramirez overreacted to a high (but not tight) Clemens fastball a half-inning later, the dugouts emptied into an episode lowlighted when Yankee bench coach Don Zimmer charged Martinez—who grabbed the 72-year old by his bald head and shoved him to the ground. From all of this, no one was ejected, and Clemens and the Yankees prevailed, 4-3.

teams with highest-paid player failed to make playoffs from 1987-2002

The Red Sox recovered by winning two of the next three games to force Game Seven—and a Martinez-Clemens reprise—at Yankee Stadium. Clemens was ineffective and gone after three innings, while Martinez sailed on, leading 5-2 after seven. But in the eighth the Yanks got a run back, and Grady Little was ready to go to his bullpen. Months earlier, such a decision would have been fraught with danger, but the once beleaguered Red Sox relievers had become nothing short of spectacular in the postseason, allowing a sensational 1.14 ERA over 31.2 innings of work. When Little approached the mound, Martinez lobbied to stay in. He had thrown 115 pitches. The Red Sox bullpen was ready.

Little stuck with Martinez.

The next batter, Hideki Matsui—the Yankees’ first-year answer to Ichiro Suzuki—doubled his way on as the tying runner. He reached home one batter later when Jorge Posada hit a Texas Leaguer into short center field. Bang-bang, tie game.

Little went to the bullpen.

Neither team could unknot the 5-5 score through ten and a half innings, but then New York third baseman Aaron Boone—brother of Bret, son of Bob, grandson of Ray—lofted Tim Wakefield’s first pitch of the Yankee 11th high, deep and into the left field bleachers. Boom, game over. The Red Sox were cursed again.

Down three games to one, the Florida Marlins needed to breathe life back into their NLCS chances against the Cubs, and they got it courtesy of brash 23-year old Josh Beckett, who threw a two-hit shutout to extend the series back to Chicago.

After 58 years, a goat was finally spotted at Wrigley Field for Game Six. His name was Steve Bartman.

A 26-year old little league coach who lived with his parents, Bartman was seated along the first row of Section 116 near the left field foul pole, enjoying along with 40,000 other loud souls a rebound by the Cubs, leading Game Six 3-0 after seven innings. With one out and one on in the Marlin eighth, Luis Castillo lofted a fly ball that was coming right at Bartman. Doing what most anyone else would do with an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grab a free major league souvenir, Bartman instinctively reached with his glove right above the railing—and inadvertently stole the second out of the inning from Cub left fielder Moises Alou, who reacted by slamming his empty glove in disgust.

Fan interference was not called since Alou was reaching in past the railing, but Bartman knew not only the impact of what he had done, but how angry and crazy Cub fans could get. Bartman prayed the Cubs would get out of the inning.

Eight Florida runs later, they did.

Given new life, Castillo walked. Ivan Rodriguez singled. Twenty-year old prodigy Miguel Cabrera hit a grounder that looked ready to be turned into a force, if not a double play, but Chicago shortstop Alex Gonzalez botched the pick-up. The error was just as critical for opening the Marlin floodgates as Bartman’s glove, but few people will remember Gonzalez and opt to brood over poor Bartman, who had to be escorted away under heavy ballpark security, was hidden under the rafters for his own safety well after the game was over, and was said to be so devastated over the event that even Commissioner Bud Selig called him a few days later to cheer him up, if that was possible.

Moments after getting knocked down by a up-and-in Roger Clemens fastball, 20-year-old Florida rookie Miguel Cabrera launched a two-run, first-inning home run in Game Four of the World Series; the Marlins would win the game in 12 innings and take the next two contests to clinch the world title.

The Marlins caught the momentum bug after their 8-3, Game Six win—and the Cubs knew it. Chicago did had their chances in Game Seven at Wrigley Field—leading 5-3 after four innings—but Cub starter Kerry Wood, shaky early on, fell apart in the fifth. Florida jumped on him and the relievers that followed to take a 9-6 lead that stuck. And out of nowhere, the Marlins were in the World Series.

For Dusty Baker, it was a remarkably haunting case of déjà vu, defeated in the postseason for the second straight year after holding a comfortable lead with five outs left in the potential series clincher.

The Marlins’ spunky resiliency carried on against the heavily favored Yankees at the World Series. They trailed two games to one and, in Game Four at Miami, threatened to fall further when a furious ninth-inning Yankee rally sent the game into extra innings. But in the bottom of the 12th, the Marlins sent up Alex Gonzalez—no relation to the Cub namesake of the critical Game Six NLCS error—and, bursting out of a 5-for-53 slump, lined a walk-off homer off Yankee reliever Jeff Weaver It was Weaver’s first appearance for the Yankees in a month.for a 4-3 win and a firm momentum shift in Florida’s favor.

After taking Game Five, 6-4, to move the series back to New York, the Marlins took what was considered a calculated risk and sent to the mound red-hot pitcher Josh Beckett on three days’ rest. Some opined it was better for manager Jack McKeon to give a more rested Beckett the ball for Game Seven if it was necessary, but McKeon sensed a big-game appetite from his young stopper and let him go at the Yankees.

