In April 2008, a controversy stirred fans of the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. The two teams’ fans have a nearly ethnic enmity for each other, to the point that just the year before, when Boston’s football team won its league championship, immediately after the win, rather than cheering on their team, fans began a loud anapestic chant of “Yan-kees suck, Yan-kees suck.”
The following spring, the Yankees were in the midst of building a new and very expensive stadium in the Bronx. The Red Sox had just won two World Series in four years, and would win another in the autumn of 2013, after a dry spell of eighty-seven years—a period too long for any man to wholly hold in his head, or in many cases, his life. The Yankees’ new stadium was to be the third most expensive sports arena ever erected, costing taxpayers of that great city, now the cultural center of the U.S., more than two billion dollars. Construction of the stadium took more than two years. More than a thousand workers were employed. It was to be home to an epoch of memories not yet formed, individual and collective.
But on April 14 of that spring, a rumor began to surface. One of the workers who had poured the concrete for one of the cornerstones of the stadium was a Red Sox fan. He was going around his neighborhood in the Bronx telling people he’d buried the official playing jersey of Boston’s designated hitter David Ortiz, a hulking Dominican known as “Big Papi,” in the cement mix.
What began as a rumor quickly swelled into a controversy that reached the sports news media and then all the way to the administration of the Yankees. At some point in the sprawl, a reporter made a phone call to the construction worker who had claimed to have put the Red Sox jersey in the Yankee Stadium foundation. The man admitted immediately to having done so, and, having left the job the month before, suffered no repercussions.
“As I stuck it in,” the construction worker, whose name is Gino Castignoli, said, “I said, ‘The Yankees are done for the next thirty years.’ I only put a thirty-year curse because I’m forty-six and in thirty years I’ll be dead, and I won’t care if the Yankees win then.” It was unclear what he meant by a “curse”—there had for many decades been an idea in the national sports memory that the Boston team had suffered many years without winning a championship because they had famously traded the greatest player in baseball history to the Yankees. But since then the Boston team had won two championships, which either had confirmed the curse—it had been so many years since they’d won!—or had wholly dispelled it—the team had now won their league championship, and not once but twice, and then soon after a third time, and nothing relating to a trade or that player had shifted anything.
In a journal entry of March 13, 1841, Massachusetts native Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I like better the surliness with which the woodchopper speaks of his woods, handling them as indifferently as his axe, than the mealy-mouthed enthusiasm of the lover of nature.” Surely there was nothing natural about the new two-billion-dollar stadium in the Bronx, but the space on which it was now to sit was at the time of Thoreau’s writing twenty-three acres of green field and marshland. “I find incessant labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, the best method to remove palaver out of one’s style,” Thoreau wrote in his journal six months later. Castignoli might not have practiced concision in the tradition of Hemingway, but he was concise.
I have long loved the idea of our sports teams—and my sports team, if I have a single sports team, is the Boston Red Sox—as the singular metaphor for our lives. When I need something and it is the summer, I feel more likely to get it if the Boston Red Sox have won the night before. When they are losing, it is possible my 401K will plummet, my kid will get the flu. After learning that Big Papi’s uniform jersey had been buried somewhere in the new stadium being erected, people across the city of New York—and let’s be frank, across the entire country and even across the globe, as by this time the New York Yankees had won enough championships that one could even see the team’s hats on heads in Budapest and Bucharest—were vocally and viscerally upset. It was not clear why Gino Castignoli thought burying a playing jersey in one two-foot-wide patch of concrete in the stadium would somehow make the New York team “done for the next thirty years,” but those who heard him say it seemed to fear it nonetheless. What is the idea of a curse, anyway? What’s the difference between collective memory, superstition, and tradition? When speaking of the Sox’ eighty-seven-year dry spell, reporters regularly noted that this was longer than most lives—and how do we know our lives but through our memories of them? Is collective memory meant to take the redolence of superstition, a kind of spiritual concern (a black cat should not cross my path, I’ll get seven years of bad luck if I break a mirror), or of a more practical tradition (I should not pass under a ladder in part because I know it to be “bad luck,” but also because I don’t want stuff dropped on my head)?
This kind of crossing of superstition, memory, and tradition always seems to grow muddier the more it’s interrogated. The first time I travelled to Budapest as an adult I sat with a group of my cousin Gabor’s Hungarian friends at an outdoor bar in a newly hip Pest neighborhood. We all ordered beers and shots of Unicum, an anise-based liqueur that burns in your chest like a small rodent has been planted there and is attempting to get free, and when they raised their glasses and shouted the Magyar toast—egészségedre—I clinked my glass to my cousin’s and then his friends’.
It was like I’d just killed all their cats.
People at tables next to us looked at me with their eyes narrowed.
