A strong tradition MLB of failure

Is it possible that the baseball gods have not conspired to inflict a curse on the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox?

Is it possible -just a little bit possible – that the fan who foiled Chicago Cubs left fielder Moises Alou’s catch in that fated eighth inning Tuesday night was just one bonehead with front-row seats? Not the agent of some spiritual decree destined to thwart the Cubs?

Yes, maybe it’s possible to believe this, to adhere to the most rational take on the baseball playoffs. But it’s not easy, not after so many years of futility and not- double not – after Tuesday night’s events at Wrigley Field. Even to the clear-thinking, it’s hard not to wonder now:

Could a curse actually exist?

It’s inherent in human nature to try to explain the complexities of the world in some simple way, like jinxes, says Michael Shermer, publisher of the science magazine Skeptic and author of “Why People Believe Weird Things.” He ascribes the perennial failures of the Cubs and Red Sox to “an artifact of statistics.”

In other words, he doesn’t believe in curses. He believes that, statistically, such things are destined to occur to the Cubs and Red Sox, as well as to the New York Yankees and the Florida Marlins.

But when they happen at a key time, and to a team that it’s supposed to happen to, it perpetuates the entrenched mythology “and gives the sportscasters a lot to talk about.”

Sports curses have been exhaustively chronicled, if not empirically explained. The Sports Illustrated cover jinx – which posits that a player or team that appears on the magazine’s cover will suffer imminent misfortune – has become a staple in the modern lexicon. According to the magazine’s research, bad luck will befall a player or team that appears on its cover 37 percent of the time within two weeks (almost 12 percent suffered injury or death).

“This is easily explained,” says John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University and an expert on statistical probability. “Generally, you’re not going to get on the cover of Sports Illustrated until you do something extraordinary.” And by the principle of”regression to the mean,” it’s inevitable that such fortune can’t be sustained or misfortune will occur.

By the same token, sometimes a bonehead with good seats at Wrigley Field is a bonehead with good seats at Wrigley Field. Stuff happens.

But why does it always happen to the Cubs and Red Sox? The belief that these teams are destined to fail has gained momentum of late. The conceit that these teams are jinxed has become kind of quaint conventional wisdom, adding a dash of the mythical and literary to the scientific craft of baseball.

It is also a belief stoked by real futility: The Cubs haven’t won a World Series in 95 years, the Red Sox 85 years. Both have suffered egregious near-misses, particularly the Red Sox, whose signature failure – the team’s blowing of the 1986 World Series after being one strike away from victory – is recalled as perhaps the most epic fall in baseball history.

But Tuesday night at Wrigley Field takes an instantly special place in such annals, for it involved the wrongdoing of a home team fan – in other words, a cruelly ingenious decree from the baseball gods. Or is it?

Baseball – and sports generally – are particularly conducive to fatalism and superstition, says anthropologist Alan Dundes, aprofessor at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert on American folklore. “Superstitions exist where there’s uncertainty,” Dundes says, and sports is a wholly uncertain realm. To play it – and particularly to watch it – is to invest in a crapshoot, rife with variables. Thus, superstition demands that baseball announcers never say a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter, or that a player never step on a baseline as he heads to his position. “These superstitions allow you to deal with your anxiety in a socially sanctioned way.”

The notion of curses and hexes infuses sports with a classical resonance. “In a strange way, we aggrandize ourselves when we believe that there is some greater explanation to what we’re seeing on the field,” says Paulos. Then he pauses, and laughs. “Having said that, can you believe that Cubs game? Wow.”