Go at them Beckett did, throwing his fastball with stunning, consistent velocity at over 95 miles per hour. In 48 regular season starts through 2003, Beckett had not thrown a shutout, but with his five-hit blanking of the Yankees that gave the Marlins their second improbable championshipThe Marlins became the first World Series champion since the 1914 Boston Braves to have been as much as ten games under .500 during the regular season. in seven years, he had thrown his second of the 2003 postseason.

And so the curses live on, prosperous as ever, taking new victims with them. Grady Little figured he’d be fired for leaving Pedro Martinez in two batters too long. He was right. In Chicago, the ball Steve Bartman muffed was auctioned off to a restaurant group in the name of the late Cub broadcaster Harry Caray for exactly $113,824.16. The goal: To blow up the ball in the hopes that the curse of the Cubs might finally be lifted.

End the curse? Retire the mystique? Ruin all that you’ve become over a century of legendary anguish?

Then what?

The Boston Red Sox, for one, would soon find out.

2004 baseball historyForward to 2004: Four Score and Six Years Hence Down 3-0 in the ALCS, the Boston Red Sox burst to life and spectacularly exorcise the Curse of the Bambino.

2002 baseball historyBack to 2002: The Wild, Wild Card West The red-hot Anaheim Angels—riding high on the back of their Rally Monkey—attempt to overcome Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants.

2000 baseball historyThe 2000s Page: Driven Deep to Disgrace The new century gives Major League Baseball a decidedly more international flavor with a healthy rise in foreign-born talent—but a disturbing pall is cast over the sport as one megastar after another is exposed for using steroids.

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2003 Standings

National League East
Atlanta Braves
Florida Marlins (w)
Philadelphia Phillies
Montreal Expos
New York Mets
National League Central
Chicago Cubs
Houston Astros
St. Louis Cardinals
Pittsburgh Pirates
Cincinnati Reds
Milwaukee Brewers
National League West
San Francisco Giants
Los Angeles Dodgers
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres
American League East
New York Yankees
Boston Red Sox (w)
Toronto Blue Jays
Baltimore Orioles
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
American League Central
Minnesota Twins
Chicago White Sox
Kansas City Royals
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
American League West
Oakland A's
Seattle Mariners
L.A. Angels of Anaheim
Texas Rangers

2003 Postseason Results
NLDS Florida defeated San Francisco, 3-1.
NLDS Chicago defeated Atlanta, 3-2.
NLCS Florida defeated Chicago, 4-3.
ALDS New York defeated Minnesota, 3-1.
ALDS Boston defeated Oakland, 3-2.
ALCS New York defeated Boston, 4-3.
World Series New York (AL) defeated Florida (NL), 4-2.

It Happened in 2003

Two Milestones for the Price of One
Roger Clemens becomes the first pitcher in 13 years to earn his 300th win, and the third player ever to record his 4,000th career strikeout—all on the same night, June 13 at New York in a 5-2 Yankee win over the St. Louis Cardinals. Clemens had been foiled in his previous two starts to win his 300th game by his own bullpen, which blew leads he had left the game with. The 40-year old has already said that 2003 will be his last year—but changes his mind after the season when he’s coaxed back to play with good friend and ex-Yankee teammate Andy Pettitte in Houston.

Call it a Vacation Home
Before the Montreal Expos can play permanently in Washington D.C., 22 of their home games are played in Puerto Rico. Average attendance at San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium, capacity 19,900, is 14,222 per game—above the 12,081 they draw per contest back in Canada.

Declawed Tigers
No American League team has lost more games than the 2003 Detroit Tigers, who finish with a 43-119 record. It could be worse. By winning five of their last six games, they avoid the anti-magic number of 120 losses reached by the 1962 New York Mets. A purple heart is awarded to pitcher
Mike Maroth, who at 9-21 becomes the majors’ first 20-game loser in 23 years; 20-year old Jeremy Bonderman, at 6-19, might have joined him had he not been pulled from the rotation in September. By the percentages, the very worse team in AL history remains the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, whose 36-117 record translates to a .235 winning percentage—as opposed to the Tigers’ .265.

Nineteen and Growing
The legacy of the wild slugging spree started in the 1990s is beginning to take shape as two players belt their 500th career home runs. The Chicago Cubs’
Sammy Sosa, 34, becomes the third youngest player ever to reach 500 when he connects on April 4 at Cincinnati; on May 11, Rafael Palmeiro writes his name onto the 500 list in the Texas Rangers’ whitewashing of Cleveland, 17-10, at Arlington. Sosa and Palmeiro are the 18th and 19th players to reach 500.

The Danger Zone
The first base area of Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field (formerly New Comiskey Park) is proving to be a spot where one must watch his back. On April 15, a fan jumps out of the stands and attacks first-base umpire
Laz Diaz while the White Sox are taking on the Kansas City Royals. Ironically, it’s the Royals’ first visit back to the ballpark since September 19, 2002—when then-Royal first base coach Tom Gamboa was assaulted by a father-and-son duo who accessed the field from the same spot. The two incidents prompt the Royals to threaten a boycott of their April 16 game with the White Sox unless security is improved.

