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CRAIG LAMBERT

The Curse of A-Rod

THIS SEASON Red Sox Nation faces a new dilemma: a Curse Vacuum. Last fall's World Series win killed off the storied Curse of the Bambino; that is finished, dead, over, more washed-up even than Bucky (Bleeping) Dent. Oddly, this leaves a kind of empty place in our hearts.

Yes, there's still one active National League curse; the Chicago Cubs, with their 97-year drought, have the Curse of the Goat working against them. Maybe Chicago, a Midwestern meat-packing city, was bound to hatch a farm-animal curse. But the Goat involves only one team. Here in Red Sox Nation, curses require two teams and baseball players; sure, we have our goats, but they wear uniforms.

Time for a new hex, taking the durable Bambino as a model. A good curse should involve one of the outstanding players of his era, preferably someone who moved from the Red Sox to the Yankees or at least almost signed with the Sox, then went to the Yankees. Ruth put the whammy on the Sox in absentia, leaving his curse behind. That's been done; in our new version, the star brings the hex with him. We need a dugout jinx, an albatross in batting gloves. Welcome to the Curse of A-Rod.

Some will ask, why add another curse to the Yankees? after all, they've had one since 1973, when George Steinbrenner bought the team. But Steinbrenner doesn't play, and in Boston, A-Rod is special. No one else has moved so quickly from potential savior to Most Loathed Athlete. Wearing pinstripes is his worst sin, of course, but there was that game last July when Bronson Arroyo hit him with a curveball -- that's right, a curveball -- and A-Rod got testy. Apparently Jason Varitek offered some calming words like, ''Settle down, Alex, we don't throw at .260 hitters," but A-Rod had no sense of humor about this, and a bench-clearing brawl ensued. Many feel that moment lit the fuse on the Sox' championship run. Then there was the ALCS, when A-Rod regressed to seventh grade, slapping the ball from Arroyo's glove while being tagged out. Please.

Let's assess Alex's record for whammy-worthiness. After 11 years in the major leagues, the Best Player in Baseball has never won a pennant, much less a World Series (the Bambino's gold-standard criterion). In league championship play, his teams have gone 0-3, including, of course, the Biggest Choke in Pro Sports History.

Furthermore, it has become clear that the secret to success in baseball is getting rid of A-Rod. During his seven years in Seattle (1994-2000), the Mariners played .488 ball, averaging 79 wins per season. In 2001, when A-Rod packed for Texas, $252 million richer, the Mariners promptly tied a major-league record (set by the 1906 Cubs) with 116 wins and a .716 winning percentage. With A-Rod aboard and despite his 2003 MVP year, the Texas Rangers averaged only 72 wins (.444) for the next three seasons. Soon, Alex became the first reigning MVP in baseball history to be traded. (Did the Rangers know something?) Once he left for New York, Texas surged to 89 victories in 2004, their most wins since, well, the 20th century.

Of course, all this is drastically unfair. Alex Rodriguez is a complete ballplayer and by most accounts, a nice guy. In 2001, Seattle had an MVP rookie named Ichiro Suzuki; Texas lost mostly because they lacked pitching. If baseball had a salary cap, you could argue that A-Rod's huge paychecks drain money away from building the team, but that idea is laughable in Texas and especially in New York, where the Boss's lucre flows filthily to the good, the bad, and the ugly. But curses aren't fair, logical, or reasonable. Curses are voodoo.

They may also have a moral aspect. The unforgivable sin that Red Sox owner Harry Frazee committed in 1919 was that he sold the great Babe Ruth to the Yankees for cash. Today's successor to Frazee is Steinbrenner, another owner who has little feel for the game and has done more than any other to make money its ruling force. But Rodriguez's amazing feat of winning the 2003 MVP award while playing for one of the worst teams only underlines the fact that baseball is a team game, not an individual sport, something the Yankees' owner has not yet figured out.

In Boston we take endless amusement in Steinbrenner's frantic, flailing, desperate grabs for star free agents, especially players that just beat the Yankees, and in watching him lose anyway, to the lite-payroll likes of the Minnesota Twins and Florida Marlins. A-Rod, baseball's highest-paid athlete, is right where he belongs. The Babe's curse was reversed when (thank God), he slipped away from Boston to the Bronx. Now it's New York's turn.

Craig Lambert is deputy editor of Harvard Magazine.

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