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Lifting the Curse of Tantalus

Bowie Kuhn put the Milo on the Oakland Athletics in 1976 when he ruled that Charlie Finley couldn’t do what Billy Beane does every year. We need to lift the curse and get on with our lives.

The baseball gods at work.
The baseball gods at work.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 season began with the splendor of Josh Reddick's catch against the Giants' Michael Morse on the first day of spring training. I wrote an essay about the play. Here it is, if you can bear the agony of my optimism. The star of the article was not Reddick, but my Italian mother-in-law, a woman who is generally oblivious to all sports except Raiders football. To bring everything full circle, I'll start again with mia suocera, my mother-in-law.

Here's what a coward I am. I couldn't watch the A's playoff game against the Kansas City Royals. So I assigned my mother-in-law the duty of watching the game while I hid under my bed. My instructions to her were simple: Do not tell me anything unless the A's win. She agreed.

Two hours after the game was supposed to end, she called me on my cellphone.

"Nine to eight," she said.

"Nine to eight! The A's won?"

She waited for two beats then said, "You wanted the A's to win?"

Tough season when a woman in her nineties can mess with your head.

Another confession: I first went under my bed when Billy Beane traded for Jon Lester. Why? Because, at that moment, the experts on ESPN and MLB-TV declared the A's the favorites to win the World Series. Our beloved Misfits were doomed! The ESPN experts have been dead wrong for decades and now they were picking the A's to win it all.

In my heart of sporting hearts, I knew this would not end well. The A's aren't supposed to go all in. They are not supposed to trump the league in trades for big name, big game pitchers. And they are not supposed to be proclaimed World Series favorites by the ESPN oracles. In classical Greek tragedy, this is known as hubris, or woofing at the gods. When you woof at the gods, they invariably respond by pushing a celestial pie in your face.

Sophocles Was A Beat Writer For The A's

I was reminded of my forebodings by Alex Hall's excellent summation of the 2014 season, terming the Athletics a "Greek tragedy." Here it is if you haven't read it. In fact, the opening paragraphs of Alex's piece may be the finest words written about the A's 2014 season.

So Alex got me thinking in terms of Greek tragedy and how it might apply to the A's past, present and future. (Bear with me. There's a punchline in here somewhere.)

Most Greek tragedies center upon the family of Atreus. The sons of Atreus, Agamemnon and Menelaus, started a little dispute called the Trojan War about 4,000 years ago. Paris, a Trojan prince, kidnapped Menelaus' main squeeze, Helen, and then all Hades broke loose.

The progenitor of the family of Atreus was a guy named Tantalus. (The word, "tantalize," is a spinoff of Tantalus' name.) He was the father of Atreus and the grandpa of Agamemnon and Menelaus. Tantalus was a charming guy who was originally favored by the gods, though few people knew why. In fact, Tantalus was so favored he was invited to dine with the gods. He showed up on Mt. Olympus bearing a strange stew composed of...well, this is a family publication so I won't describe the contents. The gods were disgusted.

Do Not Invite Tantalus To Your Next Progressive Dinner

Tantalus sinned even more by stealing the gods' ambrosia and nectar and serving it at his own holiday dinner party. His friends were impressed but the gods were not. They condemned him to the basement of the Underworld where he suffered punishment for eternity. (Eternity is approximately how long the Chicago Cubs have been playing baseball without winning a World Series title.)

Tantalus was forced to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low-hanging branches. He was cursed with an overwhelming thirst which he could not quench because the water evaporated before he could drink. He was tortured by hunger but he could not eat because the tree branches receded before he could pick the fruit.

We A's fans can relate.

Pagans (including my ancestors, the Vikings) believed the gods were wicked pranksters. The butt of the gods' jokes was always the human race. I used to think of all this as quaint literary nonsense, but 2014 has made me a pagan believer.

Like Tantalus, the Oakland Athletics have been cursed. Our team is always this close but never ultimately triumphant. Every playoff series, new and different plagues appear in various forms to destroy the A's: Jermaine Dye's broken leg, the Jeter flip, the Gibson homerun, Eric Byrnes, Mickey Hatcher, Billy Hatcher, Justin Verlander...I could go on but I'm starting to feel queasy.

Mathematics, statistics, and even dumb luck are insufficient to explain the pathetic fortunes of the A's. A Tantalus-like hex is the only rational conclusion I can make, and I defy anybody to come up with a better explanation. But the whammy does not apply just to Billy Beane's term in office as High Priest of the Athletics. You can take this back to 1988 when the young heroes of the A's lost the World Series (in five games!) to a Dodger team featuring the "worst starting lineup in World Series history." (Bob Costas said that.)

The A's won the World Series in 1989 only because they were playing the one team in baseball more accursed than they, the San Francisco Giants. You will recall the Giants lost the World Series when an earthquake despoiled the Hum Babies' Date with Destiny. (Dave Stewart, Rickey Henderson, the Bash Brothers and the others may have played a small part in the victory.) Can you seriously believe baseball divinity was not involved in that fiasco? More on this later.

The Oakland Athletics' Milo goes back further than the 1980's, however. Using advanced sabermetrics, I have calculated that the A's curse actually began in 1976. That year, A's owner Charlie Finley looked at his limited budget and sold off the contracts of Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers, and Vida Blue for, get this, a total of $1.5 million!

Bowie Kuhn and Divine Intervention

Cue the deus ex machina music. The baseball gods' instrument of divine retribution, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, disallowed the sale citing "the best interests of baseball."

