Winning: Is That It? Boston Globe Columnist Dan Shaughnessy’s Personal Evolution After the End of the Curse of the Bambino

NB: I wrote this in the fall of 2015 for a research methods class while working on a Master’s of English (Creative Writing Nonfiction emphasis) at Missouri State. I present it here with no edits except for subheadings (for easier reading), and one quip regarding Bill Buckner’s return to Fenway, which I had not included in my original research. Also: in the photo I’m discussing the project with presidential historian and Red Sox fanatic Doris Kearns Goodwin after she spoke on campus. Thanks to Jesse Scheve for the photo.

Winning: Is That It?

Boston Globe Columnist Dan Shaughnessy’s Personal Evolution After the End of the Curse of the Bambino

        The Boston Red Sox baseball club spent eighty-six years attempting to win a World Series. They came close on several occasions, perhaps most notably in 1986, needing just one more win to earn a title; they lost the lead in Game 6 on an error with five outs to go. Despite their regular playoff appearances, they struggled to win a title. In 1974, after a wry newspaper writer blamed their decades of disappointment on trading their best player in 1920, fans began to see a sinister trend.

Dan Shaughnessy

        Dan Shaughnessy has covered the team for the Boston Globe since 1981. He writes two or three columns each week. His columns between 2003 and 2007 serve to describe his identity as a Red Sox fan. He also wrote two books on the team: The Curse of the Bambino (1990), and Reversing the Curse (2004).  His motifs included superstition, anxiety, pessimism, and a sense of inferiority regarding the New York Yankees. Because his identity as an angst-laden columnist and fan was so publicly ingrained, it was unclear if winning would change his attitude for good.

        He had experienced many disappointments in following the Red Sox and had cultivated a personality of a cursed, perpetually heartbroken fan. He would be happy, of course, after his team finally won a World Series, but in the process, he would lose his identity as a “loser.” After the joy of the initial championship dimmed, he would expect additional titles. His heightened expectations would decrease his satisfaction in the outcome.

        Boston won the World Series in 2004. Surprisingly, Shaughnessy appeared somewhat happier for several seasons after that. This is curious in light of the words of the former owner of the New York Rangers, Neil Smith. The hockey team had a fifty-four-year drought before winning a Stanley Cup in 1994, and the fans took fierce pride in their loyalty (Smith 1). But the owner, after spending his energy on finally winning “the big one,” expressed emptiness after his dream was realized. He’d reached the apex of his sport. In fact, winning made “you actually wonder what you should dream about” (Smith 3).

        Shaughnessy was willing to take the chance.

The Babe with the Power

        It’s important to establish the context in which the columnist wrote. Boston Globe writer Ray Fitzgerald first hinted at “The Curse of the Bambino” in 1974. With about a month remaining in the regular season, the Red Sox held a commanding eight-game lead over the Baltimore Orioles. However, Boston began to falter, and Baltimore won the division. Fitzgerald wrote an article listing reasons why Boston finished second. The last: “They should have never sold Babe Ruth” (Shaughnessy, The Curse of the Bambino 110-113).

        At this point, Babe Ruth hadn’t played in Boston for 54 years. He was a talented and popular pitcher and hitter in Boston and had helped the team win two World Series titles (Shaughnessy, The Curse of the Bambino 20).  He believed he deserved a pay raise. Ruth wanted $20,000, which would double his Red Sox salary. Boston owner Harry Frazee wouldn’t relent, but New York Yankees owner Jake Ruppert gave Ruth his wish in 1920. In exchange for the slugger, Ruppert sent Frazee $100,000 and loaned Frazee an additional $300,000 to use as a mortgage on land for Fenway Park, where the Red Sox continue to play home games (Shaughnessy, The Curse of the Bambino 30-31).

The Curse: Origin Story

        Shaughnessy coined the term “The Curse of the Bambino” when he published his book by the same title in 1990 (Shaughnessy, The Curse is Reversed 7). But his anxiety as a fan enabled him to use it frequently in his columns, further publicizing the term. Studies indicate that devoted fans face anxiety when their team fails because it threatens their identity. But, if they can blame extrinsic factors like bad luck, umpires, etc., rather than their team, then their own identity as a loyal fan remains intact (Wann and Zaichkowsky 2009). Thus, it would seem that the curse of the Bambino helps fans cope with the Red Sox failures. But, like any superstition, it only exists to the point that people keep it alive by belief (Prakash 120-121).

