Baseball Damnation: Are the Orioles Actually Cursed?

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My neighbor is a perpetual optimist. During the bleakest, hottest off-days of summer, he suits up in orange and khaki and heads down to the Inner Harbor to lead tours through the empty Orioles ballpark. Before the 2011 season began, he handed my one-year-old son his first Orioles uniform, wrapped in black and orange gift paper. For my wife and myself, he had a word of advice: this could be the year. They had just started farming a new pitching staff.

I was a little skeptical. I don’t know much about farming and I don’t know much about pitching. My wife and I hadn’t devoted ourselves financially to an O’s season since 2005. 2005 was the season of Sammy Sosa bobbleheads, Raphael Palmiero’s 3000th hit, and Mr. Sidney Ponson. The Orioles spent 62 days in first place. Then the bottom fell out. Sammy Sosa’s steroid-enhanced batting average deflated. Ponson was let go after his second DUI. One day after hitting 3000, the world learned that Palmiero had failed his urine test. And the Orioles finished fourth in their division, with 88 losses.

But 2011, my neighbor said, would be different. My son was wandering around wearing Oriole colors. People were whispering about the new ace, Brian Matusz. Besides, my neighbor is usually right about everything. His garden is perfect. He’s got a gas-fueled grill.

And he would have been right about the Orioles, if the season had been four games long.

It’s been a long 15 years since 1997, Baltimore’s wire-to-wire winning season. It’s been 16 years since October of 1996. The Orioles were beating the Yankees, 4-3, in the first game of the Championship Series, in the Bronx. Yankee Derek Jeter hit a ball towards deep right field. It floated down towards the right field wall. Oriole right fielder Tony Tarasco moved back against the fence, spotting the ball. And then, suddenly, a 13-year-old kid from New Jersey, Jeffrey Maier, stuck his mitt out three yards above him.

The Yankees won that AL series, 4-1. The Orioles went on to lose the playoffs the next year.  And the Orioles haven’t had a winning season since 1997. Some call it the Curse of Jeffrey Maier. Would that explain anything?

I looked up the word curse in Webster’s. The definition:  a prayer or invocation for harm or injury to come upon one. The most infamous baseball curse, the curse of the Bambino, was supposed to have been delivered in 1920, when the Boston Red Sox sold a promising pitcher, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees. They suffered for 84 years before winning their next series.

If there’s anything epitomizing a curse, it’s the sight of Boston first baseman Bill Buckner running after the ball that had dribbled through his legs, in game six of the 1986 World Series, stopping a few yards down the line, and watching a string of Mets cross home plate and effectively bury the Sox’s hopes for its first Series victory in seven decades.

But are the Orioles cursed?

Baltimore baseball writer Charlie Vascellaro doesn’t believe in curses. He spoke to me from spring training in Arizona, where he tends to hang out in March. Why would anyone go to spring training, if a season had already been determined by a curse?

When I pushed him for something that might explain a curse, he took on the burden himself.

“I came to Baltimore in 1998. The Orioles have done badly since then. Maybe that’s it.”

The Curse of Charlie Vascellaro? That’s not what he had in mind. So he referred me to another educated source: Camden Yards’  beer vender Howard Hart.

Hart began selling beer at Memorial Stadium in 1982, a year before the O’s won their last World Series. He knows the agony of victory followed by loss. But he, too, discounts the curse theory. Most strongly, he refutes the popular idea that owner Peter Angelos is solely responsible for the curse. He may be a lousy owner, but you can’t save a team from bankruptcy and curse it at the same time.

“If it wasn’t Peter Angelos buying them in 1991, the Baltimore Orioles would be the Miami Marlins. So that’s not a curse. We’ve just been beset by a lot of bad moves,” Hart said.

Besides, he noted, a curse itself manifests itself in painful near-misses. The Red Sox’s flameout last season – partly enabled by the Orioles in their final game – might qualify as a curse. But the Orioles’ misfortunes don’t qualify as curses.

“You know if you’re talking about a curse, you like to point to this bad hop, or this bad call, or this bad series when things went to hell. The fact is that [the Orioles] have played bad baseball. They haven’t played inspired. They haven’t had good ones. And the ones they had haven’t played up to expectations.”

And in case you wondered, he added, people don’t drink more when their teams lose. At least not at the stadium.

That doesn’t mean, he said, that they can’t ever get their act together. “Yeah, I like to think that hope springs eternal,” he said.

Sports hypnotist Mitch Smith doesn’t believe in curses. But he works with baseball players who think they’re cursed. And that’s a curse in itself: once a player or a team settles into that habit, the string of misfortunes and losses, as well as injuries, tends to follow.

Smith is in the business of breaking that habit. And as a sports psychologist, he uses hypnosis to help athletes visualize their success.

“I teach them mental rehearsal. Swinging the bat. Seeing the ball coming from a pitchers’ hand. Playing in the field, making those plays. Seeing themselves doing it over and over in their mind.”

Hypnosis, he said, can be particularly important to a baseball player, who, in the process of a 160-game season can go through agonizing losing streaks. Since he declined to name any of his clients, I offered a hypothetical example. Let’s say there’s a pitcher who was a top draft pick. He joins the Orioles. Suddenly, he turns, statically, into one of the worst pitchers in the league. Is the team itself cursed?

“Right,” said Smith. “One of the things I might do, is I would hypnotize them, and take them back to where things turn bad. Then explore with them, what caused the turn? And we find out what happened in the performance, and we work with them in hypnosis. So that we put that to rest, and they can start anew.”

