A string of adverse fortune can lead you to believe you or an organization you care about is cursed. How do you alter a hard-luck period?

Many people don’t buy the concept of curses. But many do, especially those who seem to go through extraordinarily long strings of adverse fortune.

Take the Chicago Cubs and their fans. Many believe they existed under the “Curse of the Billy Goat” for decades. The misfortune supposedly originated in 1945 when local tavern owner William Sianis brought his pet goat to game four of the World Series. After fans complained about the goat’s odor — which was enhanced by rain — officials forced Sianis to leave. As he did, an enraged Sianis reportedly proclaimed that the Cubs wouldn’t win that series or any other.

The Cubs subsequently lost that game and the series. It took until 2016 for the Cubs to play in another World Series, which Chicago won and, by many accounts, broke the curse. By then, fans had been tortured by various mishaps, most notably the Steve Bartman foul-ball incident in 2003.

Many Boston Red Sox fans also thought their team was cursed after owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919. Ruth had helped the Sox win three championships, and he was a key part, to say the least, in the Yankees winning four more titles between 1923 and 1932.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, would not win another World Series until 2004, when fans celebrated the team finally breaking the “Curse of the Bambino.” Sox fans, likewise, had gone through all sorts of hell, including the famed Bill Buckner World Series error in 1986.

Curse of the Griffiths

Then there are the curses under which numerous fans of Washington, D.C., MLB teams believed their team had played until Halloween 2019. Various D.C. teams in the National Association — the first pro baseball league founded in 1871 that disbanded in 1875 and contributed some teams to the newly-formed National League in 1876 — could not record a single winning season, let alone a championship.

The first Washington team in the National League — the Washington Nationals — began in 1886 but didn’t come close to a winning record, folding in 1889. A Washington Senators NL franchise continued the losing ways in the 1890s.

Then came a Washington Senators franchise that began in 1901 as one of eight founding teams of the American League. The team was so bad — losing a then AL-record 113 games in 1904 — that the owners changed its name to Nationals in 1905 in hopes of spurring more victories. But many fans and sportswriters ignored the change and still called them the Senators.

After two seasons, the team just put a “W” logo on uniforms but did not formally change the name back to Senators until 1956. Many fans called them the Nats — a reference to the NATionals and SeNATors.

Fortunes rose after signing a big Kansas farm kid named Walter Johnson in 1907. Nicknamed “The Big Train” for his pitching speed that clocked at a then unheard-of 91 miles per hour, Johnson became one of the best pitchers in MLB history — he still holds the record for most career shutouts and is second in career wins.

He almost single-handedly lifted the Nationals from the cellar to respectability, as Washington placed second in 1912 in its first winning season. But only one team from each league made the playoffs back then, and the Nats would not make it to the World Series until 1924. Johnson was a key part of the team’s first and only championship, winning the league’s MVP award with a 23–7 record and 2.72 ERA. He also won the deciding game 7 in the World Series.

The Nationals returned to the World Series in 1925 but lost. Soon after Johnson retired, owner Clark Griffith hired him as manager. Despite coaching the team to three straight winning seasons in which the team finished as high as second place, Johnson was fired by Griffith after the 1932 season. Supposedly, the reason was Johnson was being paid too much by the notoriously tightwad Griffith, who thought a change was needed to move the team into first place.

The Nats made the World Series the following year, but they lost again. That franchise would not play in another postseason game until after Calvin Griffith — the adopted son of Clark — moved the team to Minnesota in 1960. To the sorrow of many Senators/Nats fans, the Twins made the World Series in 1965 and won it in 1987 and 1991.

Some say the firing of DC baseball legend Walter Johnson as Nationals’ manager in 1932 sparked a curse that has hampered baseball in the nation’s capital to this day. The Nationals erected a statue for Johnson outside the current ballpark, but some say the curse remains. [Kevin Shay photo]

While the low-key Johnson made little waves about being fired as manager in 1932 and even reportedly told Griffith it was a “good idea,” some fans believed that Griffith cursed the team with that move. It was akin to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones firing legendary coach Tom Landry in 1989. Perhaps it was the right move, as the Cowboys won three Super Bowls between 1993 and 1996. But the firing of a legend still stung to many fans.

Unlike in the Cowboys’ case, the Nats did not win multiple titles shortly after the move. And when the team went back to being laughingstocks to the point that the Broadway play Damn Yankees poked fun of the Nats/Senators’ plight, the Johnson firing became a sore point for decades.

Other D.C. baseball fans were sure that Griffith’s adopted son cursed D.C. baseball when he moved the franchise to become the Twins. Perhaps it was the right move for him as the franchise found more success in Minnesota than in Washington.

The AL installed a new franchise in D.C. in 1961, but that one was as bad as the previous two decades’ version with one winning season in 11 tries. It moved to Texas in 1971, becoming the Rangers. Numerous Rangers fans believed a curse stayed with the franchise, as it came within a strike of winning its first World Series in 2011 before losing in torturous fashion.