        As stated, Shaughnessy has written two books on the curse. He also references it frequently in his Globe columns. As a fan, he needed extrinsic factors to blame in order to keep his identity intact. As a columnist, he was able to channel the emotion of fellow frustrated devotees. After all: “the Sox have been put on earth to make us suffer,” (Shaughnessy, “On Second Thought”).  His statement could be a method to establish trustworthiness because fans make “public demonstrations of loyalty to reassure other group members and to prove [their] loyalty” (Simons 238). In addition, “Commiseration over losing functions as a kind of bonding ritual” because all fans have endured painful losses (Prakash 125). Shaughnessy understood the fans’ heartache because he was one of them. By writing about the experience of following Boston’s team, Shaughnessy could establish empathy with his readers.

New York

        Shaughnessy was particularly distraught after the season ended in 2003. The Red Sox played the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series (ALCS), and played a decisive Game 7 in New York. Boston lost when Aaron Boone hit a home run in the 11th inning (Shaughnessy, “Heartbreak Again”). Months later, it was considered a “ghastly defeat” that “New England is still trying to forget” (Shaughnessy, “Again A Nation Waits”).  A few weeks into the season, when the team returned to New York, Shaughnessy likened it to “driving through the old neighborhood and passing the spot where your dog got run over when you were 10 years old” (Shaughnessy, “Smooth Sailing”). For the columnist, games in New York didn’t symbolize an opportunity to win now, but to lament loss.

        Shaughnessy’s anxiety continued into 2004. The team had fired its manager, Grady Little, in part for poor pitching decisions in Game 7 (Shaughnessy, Reversing the Curse, 34). Yet even the team’s regular season success in 2004 was cause for alarm for the columnist: “With the Red Sox, a measure of restraint is always in order. There’s always the seed of doubt that the Sox are merely setting the region up for another mind-bending, soul-crushing disappointment” (Shaughnessy, “Reverse Route in Bronx”).

Disappointment Theory

        This dilemma illustrates the disappointment theory. Researchers conducted a study of Cleveland Indians fans following their 2007 playoff loss to, of all teams, the Boston Red Sox. Fans who expect teams to win and do not, naturally, experience distress; “This finding supports the basic prediction of Disappointment Theory (Bell 1985) that the more valuable an outcome is to a person, the greater the disappointment the person experiences when the outcome does not occur,” (Rainey, Larsen and Yost 16).  However, in this study, older fans were less disappointed in their team’s failure, presumably because they had steeled themselves against this feeling by lowering their expectations (Rainey, Larsen and Yost 14).

        Based on his writings, Shaughnessy is heavily invested in the Red Sox outcomes. At times he seems resigned to failure, and he uses the curse to guard against grief. In 1974, when the curse was invented after Boston blew a division lead to Baltimore, the team “toughened New England fans for what was to come” (Shaughnessy, The Curse of the Bambino, 113). Indeed, the Sox blow another division lead in 1978, losing on a one-game playoff to New York when Bucky Dent hit a short home run (Shaughnessy, The Curse of the Bambino, 144). For the columnist, this season “erases any doubt that the Sox have been cursed since they sold the Babe to New York seventy years ago” (Shaughnessy, The Curse of the Bambino, 135). Yet, the team was often in the position to win. Perhaps it would be worse to never contend.

Damn, Yankees: A-Rod Goes East

        It is difficult to find examples of Shaughnessy discussing any other team except the Yankees. Indeed, Boston fans are known for their perceived inferiority to New York (Prakash 125). While it makes sense to discuss a division rival, he rarely mentioned the other teams in the American League East. But then, in the words of former Boston catcher Kevin Youkilis, “No one ever chants ‘Blue Jays suck’ ” (Shaughnessy, “It’s Time to Get Caught Up”).  Other division teams had to outplay New York, and they rarely did.