Could an entire team be placed under hypnosis? He says he’d be glad to try, but while he’s worked with Orioles in the past, the front office hasn’t gone that route.

“And that’s too bad,” he said. “Because I have a season ticket.”

Jim Jones, of the Paranormal Research and Investigation Society of Maryland (PRISM), has been an Orioles fan since childhood. He’s also been a Maryland Sheriff for 16 years. And he’s a founding member of PRISM. And he believes in ghosts. And, yes, ghosts, broadly defined, deliver curses. These curses aren’t malevolent. They are really indicators of, well, being a ghost without a grave to settle in.

PRISM is in the business of detecting electronic voice phenomena (EVP) or, in laymen’s terms, ‘voices of the dead.’ Toward this end, they employ infrared thermometers, EMF meters, digital video and still cameras, digital and analog voice recorders. The signals they pick up are the voices of those who have passed away, but whose spirits have not yet moved to the next world. Frequently, this explains disturbances, or runs of bad luck, which can be manifestations of what some may believe to be a ‘curse.’

In Jones’ account, the Orioles’ curse could be attributed to an extended grieving process (EGP) for the old Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street, which the Orioles left in 1991 for Camden Yards. Jones spent a lot of his youth in Memorial Stadium. He notes that there was a large urn behind home plate, with ashes from cemeteries around the world. These were dead from World War II.

“We would always have a ritual, when we went to those games. Of touching the urn and going back to our seats in the upper deck or out in the outfield.”

Like many die-hard fans, Jones is the proud owner of several seats from Memorial Stadium. And he was present at the last Orioles Memorial game in 1991.

“I’ll never forget that last game, in 1991,” he said. “It was October 6th. When they came out of the dugout to take home plate out into the limousine…you know, there was a weird vibe. It’s like they cut the heart out of a patient. Memorial Stadium was a living breathing entity.”

So is its ghost still unsettled? The Orioles have not contacted PRISM, but maybe they should.

Savetta Stevens of Mt. Washington seemed ready to field the question. Stevens has been a practicing psychic for almost three decades. She says she’s not a sports fan, but she does know curses. I asked her if a curse like the one Jones proposes would stop Orioles from winning for 15 years. She paused.

“You mean they haven’t won a game for fifteen years?”

“No,” I said, “They haven’t won a season.”

“Oh.” Pause. “Well, I do know…that if there is a curse, you know, and it starts to get at someone, then, the color red needs to be put on the uniform. Have they changed their uniform recently?”

They have actually just changed their uniform, returning to the old-fashioned cartoon bird as their team insignia.

“But is there any red in it?”

Dark orange. Not red. But extremely dark orange, which, late in the evening, could really be a form of red.

But that wasn’t good enough.

“Hmm…” she said, “Orange is good, but if there’s red… If someone just puts a spot of red somewhere, it doesn’t have to be a big one…”

(Meanwhile, I realized, if the Red Sox actually had red socks, wouldn’t that have saved them from the Curse of the Bambino?)

There is nothing that could really be called “red” on the Orioles Uniform. Well, except that on the left shoulder, there’s a Maryland State Flag. The Maryland State Flag, that’s checkered, red and white.

“Well, that should help them.” And then she offered another prediction. “It will be an interesting year. And I think it’ll turn out well for them.”

Okay. So maybe this is the year.

But I had to verify my flag-color theory before buying a season ticket. My son, now two, and I headed down to Orioles Park, and to the Orioles Museum. It was a week before opening. We headed into the store, aligned to the Museum. And, yes, the Orioles’ new uniform had a patch, on the left shoulder, with the flag of the State of Maryland, with Red in it!

Then, suddenly, that bubble was popped. The man behind the register told me, in no uncertain terms, that the patch had been there, on the sleeves, for a few years already. If it didn’t stop the curse in 2007 or 2008, or 2009, or 2010, or 2011, the splash of red definitely wouldn’t do it this year.

Okay, for a moment, let’s assume the whole curse thing is a bunch of malarkey. What then? The Orioles could actually be damned.

Being damned has nothing to do with being cursed. When one is damned, one has been offered the possibility of salvation, but thrown it back in the face of Him Who Offered It.  Or, as American preacher Jonathan Edwards put it long before baseball was ever invented, “[The damned] are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell. They don’t only justly deserve to be cast down thither; but the sentence of the law of God…is gone out against them, and stands against them; so that they are bound over already to hell.”

That would pretty much settle it.

Camden Yards doesn’t look like the pit of the damned, though. A few days before the season, my son and I headed from the Orioles Museum to the stadium gates. The stadium was in its last flurry of an extensive pre-season rehabilitation. The baseball diamond was perfectly coiffed. Nothing bad had happened on that field – not yet. Camden’s no spring chicken – it’s 20 years old now – but, still, it didn’t look like a stadium built to endure another lost decade. It looked like it had saved it all for middle age and was waiting to surprise the city with a year we’d never expected.

I guess it’s true, as the beer vender says. Hope springs eternal.

And who knows? People I talk to throw a few positive nuggets at me. Spring training in Florida hasn’t looked bad. Despite last year’s horrendous season, and his record-breaking 10.49 ERA, Brian Matusz is apparently back on his game. General Manager Dan Duquette is still patiently farming the new pitching staff. The Orioles haven’t added any big names, but they haven’t blown millions this year on sluggers beyond their prime. Last week, in Florida, the Orioles beat the Red Sox 6-5. They beat the Yankees. Their regular season record is still .500. That’ll change soon once they start playing, but right now, they’re tied for first.

Maybe this is the year.


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