Curses, Scapegoats, and the End of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 20 Years of Futility

Curses, Scapegoats, and the End of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 20 Years of Futility September 6, 2013

A few nights ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates won their 81st game of the 2013 MLB regular season, ensuring that the team will not finish the year with more losses than wins for the first time since 1992. That was twenty-one years ago, for those of you non-math types. Before we had the freaking Internet (as we know it today, at least). Those born during the last Pirates winning season are now legally allowed to drink. And between these two winning seasons FOUR people have held the office of President of the United States, a number of hairstyles and fashions have come and gone, we mapped the entire human genome (which is pretty cool), and of course, we somehow allowed the rise of Snooki.

As a Philadelphian, the Pirates’ two decades of misery has meant little to me other than providing fodder for comedy; something with which to taunt my Pittsburgh fan friends and family. But even that got old fast when many of them turned to self-deprecation as a way to cope with each year’s losing record. I guess it makes sense; no matter how you look at it, if you can’t laugh about that many awful seasons in a row, you’re going to find yourself in a pretty serious amount of constipation.

Like most sports franchises marred by futility, it wasn’t long before many Pirates’ fans began blaming their lack of success on the Curse of Barry Bonds. As any PittsburghianPittsburgher….as any person from Pittsburgh could tell you, 1992, the Pirates’ last playoff season, ended in heart-breaking, soul-crushing fashion with an NLCS game 7, bottom-of-the-9th-inning loss to the Atlanta Braves. Barry Bonds, a player disgraced by many today for his “alleged” prolific use of performance-enhancing drugs, and whose late throw to the plate allowed the series-winning run to score for Atlanta, was the star player of the Pirates ’92 team. At the conclusion of the season, as predicted, the free agent Bonds ominously bolted for the San Francisco Giants as many other quality players from that team followed suit, ushering in two decades of horrible baseball in Pittsburgh.

With the Pirates now at .500 and seemingly on their way to the 2013 postseason, yet another sports-related curse has been exorcised. It’s interesting how we, as fans, collectively enjoy attributing our teams’ misfortunes to cosmic forces beyond human control (because as we all know, placing blame on incompetent ownership, poor management, and bad player development just makes too much sense). My Phillies – the losingest franchise in professional sports (sigh…) – have had no shortage of scapegoats over the past few decades before winning the 2008 World Series. The one talked about most was none other than the Curse of William Penn. According to legend, Penn, whose statue stands atop City Hall (formerly the tallest building in the city), claimed the Phillies would never win another World Series after a skyscraper exceeded the height of his statue in 1987. Keep in mind, Penn issued his fateful declaration from the grave, as he’s been dead since 1718, well over a century before baseball was even invented. But that’s beside the point. When Philadelphia’s Comcast Center, currently the tallest building in the city, was completed in 2007, workers placed a small statue of Penn atop the building’s highest beam in hopes that maybe a mini-William Penn might take pity on our beloved team. And pity he did indeed take the very next season. I can still smell the champagne…

Sports curses are fun, creative, and bring people together through imaginative means. Baseball curses, especially, seem to carry a special aura of significance given the game’s place as America’s National Pastime. We enjoy them for the same reason we enjoy horror and suspense books and films. It’s simply more interesting and produces way more camaraderie to add mystique to ordinary situations that usually produce ordinary results. Few people actually take these curses completely seriously of course, although I’m sure there must be some guy in Chicago offering praise to a goat before every Cubs game. And who can’t sympathize with Pedro Cerrano in his attempts to invoke Jobu to “come take fear from bats” by offering the tiny wild-haired idol “cigar and rum” in the film Major League?

A few of the more well known baseball curses throughout history and their current statuses:
The Curse of Rocky Colavito – Cleveland Indians – ongoing
The Curse of the Black Sox (aka “Curse of Shoeless Joe”) – Chicago White Sox – “ended” 2005
The Curse of the Billy Goat – Chicago Cubs – ongoing

and of course, the most infamous sports curse of all time…

The Curse of the Bambino – Boston Red Sox – “ended” 2004

So, as the Pittsburgh Pirates play out the rest of their first .500-plus season in the post-Barry Bonds era, this Philadelphian offers a hearty congratulations to the entire Pittsburgh fanbase. We do, after all, share the same state so I guess, in a way, that sort of makes us brothers. Go have fun and enjoy yourself, little bro. You never know what the next twenty years will bring. And just remember, big brother always gets the last laugh.

Alan Atchison is a Contributing Writer to The Rogue. He is a Senior Publications Editor at the Center for the Advanced Study of India (University of Pennsylvania), where he also earned a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing. He lives in Philadelphia, PA with his wife and two daughters. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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