        This stress was particularly acute when the Red Sox tried to acquire a perennial MVP candidate, Texas Rangers shortshop Alex Rodriguez, in 2003. The Yankees had defeated the Sox in seven games during the previous ALCS, and Boston aimed to boost their team. Instead, trade talks stalled, and the Yankees, who already had an All-Star shortstop in Derek Jeter, acquired Rodriguez, moving their new player to third base. Shaughnessy was demoralized: “A-Rod to the Yankees deals a crushing blow to the psyche of Red Sox Nation. Just when it finally looked like the Sox were ready to overtake their nemeses – after a terrific offseason of healing and reloading by the Boston brass – the Yankees get the guy the Sox coveted?” (Shaughnessy, “Damn, Yankees Do it Again”). He also compares this acquisition to Frazee’s trade of Babe Ruth in 1920 (Shaughnessy, “Sox Couldn’t Afford Him”). Red Sox fans would recognize this significance because, without the Ruth trade, there is no Curse of the Bambino. Shaughnessy tugs on the fears of his readers, knowing that the Ruth trade connotation is decades of heartache and misery. The Sox were “healing” (Shaughnessy, “Damn, Yankees Do it Again”) and the Yankees had improved: “It’s just one more dagger through the heart of the Nation. Damn Yankees. It just never stops with these guys” (Shaughnessy, “Damn, Yankees Do it Again”).

Optimism? The Red Sox?

However, he begins to show signs of optimism prior to the World Series. He acknowledges fans’ tendency to expect the worse by discussing the 2003 loss, and manager Grady Little’s decision to keep his pitcher in the game: “You have not allowed yourself a moment of baseball joy since that night. You always wait for the sky to fall and that’s why you were somewhat prepared last year when He Who Must Not Be Named neglected to pull Pedro Martinez out of Game 7” (Shaughnessy, “Curses, Again”). This statement is unusual for Shaughnessy for two reasons. He shows hope in his team’s ability to play to their potential, i.e., to win a World Series. He also switches to the second person. Although addressing readers, it appears he is also guiding himself through the process of belief after disappointment. Perhaps it was too painful to admit that “I have not allowed myself to believe.” This minimization of emotion is reminiscent of distraught athletes who, after losses, address reporters with statements like “Of course, you’re upset with the loss.”

Winning the World Series after 86 years

        Then, when the Boston beat New York in the 2004 ALCS, the columnist allows himself to feel euphoric, saying “It may be the ultimate in satisfaction for Red Sox Nation. If the Sox never win a World Series again, citizens of the Nation will forever have an answer for pinstriped knuckleheads who make fun of the Red Sox” (Shaughnessy, “One Strike Away”). Still, he wants four more wins to finish the season. Indeed, when they sweep St. Louis to win the World Series, his joy is complete:

“We always wondered what it would be like if the Red Sox won the World Series. Now we know. People are happy, almost delirious. And it turns out there’s been no spike in the obituary sections the last few days. Folks who waited so long apparently decided that just because the Sox finally won, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing left for which to live” (Shaughnessy, “Red Sox Roll”).

        It appears that winning a World Series had disrupted his anxiety about the curse. Once it was gone, it wasn’t coming back. This is a stark contrast to his concerns about the team while they struggled to win a title. But it wasn’t Babe Ruth who interfered during the drought.

Bad Fans Make Bad Players?

        As Prakash speculates, perhaps Boston fans and media attitudes have contributed to the poor play of the Sox. Shaughnessy, in particular, writes in a negative style, which influences fans. Fans become easily frustrated with losses and might belittle their players online or from the stands. This treatment might reduce satisfaction in players and perhaps increase their desire to play elsewhere. So, the team loses talent and plays poorly, which continues the cycle of losing (Prakash 128).

        Indeed, even opposing players noticed this. As former Yankee great Reggie Jackson said,  “ ‘The papers would get on (Red Sox) and the fans expected them to get beat. The Red Sox players didn’t expect to play well’ ” (Shaughnessy, The Curse of the Bambino, 143). Thus, it seems plausible that occasionally players lost confidence in their ability to perform before they even stepped onto the field, which would likely contribute to poor results.

        This self-fulfilling prophecy makes sense in light of research concerning English football team’s players’ consistent struggles to convert penalty kicks in the 1980s. Researcher Eric Simons surmises that the expectation of failure influences players into continuing to fail: “In an athlete, stress pressure, and the awareness of past failure cause a thinking part of the brain called the “working memory” to wrest control of action from the much more competent ‘procedural motor cortex,’ ” (Simons 77).

        In other words, if your mind is consumed with fear of failure while working on a task, you have less mental space to complete the task. Thus, falling short of goals, as it were, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because professional athletics requires a high degree of confidence, it is self-defeating for players to obsess on their own failures, never mind those of past English footballers. Perhaps players only think of other players’ poor play because fans and members of media remind them.

