Take me to the ballpark

I may not be an avid follower of baseball, but I can tell you that the current World Series champions are the Boston Read Sox, who defeated the Saint Louis Cardinals 4-2 in the best-of-seven final. This is quite a turnaround for the Red Sox; it is their third title in the last ten years. Previously the Fenway Park club had not won the title since 1918. This drought became known in baseball circles as the “Curse of the Bambino.” It was said that Harry Fraze, the owner of the Boston club was forced to sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in order to finance the Broadway show, No, No, Nanette, a musical whose most famous song was “Tea for Two”. This may be a myth but what cannot be denied is that the Red Sox would rue the sale. Babe Ruth would go on to become a baseball legend and the Red Sox would go 86 years without a World Series. I don’t really understand the sport very well, but this is what I love about baseball – its rich history. I just can’t get enough of baseball lore. Here are a few of my favourite episodes of baseball history.

The 1919 World Series

This is the infamous series in which gangster Arnold Rothstein is said to have fixed the World Series Final. Rothstein, who subsisted almost entirely on milk, cake and fresh figs, allegedly paid members of the Chicago White Sox to throw the World Series. He bet against them and made a significant profit. He was never convicted. All the records and minutes of the Grand Jury disappeared. So, too, did the signed confessions of the players who had admitted to being part of the match fixing. The state had virtually nothing to pin on Rothstein. And when the players, citing the Fifth Amendment, refused to repeat their confessions on the stand, the writing was on the wall for the prosecution. The judge had no choice but to dismiss the case. The players fared worse. Despite being acquitted, the eight players involved in the scandal would never play again. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the newly appointed Commissioner of Baseball, argued that while the players had been acquitted, none of them could ever be allowed back into the game if it was to clean up its public image. It is Joseph Jefferson Jackson, AKA Shoeless Joe Jackson, who is most associated with the scandal. He made numerous appeals to overturn his ban, none of which were successful. Some people argue that the evidence is not so clear and that Jackson belongs in baseball’s Hall of Fame. The incident has become a staple of books, films and television. Meyer Wolfsheim, the character in The Great Gatsby is based on Rothstein. And the gangster appears as one of the regulars on Boardwalk Empire. The eight banned players, most prominently Shoeless Joe Jackson, are principal characters in the novel Shoeless Joe, which was made into the film Field of Dreams.

F***ing up your team’s chances of winning the World Series: Priceless

Then we have the Steve Bartman incident. It was a playoff game between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins on October 14, 2003, at Wrigley Field in Chicago. It was Game 6 of the National League Championship Series and the Cubs were leading 3-2 and needed just one more win to clinch the series. And in the eighth inning leading 3-0 they appeared to be on their way to the World Series. But then disaster struck. The Marlins’ second baseman Luis Castillo hit a foul ball and several spectators attempted to catch it. One of them, the abovementioned Barman, reached for the ball, deflecting it foiling a potential catch by Cubs outfielder Moisés Alou. If Alou had caught the ball it would have been the second out in the inning, and the Cubs would have been just four outs away from winning their first National League pennant since 1945. What actually happened was that the Cubs surrendered eight runs in the inning and they went on to lose 8-3. They would be eliminated in the seventh game the next day. To add insult to injury the Marlins defeated the New York Yankees in six games, winning the sixth game in Yankee Stadium and claiming their second World Series.

he hapless Bartman, a lifelong Cubs fan, had to be escorted from the stadium by security guards and placed under police protection for a time when his name and address were made public on MLB message boards. T-shirts appeared parodying the MasterCard commercials:

Tickets to a Cubs game: $200

Chicago Cubs hat: $20

1987 Walkman: $10

F***ing up your team’s chances of winning the World Series: Priceless

Bartman did release an apology:

“I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moisés Alou much less that he may have had a play.” He decided to keep a low profile declining interviews, endorsement deals, and requests for public appearances, including an offer to appear as a VIP at Wrigley Field, the chance to be featured in an ESPN documentary and a six-figure offer for a Super Bowl commercial. Due to the irate phone calls, his family was forced to change their phone number.

The Curse of the Billy Goat

Many fans associated the Bartman incident with the Curse of the Billy Goat, allegedly laid on the Cubs during the 1945 World Series after Billy Sianis and his pet goat were ejected from Wrigley Field because the pet goat’s odour was bothering other fans. An outraged Sianis declared, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” The Cubs lost that series to the Detroit Tigers in seven games and have yet to return to the championship round.

According to Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim in their entertaining Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, the Cubs’ consistently dire results cannot be explained by invoking curses or bad luck. They have reached the bottom far more often than random chance says they should, finishing last or second to last nearly 40 percent of the time. The odds of this happening by chance are 527 to 1. The real question is why they haven’t put better teams together.

Generally sports teams seek titles. This is in part for the glory recognition and prestige that comes with success on the field. But it’s also about the bottom line. A more successful team generates more fans, which generates more revenue. Winning teams should attract more sell-out crowds and be able to command more lucrative sponsorship deals, higher local and national TV ratings and souvenir sales. All things being equal winning regularly should boost the brand name of the franchise, and increase revenue. And losing should have the opposite effect.

However, not all teams have the same need for sporting glory. The Cubs seem to be a special case. They have one of baseball’s most rabid and committed fan bases who seem to subconsciously enjoy their repeated failures – it is part of their image as loveable losers. It turns out that attendance at Wrigley Field is the least sensitive to performance in all of baseball. The sensitivity of attendance per game to winning percentage for the Cubs is only 0.6, much less than one. The Yankees, on the other hand, have an attendance sensitivity of 0.9, meaning that attendance moves almost one for one with winning percentage. No wonder that the authors have branded the Cubs America’s Teflon team.

From 1990 to 2009 every team in the Major Leagues gained value the more it won – except one – the Cubs. Incredibly, the Cubs saw their value rise slightly the more it lost.  Despite having a dismal 48.6% winning record over the last two decades, the Cubs’ owners have still been able to increase ticket prices by 67% since 1990. This is quite a feat given that the league average is 44.7% over the same period. Attendance is now at an all-time high 99% of capacity.

We’re only here for the beer

Attendance seems to be much more sensitive to beer prices than to whether the team actually wins or loses.  The atmosphere is summed up in a T-shirt slogan:

Cubs baseball: Shut up and drink your beer.”

Wrigley Field had the third-highest ticket prices in all MLB, averaging nearly $48 a seat. The only two stadiums which charged more were Fenway Park and the new Yankee Stadium, which charged an average of $50 and $73 a ticket respectively. However, the price of a small beer at Wrigley Field, $5 at the concession stand, was the third lowest in the league. As Moskowitz and Wertheim point out, Cubs fans will tolerate bad baseball and high ticket prices, but draw the line at bad baseball and expensive beer. With fans like these bringing a winning team to Wrigley Field may not be a priority. They have found an unusual niche in sport. In financial terms there may well be a number of teams who wish that they too were cursed.

The Red Sox may have broken their curse in 2004, 2007 and 2013, but have they lost something too. They’ve become more like a version of their hated rivals – the Yankees. They too splash the cash and a season without a World Series title is now regarded as a failure. The Chicago Cubs’ fans are now the ones who have the bragging rights to a curse.


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