Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Curse

I remember the night of the big game. It was the hottest summer in years. Over forty degrees outside that night, Celsius. We didn't care. Plenty of beer and soda at the concession stand to keep us cool.

It was a tense game. Every time one side managed to take the lead the other would score another run to tie it up, then go on to score again, on and on like that, back and forth for nine innings.

It was the bottom of the ninth and the bases were loaded (and it just wouldn't be a baseball story without that phrase, would it?). We'd fallen behind badly in the eighth, but we'd managed to close the gap somewhat in the subsequent inning. There'd been a rather nasty bean ball on our second-to-last batter up. Caught him square in the face. I was sitting in the third row and I managed to catch a glimpse of blood. He hit the dirt with a sickening thud. He hadn't swung the bat and the umpire ruled there hadn't been a chance to evade, so it was a Hit by Pitch. The man on third base took home and the other two advanced. We thought for sure a substitution would be called for first, but the batter picked himself up off the plate after about five seconds of lying there in pain, spat out a crimson loogie that may or may not have also contained one of his teeth and strolled into first as if nothing had happened.

I was amazed. What a trooper!

So, our last man at bat and we were still behind by two. Our hearts sank. The last batter they had left had been in a huge slump all season. An older fellow, in the twilight of his career. Had one bad knee that had undergone multiple surgeries over the past year and just when it seemed he was getting better, he'd made a bad slide in the first game of the series, severely spraining his other leg. Considering the bases were already loaded, he didn't necessarily need his legs for this, but he still didn't inspire confidence.

Next season his contract was up. Probably wouldn't be renewed. Be a hell of a way to go if he screwed this up. On the other hand, what a triumphant finale were he to succeed.

The first pitch was a ball, the second a strike. The next two pitches were the same, a back and forth that gave that final turn at the plate the feeling of the night's entire game itself in microcosm.

The pitcher threw another dud. Ball three.

There were boos from fans of the opposing team, criticizing the pitcher for his error. He stepped off the mound for a moment for a drink of water. When he returned the noise died down and the tension became almost palpable. It all came down to this.

The pitcher let fly with the ball.

The batter swung the lumber with all his might.


A moment of panic. Where was the ball? I couldn't see it anywhere.

Then, elation. He'd knocked it out of the park. A stand-up triple.

We won!

The crowd went wild.

What followed was a night of drunken revelry. I was too young to drink legally at the time, but I had friends who were of age, so obtaining liquor was not a problem. And so, rendered virtually insensible by a heady mixture of vicarious triumph and concession stand booze, we exited the stadium, piling into the streets, cheering and screaming, a heard of raucous wild beasts, migrating towards the river.

You see, we have a rather odd tradition in my town. Whenever a local sports team wins a major game, the fans will head over to a small bridge which overlooks the river at a low enough height that it's possible for one to jump in from off the bridge without injury. Then, the crowd would yell out the names, one by one of the players on the team and with each name called, the fan who most resembled that player would take the plunge into the river. Pity the poor fellows who look like the members of our hockey team.

One after another they jumped in, laughing all the while, but eventually we realized there was a problem. The player who had scored the winning home run was a redhead but none of the fans who had come out to the river that night were. This wouldn't do.

Just up the street from the bridge there was a fast-food restaurant. Just outside the door was a life-sized statue of the chain's mascot, a cheap ceramic representation of a vapidly grinning clown with its hair painted a gaudy, fire engine red. I half-jokingly pointed it out to the others and before I knew it, a group of burly men were wrenching the thing off its pedestal. I was even helping, drunk as I was.

The manager of the place came rushing out, screaming obscenities, of course, but it did no good. We had already tossed the ceramic harlequin into the river, laughing and cheering in a bacchanalian frenzy. Our debauchery was soon interrupted, however by a police siren that scattered us like cockroaches before the kitchen light. My friends and I ran a few blocks, ducked into the nearest subway tunnel, tossed whatever loose change we had in the fare box, with little regard to whether it was the proper amount and hopped on the first train out. We were panting, dizzy and feeling so alive.