Bill Buckner

        Indeed, Shaughnessy even discusses the disappointing baseball team while writing about New England’s football team. With their playoff success, “the Patriots are healing the regional scars left over from a Sox October collapse of biblical proportions” (Shaughnessy, “Touchdown Patriots Land”). However, Patriot players read the papers as well. The punter, Ken Walter, who held the ball for a game-winning field goal for Adam Vinatieri in 2004, said he got anxious about mishandling the snap because of the risk of being vilified for the rest of his natural life, a la Buckner (Shaughnessy, “Walter Still Kicking”). Bucker committed the error that allowed the tying run to score in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series when the Sox were just five outs from a title. Boston fans and media members never forgave him. (NB 2020: one welcome home video does not negate years of death threats.)

        But Shaughnessy changes after the Sox win. When he writes about the Patriots – a successful franchise – he stays focused on football. His Red Sox columns become much more centered on players. Even when he is critical of players, he does not discuss their stats in relation to a former player who also failed. He also learns to forgive. Because the Sox had won in 2004, Shaughnessy could salute the 1986 AL championship team: “They’ve all been treated unfairly, of course, and I’ll own up to my contributions in this area,” but “Tonight we salute the 1986 Red Sox. Finally” (Shaughnessy, “Saluting the Spirit of ‘86”). This is commendable because the team had symbolized disappointment, even though they appeared in the World Series.

        The columnist seems more satisfied. Naturally, as soon as the Sox defeated New York in 2004, he wanted to drop the curse. “Sox fans are sick of it. It’s something for out-of-towners,” he said (Shaughnessy, “One Strike Away”). But Shaughnessy, of course, wrote the book. In fact, when Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan made a baserunning mistake during the World Series, it was “more proof that the larger forces finally are smiling on Boston’s baseball team” (Shaughnessy, “One Win to Go”). The baseball gods – or, perhaps, Boston’s general manager, Theo Epstein – fully supported the team’s success.

“If we win, it’ll screw up this whole town”

The team’s fans had rarely felt lucky. In 1986, pitcher Joe Sambito said, “If we win, it’ll screw up this whole town. They’ll have to think positive” (Shaughnessy, The Curse of the Bambino, 59). And, in 2005, Shaughnessy still compares Red Sox division run with 1948, ’49, ’67 and ’78: all years in which Boston finished second. (Shaughnessy, “History Repeats, Naturally”). To be fair, he mentions optimism about the Red Sox and says, “Truly, this is an alternate universe” (Shaughnessy, “Easy Call”). However, Shaughnessy resumes his feelings of frustration soon enough. As the 2005 season begins, the Sox are still joyous about the previous year’s title. But, when the team loses five straight at home in 2005, he, again, compares it to 1978: a disappointing year (Shaughnessy, “It’s Late”). Boston lost in the first round, in three games, to Chicago in 2005. Shaughnessy expresses shock, but his wrap-up column concerns the fate of players who were likely to move in the off-season. As he says, the theme of 2005 remains, “Wait till last year” (Shaughnessy, “Curses, Again”). After the team had finally won after 86 years of waiting, it seems plausible that the team and fans would want to spend more than one off-season enjoying the title. Perhaps this cloud of joy lowered the team’s motivation for the following season.

Another Boston Massacre?

        Boston failed to make the playoffs in 2006. When the Sox fell to 3½ games out of 1st, “the blame goes to (general manager) Theo Epstein and the minions. Guess they really are thinking about 2007 and ’08” (Shaughnessy, “These Performances”). He continues to obsess over the past: the Yankees nearly doubled the runs scored by Sox, winning by a combined 39-20, in a pivotal series in 2006. Shaughnessy compares it to four losses to New York (42-9), again in 1978, and says, “We are now officially in the middle of “Son of Massacre” weekend.” (Shaughnessy, “Getting that Sinking Feeling”).  (A sidebar in this column reminds us that the Yanks’ initial plunder was called “Boston Massacre,” in 1978, which was part of the Sox slowly losing the East Division that year.) Still, recognizing that his team will not compete, he roots for another American League team, Detroit, calling it “too long since we saw the Old English ‘D’ in a meaningful game in October” (Shaughnessy, “New Life”). The Tigers would lose to St. Louis in the World Series that year.

