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Curses (and reverses) distracting

Curses (and reverses) distracting

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LOS ANGELES -- It turns out that part of the problem is that the Chicago Cubs are the only Major League team operating in the Middle Ages.

The Cubs have been swept out of the postseason again. They have lost nine straight postseason games, dating back to 2003. This October was supposed to be different. It turned out to be different only in the sense that this year expectations were higher, so the disappointment will be even deeper.

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The Cubs scored six runs in three Division Series games against the Dodgers, the lowest output coming in the 3-1 loss on Saturday night that sealed their exit. That was the same number of runs they scored in being swept by the Arizona Diamondbacks last October.

They had a terrible pitching performance in Game 1 and a brutal fielding performance in Game 2. They didn't produce timely hitting throughout. Add it up; 0-3 was all that could be expected.

This was a club with 97 regular-season victories, the National League's best record. That record was supposed to be a springboard to postseason triumph. Instead, the postseason performance was agonizingly short of the regular-season record.

The Cubs, though, added a new element to the possible range of postseason blunders. The Cubs' mistakes started early in this Division Series, even before Game 1 started. The Cubs' mistakes started with an attempt to undo a curse.

That's what we mean by Middle Ages. Maybe it was even earlier than that with this ploy. It was somewhere back there, before widespread knowledge and enlightenment set in and humankind moved forward, at least a little. From an organizational standpoint, this move ranked up there with trading Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio.

Manager Lou Piniella has spent two seasons trying to convince his players that the past counts for nothing, that the only thing that matters is the baseball that is played now. And then the chairman of the Cubs gets a Greek Orthodox priest to perform an exorcism of sorts, in order to counteract an alleged 63-year-old billy goat curse on the club.

This had to be a Greek Orthodox priest, because the individual who invoked the curse was Greek. Nothing written here should be read as criticism of the Greek Orthodox faith. It should be read as criticism of the Cubs management for missing the entire point of what might be wrong with its baseball team.

A TBS camera recorded the priest spreading holy water around the Cubs dugout, which is how the Cubs players and the rest of the civilized world learned of it.

At the very moment the Cubs were trying to break the 100-year championship drought, by just playing baseball, the focus on the curse moved the Cubs backward into the past and into superstition.

There is no curse of the billy goat unless you believe that there is. And believing in that is roughly akin to believing in this:

"Step on a crack,
break your mother's back."

The Cubs are not losing games because a guy's goat was denied admission to the 1945 World Series. But they might be losing games because a lot of people keep distracting them from the task at hand by asking them about junk like the curse on a daily basis, incessantly planting the seed that they have the weight of history on their shoulders, and/or that they are playing for a hopeless cause.

The priestly blessing of the Cubs' dugout did not exactly transform the team's fortunes. The Cubs' play was tense, tight, stretched to the breaking point by 100 years' worth of expectations, never higher than now. That's their real curse.

But what this ritual did was to force Piniella to address the whole curse thing all over again, in the midst of trying to find a way to win something, anything in the postseason.

"God doesn't care about a baseball game," Piniella told Cubs beat writers. "But you know, this thing here about the holy water, I didn't even know about. No, I wouldn't do that. ... There's no curses here."

And that's the second part of how trying to wipe out a non-existent curse in itself became a curse. At the place where sport and religion intersect, there should be no pedestrians.

Piniella, who describes himself as a practicing Christian, is right about this. But then, he is a rational man. He sometimes gets a little hot under the collar, but that's a long way from being unbalanced. And unbalanced is where the curse of the billy goat lives.

The story of the billy goat and the curse is a funny story. When you take it any further than that, you sink into the depths of superstition. Next stop: Salem witch trials.

But by bringing in the priest and the holy water, the organizational position of the Chicago Cubs is that there is a curse. And if the Cubs really believe that they are cursed, there doesn't seem to be much point in playing the 162-game schedule, not to mention the postseason. Then you're just playing the games because of all the money there is to be made. By the way, if somebody really cursed the Cubs, wouldn't he make sure that they were, you know, broke?

Not winning a World Series in 100 years puts a load on a team. It isn't fair, but it's there. And everybody knows it's there. Speaking Saturday night about the reasons his team came up short again in October, Piniella focused on the offensive shortcomings, but also said this:

"I can buy the fact that maybe it's because this team hadn't won in 100 years and everyone was jumping our bandwagon a little bit so were they trying a little harder, I can buy that."

A lot of people can buy that. The Cubs had a golden opportunity to make some history and break some history here. They blew it. But it wasn't because they were cursed. The single bad thing about a curse would be believing in it. And when the management of your team, as the postseason opens, actually tries to counteract a curse, you just have to check the calendar. Yes, it's 2008. We should have left the caves some time ago.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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