Imagine somebody with the stones to dump "expensive" player contracts to free up limited budget space. Oh, the horror! Bowie Kuhn, like Joe Morgan, apparently had not read "Moneyball." He ruled Finley's action was "anti-competitive" and effectively cursed the Oakland Athletics for all time.

I say, the Oakland Athletics have suffered enough humiliation by the baseball gods. Improbable playoff losses are just part of the ignominy. We A's fans must watch the Raiders destroy our baseball field every season. Coco Crisp has to wade through a torrent of sea water and sewage to reach his Rolls Royce in the Coliseum parking lot. Radio listeners must suffer through Ray Fosse interviews. TV viewers must watch Billy Beane doing those wretched Frontier Ford commercials. And, in 2014, everybody had to watch the mediocre Giants take the World Series title the Athletics were supposed to win.

I shout to the baseball gods, "Enough already!"

We must figure out a way to lift this curse of Tantalus. I am tired of living under my bed during baseball season. But what can we do? As much as it pains me, I think we must look for answers across the Bay.

[Editorial advisory: What follows is a brief, non-hostile, historical analysis of the San Francisco Giants. You may want to send your children out of the room.]

The Giants suffered more than a half-century in San Francisco as the pathetic schlemiels the A's now appear to be. Don't take my word for it; ask any long-time Giants fan. The curse was placed upon them when the Giants' owner, Horace Stoneham, deserted New York for the Left Coast.

In many ways, the San Francisco Giants seemed to be favored by the baseball gods. They featured the second greatest player ever, Willie Mays. They had won the 1954 World Series, beating the Cleveland Indians of Bob Feller and Early Winn. They had McCovey, Marichal, Cepeda, and the Alou brothers. They even had the first of the great Japanese players, Masanori Murakami. (Banzai, Mashi-san!) But they rarely defeated those strong-pitching, fast-running, weak-hitting Dodgers and Cardinals teams.

In 1962, the Giants actually made it to the World Series and took the vaunted Yankees to seven games. Surely the baseball gods had finally turned in their favor. But, no! In game seven at Candlestick Park, the Giants had the winning runs on base in the bottom of the ninth. Sure there were two outs, but one of the most fearsome power hitters in baseball history, Willie McCovey, was at bat. McCovey immediately hit a rocket that almost subdivided Yankees second-baseman Bobby Richardson.

Richardson caught the ball, nevertheless, and reported immediately to a local Intensive Care Unit.

In 1989, the Giants were humiliated in the longest World Series ever, especially since they had to listen to Commissioner Fay Vincent pontificate for a whole damn month before Game Three.

In 2002, Dusty Baker gave Russ Ortiz the game ball before the final out of the World Series and pissed off the baseball gods. Next thing, Scott Spiezio (former A Scott Spiezio!) hit one of the cheapest homeruns in WS history and the Angels (the Angels!) won the World Series. If ever there was a World Series in which both teams should have lost, 2002 was it! But the baseball gods were so cruel to A's fans they wouldn't grant even this small favor.

In 2003, in the playoffs against the Florida Marlins, the Giants' right fielder, José Cruz, Jr., clanked a sure out off the bat of Jeff Conine, extended the inning, and allowed the Marlins to beat the Yankees in the World Series. Tell me that wasn't divine intervention.

The Giants tried everything to lift their curse. They changed owners. They sent Mays and McCovey packing. They even built a brand new stadium. Nothing worked until they cut ties with His Bloatedness, Barry Bonds. In 2007, they refused to sign him to a new contract. The Giants refused to retire his number. They changed the stadium phone numbers so Barry could not call. They even tossed Barry's La-Z-Boy recliner into McCovey Cove, swamping 14 kayakers in the process.

By sacrificing Bonds, the Giants lifted their curse and became favorites of the baseball gods once again. Now every player move they make turns out to be an act of genius. Every instance of pure dumb luck goes in their favor. Every player injury brings forth a new hero. These Giants are being hailed as a dynasty.

Indeed, the horror.

A Modest Proposal

We A's fans must be rational and even-tempered, though. If the Giants example is instructive, then we must make some sacrifice to reinstate ourselves in the favor of the baseball gods. But what, or whom, do we sacrifice?

The Athletics have tried to dump the Coliseum, but we all know how that has gone. Besides, the Giants changed stadiums and the gods remained oblivious.

We could sacrifice the players but Beane already does this, several times a season.

Many on this website have suggested sacrificing the current ownership of the Athletics. I am skeptical of this idea. The curse has extended through four regimes of Athletics' owners. Clearly, this hex is bigger than John Fisher's wallet.

Should we get rid of Beane himself? Many in baseball attribute the Athletics' futility in the playoffs to his whirling dervish approach to player acquisition and disposition. Maybe, but how do they explain the el foldo performances 1988 and 1990? Those Sandy Alderson teams were the best in baseball yet...well, I don't have to tell you. Sandy Alderson wasn't the problem then; Beane is not the problem now.

Perhaps we A's fans should sacrifice ourselves. Despite our most impassioned efforts, we couldn't even beat the Kansas City Royals with a four-run lead in the eighth inning. What good are we? Of course, if we get rid of ourselves, who will collect the 10,000 Yoenis Cespedes giveaway cigars still stored in the Athletics promotional department?

Lifting the curse of Tantalus is more difficult than it seems. If we can't square our divine account by sacrificing the stadium, the players, the owners, the GM or the fans, what does that leave? What would be the equivalent of the Giants jettisoning Barry Bonds in order to lift the curse?

I can think of only one thing: Stomper has to go.