I came out of the whole thing quite well, I thought. I was horribly hung over the next day, but I managed to convince my parents I was merely ill. There was a brief mention of the incident with the statue on the local news and for a while I was afraid I would be caught, but neither the police, nor anybody else ever came for me.

That's not quite the end of it, though.

The next few years weren't so good for the baseball team. Most of their best players retired or were traded out or quit. The management was incompetent, or so people would say. They just couldn't play like they used to. It was one losing season after another.

The human mind is a funny thing. When things don't go our way we look for explanations anywhere we can. Try to find some easy answer. Sometimes we see connections between things that aren't really there. Apophenia is what the experts call it.

The story of the statue being stolen and thrown in the river got around. Somehow, people began to think it was behind the team's slump. That the vengeful spirit of the restaurant chain's founder had cursed the team and would not allow them to win until the statue was recovered.

I never believed a word of it, of course. It's patently absurd to believe that a dead fast-food entrepreneur has any effect on the performance of a baseball team. Winning a major national championship is simply a difficult feat and it may be some time before they can replicate their previous success.


Still, every time I attended one of their games, or saw them on TV, saw them strike out, throw bad pitches and make truly cringe-worthy playing errors, I couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt. Had I done this to them? Had my youthful impulsiveness caused this?

Ridiculous. Of course not. I always pushed such thoughts out of my head quickly, but they always returned eventually.

Maybe I just felt guilty about wrecking that poor man's store. I would have apologized, but I was afraid of the possibility of jail time. Besides, it was a big company, they could afford the loss.

I never did tell anyone. I never even discussed it with the people who already knew. The closest  I ever came was one night when I attended a game with one of my friends who had been with me on the big night. As we were coming out of the stadium after yet another disappointing performance, we overheard another fan say something along the lines of "If I ever find the guy who threw that statue in the river, I'll kill him!" The two of us exchanged a knowing glance before moving on.

Twenty years went by. With school and work taking up most of my life I had little time for watching baseball, so I was surprised one day to hear that the team had finally managed to get to the series once more after all these years. I joined some friends at the sports bar to watch the first game of the post-season on the bar's gargantuan TV that took up most of the eastern wall.

It was incredible. Our team took an early lead in the bottom of the third & from there they utterly crushed their opponents. After seeing them lose again and again for two straight decades this was something to behold. A friend commented that the season's Rookie of the Year bore a striking resemblance to me.

"If we win," he said, "you're going in the river."

And win we did. It was no contest. And even though it was only the start of the series, we were so exited we just had to take to the river. Everyone was so happy. Everywhere the fans were cheering that the curse had been broken. It was like a great yoke had been lifted.

And so we came to the bridge. One by one the names were called and one by one they jumped. I was the last one in. I was nervous at first. The bridge looked so tiny from a distance, barely a few feet over the water, but looking down off it was a different story. But I looked at the others who had made the jump before me, splashing around, perfectly healthy, I gathered up my courage, took a deep breath and I jumped.

I hit the water feet-first with a splash and fell right to the bottom of the shallow river, completely submerged. I tried to swim up, but realized with horror that I couldn't. My left leg was caught on something. Panic washed over me, but I resisted the urge to scream and let the brackish water into my lungs. I bent down to see what I was caught on, to try to free myself. The water was murky and it took me a second to make it out.

A hand.

And I screamed. The taste of the water was awful. Oil and shit and garbage. All the grotesque refuse of humanity that had been allowed to seep in. Even if I didn't drown, I'd probably be poisoned to death anyway. I could feel the filthy water seeping its way through my mouth and nasal passages into my lungs. That awful wet, burning sensation.

And as it all started to fade away, I got a glimpse of what the hand was attached to.

Yes, that's right. That clown. Half submerged in the mud at the river bottom, waiting for me after all these years. How could it be anything else?

Maybe I was the one who was cursed all along.

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