Quarantine This
Responding to the World Health Organization’s recent edict for travelers to avoid Toronto because of the SARS outbreak, the Blue Jays sell tickets for a dollar per seat on April 29 against the Rangers to defiantly show the world that the city has not shut down. A crowd of 48,607—roughly three times the Blue Jays’ average gate—takes advantage and watches the Rangers win a high-scoring, 16-11 affair that features seven doubles, nine home runs—and no new reported cases of SARS. Still, some of the visiting Rangers are taking no chances.
Alex Rodriguez: “If you want me, I’ll be in my hotel room.”

All-Star Game Blown Separately
Eric Gagne, once an average starter for the Los Angeles Dodgers but now their star closer, statistically enjoys the most perfect performance by a closer in major league history—converting all 55 of his save opportunities on the year. Gagne does blow one save—at the All-Star Game in Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field—that doesn’t count in the record book, but does count in that it gives the winning AL side home field advantage for the World Series.

A Six-Shootin’ No-Hitter
Roy Oswalt gets the start for Houston on June 11 at New York against the Yankees but, after retiring the side in the first inning, leaves the game with a groin injury two pitches into the second. One after another, five different Astro relievers pitch the remaining eight innings and complete a no-hitter. Only Pete Munro, the first of the five relievers, allows any baserunners with three walks and a hit batsman through 2.2 innings of work. The 8-0 Houston win sets a major league record for the most pitchers combining on a no-hitter.

Quadruple Bye-Blast
For only the 15th time in history—but the third time in just two years—a major leaguer belts four homers in a game. This achievement belongs to the Blue Jays’
Carlos Delgado, who connects four times in a 10-8 Toronto victory against Tampa Bay on September 25. Delgado’s first shot is his 300th career home run.

Austin Pitching Limits
Jeff Austin, who didn’t make it out of the first inning of his previous start for the Cincinnati Reds, fails to do it again on May 28 at Atlanta—and worse, allows home runs to the first three Brave batters (Rafael Furcal, Mark DeRosa and Gary Sheffield) to tie a major league record. It’s the first time since 1992 that a pitcher has failed to survive the first inning in back-to-back starts.

Game of the Year
The Boston Red Sox explode on the Florida Marlins for an AL record-tying 14 first-inning runs—including ten before the Marlins could even retire a batter, setting a major league mark—on their way to a 25-8 victory on June 27 at Fenway Park. Neither of the first two Marlin pitchers—starter
Carl Pavano and Michael Tejera—will be credited with an out. Florida’s fourth pitcher, Kevin Olsen, is also hit hard, but in the worst way: Todd Walker smashes a line drive off his head. Olsen is carried off on a stretcher but will fully recover. Boston’s 28 hits, which tie a team record, include eight doubles, a triple and three home runs.

Switch-Slamming Away
Bill Mueller, on his way to winning the AL batting title for the Red Sox, becomes the first player to hit grand slams from both sides of the plate in the same game, July 29 at Texas. Mueller’s slams occur in consecutive innings late in the contest to break the lead open for Boston, who win 14-7. Mueller had also hit a solo shot earlier in the game, giving him three homers and nine RBIs on the night.

Sweet Sixteen
Greg Maddux does something that no pitcher from the deadball era or the 19th Century could ever accomplish: Win at least 15 games over 16 straight years. Maddux’ 16-11 record, in what will be his last of 11 years with the Atlanta Braves, gives the 37-year old a career total of 289; his streak of 15-plus per year will extend one more year.

Testing, Testing, 1-2-3…
Baseball is allowed to test major leaguers anonymously for steroid abuse—and roughly 7% of the players are positive. By accordance with the 2002 labor agreement, the figure triggers an anti-doping policy in which future players testing positive can be met with fines or suspension. But the policy, in which it takes five separate offenses to receive a one-year suspension, will be assailed from the outside—particularly from anti-doping agencies tied to the Olympics—for being too generous to the players. The anonymous list will later be seized by Federal authorities, and some players for whom the list says tested positive (including
Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa) will be leaked to the public.

New Ballparks

Great American Ball Park, Cincinnati The Cincinnati Reds’ new venue—with perhaps the nicest moniker among ballparks whose names are given away to the highest bidder—is a modern structure hidden inside a fortress of yesteryear. Most fans walk a gap between two brick-encased buildings (which house the Reds’ offices) through a triangular park full of nostalgia and into a ballpark that has three main colors: Red, white and glass. Compromise may have something to do with it; ballpark architect HOK Sport, perhaps tiring of the retro movement they began ten years earlier in Baltimore, originally wanted to produce something modern for Cincinnati—but the idea was jeered by those who wanted their own Camden Yards.

Of curious note is the gap within the upper two decks near third base to bring the seats along the left field line closer to the action—an architectural tactic not uncommon in newer NFL stadiums. Like Cleveland’s Jacobs Field, the second deck changes shape and utilization throughout. The right field bleachers back up close to the Ohio River, but it would take a mighty wallop from anyone at home plate to deposit one into the water.

There are subtle reminders of Crosley Field in the new ballpark, most notably from the old Longines clock—part of a massive scoreboard that sits atop the double-decked left field bleachers.

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