Curse of the Expos and Strasburg Shutdown

Washington would not gain a baseball team again until 2005, when the Montreal Expos moved south, becoming the Nationals. The Expos had a cursed history of its own.

Since forming from scratch in 1969, the Expos made the postseason once in 36 seasons. They did win a playoff series that year, making the NL championship round in 1981.

The Expos’ best year came in 1994, when they held the best record in the MLB and a six-game lead in the NL East division in mid-August. That’s when players went on strike, and officials canceled the rest of the season. The Expos never recovered, and owners unloaded key players.

So that team came to D.C. Building through the draft with picks like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, the Nats blossomed in 2012. Under the guidance of veteran manager Davey Johnson, who benefited from the Red Sox curse in 1986 as the opposing manager of the World Series winning New York Mets, the Nats started strong and built a substantial divisional lead.

But in late August, general manager Mike Rizzo announced that Strasburg, who was having his best year and showed little sign of wear from Tommy John surgery in 2010, would be shutdown for the rest of the season, including the playoffs. Rizzo cited a seasonal innings limit and spoke about saving the ace for “future playoff runs.” Never mind that the upstart Nats were on their way to putting up the best record in the MLB and had as a good of a chance as any team to reach the World Series that year.

Davey Johnson knows a thing or two about curses. Some say his team benefited by one in 1986 and was plagued by another in 2012. [Kevin Shay photo]

Johnson publicly supported the move, but he privately opposed it. He later said that Strasburg’s workload could have been reduced, that he had effectively managed pitchers for years. The Nats would likely have reached the World Series with Strasburg, Johnson contended. Even missing their ace, the Nats held a 6–0 lead in the deciding Game 5 of the NLDS against the Cardinals, only to see pitchers like Gio Gonzalez and Drew Storen fritter that away.

The “Curse of the Strasburg Shutdown” was born.

While many baseball experts proclaimed the Nats to be paper champs, living up to those expectations was another matter. In 2014, 2016, and 2017, the team again got bounced from the divisional series in the most cruel and creative of ways. The Nats lost two more Game 5’s by one run, games where they again held early leads.

They lost in 18 innings after rookie manager Matt Williams took out Jordan Zimmermann in the ninth inning with a 1–0 lead in favor of Storen, who again blew the big-moment save. They lost in an inning when four consecutive Cubs batters reached base on an intentional walk, a passed-ball strikeout, catcher’s interference, and a hit-by-pitch — a special set of voodoo events that hadn’t been duplicated in MLB history.

Little wonder many Nats fans scoured the Internet, searching for clues on how to lift a curse.

How to change your lot

Changing a string of bad luck can seem like swimming against a rip current. There is little limit to what is done to remedy such situations, but does it help? Who knows?

Basically, the idea is to make enough changes from what you are currently doing until something goes your way. Move to another city. Change jobs or partners. Buy a new wardrobe. Do the opposite of anything you’ve been doing.

When mired in a World Series title drought for more than a century, the Cubs and their fans did everything they could. A restaurateur blew up the Bartman foul ball after having to buy it from a lawyer for more than $100,000. The team paraded goats across Wrigley Field and allowed a Greek Orthodox priest to bless the field with holy water. Some fans donated goats to families in Africa. A group even forced a goat named “Wrigley” to march from Arizona to Chicago.

Eventually, the Cubs got enough breaks on the field to end their World Series title drought. New players who hadn’t heard much about the curse contributed.

In the Nats’ case, many fans tried similar means to break a seeming curse as Cubs fans, though they stopped short of walking with a goat for several thousand miles. Some performed an exorcism rite and burned sage in the stadium. Others wore different jerseys, including ones with pointed messages to Bryce Harper, a star player who left early in 2019 to join the rival Phillies. Players started a dance routine after home runs and “Baby Shark” motions.

To help the Washington Nationals reach the World Series for the first time in franchise history, this writer broke out a cap signed by two former Nats he hadn’t worn since a heart-breaking playoff game in 2014. [Shay photo]

I broke out a Nats cap I hadn’t worn since the 2014 heart-breaking, 18-inning playoff game in which Drew Storen again couldn’t hold a ninth inning lead. Ross Ohlendorf, a Princeton-educated pitcher who played for the Nats in 2013, had signed it then, hopefully as good luck. The hat had seemed to bring the opposite in 2014.

So I shelved that cap until last year’s All-Star Game. I took it to FanFest to get it signed by a former Nat player who seemed to run into more than his share of rotten luck. Justin Maxwell, a University of Maryland alum, had been drafted by the Nats fairly high in 2005 after a good career with the Terps. In just his third MLB at-bat, Maxwell hit a grand slam. He would hit two more grand slams for the Nats, but injuries slowed his development, and the team traded him to the Yankees in 2011. The Yanks let him go the following year. He played for five other MLB teams, but injuries and other factors held him back.

