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July 28, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Blaming Nelly

It was exactly the pitch that Mo wanted to throw, with exactly the effect that it had had on so many great hitters. A broken bat, a floater to shortstop, everything happened exactly the way it should have. Except the infield was playing in, and the ball landed on the outfield grass. The winning run scored, the series was over, the Yankees had lost.

I still can't bear the sight of it, and I turn my head every time I see that video of Rivera pitching to Luis Gonzalez. My videotape of the game stops as soon as Jay Bell touched home plate, because I did not want to record any more. I walked for two hours that night, trying to put the loss in perspective, it was just a game, and I had experienced so much joy from this team, it was just a loss. But it did no good, it still hurt. Even after two years it still hurts. If they had lost games four and five, and been defeated quietly, perhaps it would have hurt less, but they didn't go quietly, they came back again and again. They had Game Seven in the palm of their hand going to the last inning. So much went wrong that inning, a game that we HAD, a series that we HAD. It was almost as if it was meant to not be, like another power had decreed that the Yankees shall not win.

Although I am superstitious on the game-to-game level-- keeping Chatter threads going when they produce a win streak, avoiding Primer when my abscence brings victories, sitting in uncomfortable positions when it seems to produce rallies--I have always been wary of curses. A curse seems too simple an explanation for something that has assuredly happened for complex reasons, though it is a comforting one.

- The Cubs haven't won the pennant in 58 years because they didn't let a billy goat into a World Series game.
- They haven't won a title in 95 years because of Merkle's Boner.
- The White Sox haven't won since 1917, because two years later they threw the World Series.
- The Red Sox haven't won since 1918 because they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

It's an easy out. "If only we could make up for selling Ruth, then we'd win a World Series!" some Sox fans might think, and so they go fishing for a piano, hoping it will change things.

But the biggest problem I have with curses is that they're not talked about until the effect of them is long felt. The Boston newspapers didn't report Ruth's sale and a curse, that didn't come along until much, much later--decades. Nobody has the guts to declare a curse early, probably because they don't want to look foolish if they're wrong. Well, I've got no problem there, I usually do something every day that makes me look the fool, so one more thing can't hurt.

By now you must have surely guessed where this is going: The Yankees are cursed.

The Yankees won 26 of the first 97 World Series, but since 2000, they haven't won any. It is no coincidence that righty setup man Jeff Nelson pitched his last game as a Yankee in that World Series. The Yankees strained their relations with Nelson during the regular season in 2000, and offered him $2 million less than the Mariners in the offseason (money that was no doubt invested in a Broadway show...perhaps "The Producers"?). The Mariners surged to a 116 win season in 2001, and although the Yankees triumphed over the Nellified M's in the ALCS, their lack of a dependable reliever other than Rivera, Stanton and Mendoza cost them dearly in the World Series, as a tired Rivera was unable to slam the door shut in Game 7.

Last year, they added Steve Karsay to fill Nelson's role, but the bullpen again failed in the playoffs, and the Yankees went down to the Angels in four games.

It is obvious that allowing Jeff Nelson to leave the Bronx was the worst move in the history of all professional sports, and perhaps recorded human history. Saavy baseball fans will soon be speaking of "The Curse of Jeff Nelson", and taunting Yankees fans with cries of "2000!" and singing "Springtime for Hitler". Already, since the Yankees have last won the title, and entire generation has been born, learned to speak, walk, and perhaps even been potty-trained. Eventually they, and all of us, will have to accept the reality of The Curse. The Yankees will never again win a World Series.

Unless, of course, they can break it. There are two ways to break The Curse. The first is for the Yankees to do all that they can to make up for their error in losing Nelson. They should retire his #43, send him a bonus check for the All-Star Game that Torre snubbed him for in 2000, buy his bone chips, and make all their right-handed pitchers throw sidearm. If that doesn't work, they can try trading for him. If they can sufficiently appease the Baseball Gods, perhaps this horrid curse will be lifted, and the 2½ years of despair can finally come to an end.

The other way to break The Curse is to win the World Series. But the playoffs are a crapshoot, so they'd be much better off relying on the bone chips.

Hey, gimme a break, it's an off day.