Sunday, October 19, 2008

Uh Oh

In April of this year, the New York Yankees ordered that part of their new stadium floor be ripped up because a construction worker put a Red Sox jersey in the concrete. Seems the construction worker was a Red Sox fan and by putting the shirt underneath the Stadium, he was hoping to “jinx" the new Stadium. Silly.

The Yankees ordered the construction company to jackhammer the foundation of their new stadium. It took five hours, but eventually the workers found the shirt, shredded now by jackhammers, and removed it from the foundation of the new Stadium. Even more silly, no?

The mainstream sports media seemed to think so. Commentators such as Mike Greenberg called it "silly" and that he "couldn’t understand" why the Yankees would do something so ridiculous. It's just a shirt, yes?

No. It's not.

The Yankees did the right thing in removing the shirt because in removing it, it removes all of the unnecessary potential thought-processes from starting. Why leave it there? To have some sportswriter bring it up every time the Yanks lose a series to Boston? To let the "jinx" grow and fester and foment in the Yankees' minds? To make it actually become a jinx in real life? The Yankee Shirt Jinx.

In short, if the Yankees thought there was even a remote possibility there was a jinx on their new Stadium—like the Curse of the Bambino was on the Red Sox for 80 years—then there was. The mind could make it so.

Curses are dangerous. Not because anyone thinks they are real in the cold light of day. But they are very real in the fragile mind of a player. Player's minds can turn one opposing team into an unbeatable juggernaut. They can jinx a franchise and can turn a totally winnable playoff series into one catastrophic, inevitable failure. It's serious stuff. If a jinx gets into a team's head, they don't lose games to other teams; they beat themselves.

Which brings me to the Tampa Rays. The Red Sox are in their head now. Manager Joe Maddon can say whatever he likes, but the fact that the Red Sox have not only come back from a 3-1 deficit, but did in such indomitable fashion—down 7-0 with 7 outs to go in game 5—has put them firmly and intractably inside the Ray fragile heads.

Athletes are fragile, and nowhere more so than in baseball. A slight "yip" can enter the brain and can destroy a player's psyche. Rick Ankiel struck out almost 10 batters a game at the age of 20, and then suddenly he couldn't get it anywhere near the catcher's glove. A solid catcher named Mackey Sasser, seemingly overnight, couldn't throw a baseball back to the pitcher. Once a solid 2nd baseman, by 1999, Chuck Knoblauch would throw a few throws a game from 2nd base towards row 4 of Yankee Stadium rather than towards first base.

That's the fragility of a baseball players', or a baseball teams' psyche. And when that happens on a team level—when one team "owns" another team, it can be tough to break. The Rays don't want to blow being up 3-1 on the Red Sox and have Boston win the series. The repercussions could be long lasting.

The Rays can still win it, a few lucky breaks, Boston not capitalizing on mistakes. But from what I've seen, the Rays are already thinking. And over thinking. And that leads to meltdowns. They are already starting to beat themselves—shortstop Jason Bartlett's errant throw to first last night which resulted in two runs—these are the signs of a team playing tight.

I picked the Rays to win in 7. And to that I hold firmly. I think the Rays are the better team. But I'm pretty sure that when Boston came back from the dead and scored 8 runs and won game 5, I wasn't the only one who said—I'm pretty sure, a dark place in each Ray team member's mind said it with me—"Uh oh."

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