After Maxwell signed the hat, I kept it in a bin until going through some items before the 2019 playoffs. The Nats had made the playoffs as a wildcard team for the first time, with the other four times since moving to D.C. being as a division winner. So it seemed like it was a good time to try something different. I wore the hat while watching that winner-take-all game at a local bar.

When Juan Soto — a 20-year-old Dominican-born budding star who had no ties to D.C. before signing with the Nats as an international free agent in 2015 — broke the team’s string of playoff round losses with a big-moment hit, people went crazy. A D.C. team advanced in the playoffs for the first time since that 1924 World Series win, the first time since Griffith fired the legendary Walter Johnson, whose name in the D.C. area adorns everything from schools to parks and roads.

Then, Soto and Rendon and Kendrick delivered some more big hits during Game 5 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, propelling the Nats to the NL Championship Series. Stellar pitching performances by Sanchez, Scherzer, and Strasburg, as well as big hits by Kendrick, Rendon, and others, put the team in the World Series, the first time for a D.C. MLB club since 1933. And in a story line too unbelievable for even Hollywood, the team that had one of the worst records in baseball back in May won it all.

I wore that hat whenever I watched a Nats playoff game, including to the World Series watch parties at Nats Park. I like to think it helped. Thanks, Justin Maxwell.

More cursed teams

No matter how bad you think you or a team you follow may have it, someone inevitably has it worse.

The Seattle Mariners haven’t as much as made the playoffs since 2001 and are the only MLB team that has yet to make a World Series. Several teams have yet to make a Super Bowl, including the Browns and Jaguars.

Here is a list of some currently “cursed” teams:

Team …………..…. Number of years since championship
Cleveland Indians, MLB ………….. 71 [1948]
Sacramento Kings, NBA …………. 68 [1951]
Detroit Lions, NFL ………………… 62 [1957]
Atlanta Hawks, NBA ………………. 61 [1958]
Minnesota Vikings, NFL ………… 59 [Never]
Texas Rangers, MLB …………….. 58 [Never]
Los Angeles Chargers, NFL ……… 56 [1963]
Cleveland Browns, NFL …………… 55 [1964]
Buffalo Bills, NFL ………………….. 54 [1965]
Atlanta Falcons, NFL ……………. 54 [Never]
Cincinnati Bengals, NFL ………… 52 [never]
Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL ………. 52 [1967]
Phoenix Suns, NBA ……………… 51 [Never]
San Diego Padres, MLB …………… 50 [Never]
Milwaukee Brewers, MLB ……… 50 [Never]
Buffalo Sabres, NHL ……………. 49 [Never]
Vancouver Canucks, NHL ……… 49 [Never]
Los Angeles Clippers, NBA ……… 49 [Never]
Seattle Mariners, MLB ………….. 42 [Never]
Washington Wizards, NBA ……….. 41 [1978]
Ottawa Senators, NHL …………. 27 [Never]
Colorado Rockies, MLB …………. 26 [Never]
New York Red Bulls, MLS ………. 25 [Never]
New England Revolution, MLS …. 25 [Never]
FC Dallas, MLS ………………….. 24 [Never]
Tampa Bay Rays, MLB …………… 21 [Never]

Here are some previously “cursed” teams that took a long time to win their first championship or another one:

Team …………………….. Years between titles or to win first
Chicago Cubs, MLB ……………. 108 [1908–2016]
Boston Red Sox, MLB …………… 86 [1918-2004]
Philadelphia Eagles, NFL ……….. 57 [1960-2017]
St. Louis Blues, NHL …………… 52 [1967–2019]
Washington Nationals, MLB …… 50 [1969–2019]
Houston Astros, MLB ……………. 48 [1969–2017]
Cleveland Cavaliers, NBA ………. 46 [1970-2016]
Los Angeles Kings, NHL ………… 45 [1967–2012]
Washington Capitals, NHL ……... 44 [1974-2018]
Dallas Mavericks, NBA ……….…. 31 [1980–2011]

And on the other side, here are some teams that won championships in short times:

Team ……………….. Year won title …….. Year founded or entered league
Cleveland Browns, NFL ………. 1950 ………………. 1950
DC United, MLS ………………. 1996 ……………….. 1996
Chicago Bears, NFL …………… 1921 ………………. 1920
New York Giants, NFL ………… 1927 ………………. 1925
Los Angeles Lakers, NBA …….. 1949 ……………….. 1947
Arizona Dbacks, MLB ……..…. 2001 ……………….. 1998
Milwaukee Bucks, NBA ………. 1971 ……………….. 1968
Florida Marlins, MLB ………….. 1997 ………………. 1993
Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS ……… 2002 ……………… 1996
Philadephia Flyers, NHL ………. 1974 ……………… 1967

Written by

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see https://www.amazon.com/Kevin-J.-Shay/e/B004BCQRTG. Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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