While conversation picked back up my cousin explained that in Hungary, people don’t touch glasses. In 1848, when revolutions broke out across Europe, Hungary was under Habsburg rule. When the Austrians squelched the failed revolution in Budapest, while the leaders of the Budapest uprising sat in their jail cells awaiting execution, the Austrian generals sat outside those cells, toasting their victory by loudly tapping their glasses together. For the next 150 years, Hungarians vowed not to touch glasses.
Now, the night I touched Gabor’s glass with mine, it was the year 2004, six years after the period during which this tradition was meant to last. It stood to reason, I said the next night, that not only would it end, but that it might even be broken in a joyous celebration: an entire century and a half had passed! No more Austrians! The freedom of glass-clinking returned!
When I asked my cousin later why 150 years was chosen as the duration of this tradition, and how it was even possible that the executed leaders of the revolution could have told anyone about the toasting they’d heard, he simply looked at me with the same narrow-eyed stare I’d received in that Pest bar the night before.
“We not clink glasses in Hungary,” he said. “It is bad luck. And rude.”
One hundred and fifty years might simply be too many years for a tradition not to grow a kind of spiritual underpinning—that no matter how tangible the reason for that tradition might have been on a night in, say, 1892, by a night in 2004, it was simply a matter of the shift from memory to manners: one does not clink one’s glass to his friend’s glass. By the same logic, a record of futility that was begun for a sports team in 1918, when still in place in 1998, appears to be influenced by something metaphysical. It appears to have transcended the subjective truth of the individual memory. The curse which had befallen the Red Sox after their having traded Babe Ruth had an empirical basis which at least appeared as tangible as the no-glass-clinking, the codifying of emotional memory into something objective, collective: it was quite stupid to have traded Ruth, who not only became the greatest batter baseball would know for many, many years but had been one of the greatest pitchers in the game to that point as well.
But it’s not clear this logic exactly held. While Ruth was a great pitcher in his few seasons with the Red Sox, he’d not yet become the hitter who would one day hold both single-season and career records for home runs. In his last two seasons with Boston, Ruth had hit eleven and then twenty-nine home runs. Before that, he’d accrued home run totals only in the single-digits. But in his first season with the Yankees hit fifty-four home runs, almost twice the previous record. In the years to follow he would hit as many as sixty home runs, a number that would help the Yankees to win many championships.
So perhaps this, and not simply the duration of the Red Sox’ drought, was why the “curse” seemed more superstition than tradition: while Ruth was a formidable pitcher at the time of the trade, something remarkable happened in the sheer exponential improvement of his prowess in that first year with the Yankees, and continued until he retired in a New York uniform.
There was clearly no such logic to this burying of a David Ortiz shirt that had so riled the New York team, its fans, and its leadership nearly a hundred years later. The player to whom the shirt belonged had been a mediocre and endomorphic first baseman in Minnesota for a number of years before coming to Boston, but in the three or four years before Castignoli poured concrete on his shirt in the Yankees’ new stadium, he had seemed to hit a home run in nearly every game the two teams played—often at a point in the game that would make it appear that the Boston team had won because of his play. The same was true again this past fall, when Ortiz hit almost .700 in the Sox’ 2013 win.
And so, somehow, perhaps the tradition of believing in this “curse” itself was meant to be predicated on the idea that a jersey bearing that player’s number would be symbolic of a shift in Red Sox fate? Or because this player’s nickname was “Big Papi,” perhaps there was a sense that something ethnic or familial—and what is family but the privileging of collective memory over the individual?—to match the anger associated with the fans’ feelings toward each team would be evoked? Neither of these explanations seemed as direct as the expression that the Boston team had fared poorly for very close to a century because they’d made a horrible decision in trading their best player. It is believable that each successive decision-maker for that team might make poor decisions each time he was faced with a major move in player personnel because somewhere in his subconscious, where cautious memory reigns, he understood the effect of an executive in 1917 having made a historically bad decision. It is also not at all outside the realm of reason that the players on the team that had failed to win for so long, but which had come quite close to winning a number of times, actually came to have this idea of a “curse” so wholly accessible to their immediate conscious memory that each time they came near to winning, they simply tightened up and lost out of fear of losing—an unconscious response to a long-standing stimulus not wholly dissimilar from that moment when a Hungarian hears a glass clink with another and his face involuntarily turns to a scowl.
And yet, while Castignoli had buried the jersey more than a month earlier, on April 24, 2008, with the Yankees’ president and the CEO watching, construction workers used a jackhammer to drill into the spot where the jersey was meant to be buried. They drilled for five hours, down into two feet of concrete, and though Castignoli was not wholly complicit in the action, he did succumb to pressure to let team officials know where he’d done the conscious-curse-building, and they discovered the shirt. It was torn nearly to tatters from the jackhammering and the concrete which had attached itself to the shirt. It looked as if a corpse had been exhumed, its clothing torn.
But it was identifiable.