        The columnist wasn’t happy with a playoff appearance the following year. When the Red Sox fell behind 3-1 against Cleveland in the 2007 ALCS, Shaughnessy blamed the manager for his starting pitching. This is not unreasonable. However, he also began to blame the general manager, Theo Epstein, for his unsatisfactory trades (Shaughnessy, “If They Lose Game”). This seems to be more of an off-season conversation and indicates dissatisfaction with the team’s playoff run, even though the Red Sox were still in the postseason when the column was published. In fact, the Sox won another World Series title that year.

Winning: a Check on Pessimism …

        So, perhaps it was enough to win in 2004. His pre-World Series writings show strong themes of anxiety, pessimism, superstition, and inferiority with New York. Shaughnessy evolves. Now he can discuss happy history: when the Red Sox defeat Colorado in the 2007 World Series, he mentions that it’s “three years and one day after the champagne bath that cleansed 86 years of a region’s pain in 2004” (Shaughnessy, “On Top of the World Again”).

        However, winning two titles has not entirely changed his relationship with the New YorkYankees. Prior to the first World Series win, he admits Boston fans are “obsessed” with the Yankees (Shaughnessy, “Schilling Looks to Lift Red Sox Again”). By 2007, “Greedy Sox fans wanted more; 2004 was historic and will never go away, but the Red Sox have finished behind the Yankees in 11 consecutive seasons” (Shaughnessy, “A Chance”). Though Boston had played well to begin the season, “When it comes to beating up on the Yankees … it’s just never enough” (Shaughnessy, “A Chance”). Shaughnessy does express more contentment during opening games. He’s still aglow in 2005 after the previous year’s title. By 2006 he expects the team to win the division, but not the World Series. So, perhaps he has indeed lowered his expectations. He counsels fans: “Try not to overreact if your team loses the first game” (Shaughnessy, “It’ll be Love”). Here he uses the second person for the second time. He appears to be soothing himself about his projected disappointment. However, he shows his frustration when the team opens the 2007 season by losing to Kansas City, whose payroll was about a third of Boston’s. He encourages fans to remember that the Royals swept the Red Sox a year ago and that the series was a premonition of the team’s struggles with New York (Shaughnessy, “Opening Day Fever”).

… to a Point

        This is why it seemed Shaughnessy would return to his negative state: in order to continue to guard against disappointment: this is too good to be true. He had higher expectations for his team. Now that they had won a World Series, nothing else would do. Their inability to win every year would be a disappointment. After all, the team had been competitive for several years and could certainly win another World Series. Once the curse was broken, it couldn’t be blamed for another playoff defeat. Fans would have to face the brunt of unfulfilled expectations. This could cause frustration for a perennial contender like Boston, based on a study concerning the facial expressions of 2004 Olympic judo medalists. After establishing a baseline of expressions that indicated happiness, contempt, sadness, and the like, researchers discovered that bronze medalists showed higher levels of happiness than silver medalists did (Matsumoto and Willingham 573). Perhaps, the researchers surmised, this was because “the silver medalist loses the gold medal match, and the bronze medalists win their last match” (Matsumoto and Willingham 570). Like the silver medalists in this study, Shaughnessy, as a fan, is not content with standing on the podium.

        With that in mind, it seems reasonable to expect a columnist to become happier after his team won. However, because Shaughnessy was so established as a prominent pessimist, if he were to cover the team in a positive light, he could potentially lose one of his most important credentials as a Red Sox columnist: credibility. If the fans no longer believed he was a voice for them, perhaps they would look for others to fill the role. However, perhaps the fans really are happier now. Clearly, winning was a relief after failing for so many years. It is also gratifying because fans continued to support their team and their loyalty was paid off. So, if Shaughnessy continued to look for negative aspects of the team, perhaps readers would no longer feel like he represented them and would lose interest.

Limitations of the Study: Scope

        This illustrates one limitation of my study: it’s about Shaughnessy, not all of the Red Sox fans. In order to analyze the happiness of Sox fans, it would be helpful to conduct surveys and interviews of a larger sample size. Also, it’s unclear whether Shaughnessy is similar to sports columnists in Boston or New England in motifs, drama, and rhetoric. Columnists may generally be dramatic to increase tension. They may often discuss history to give context to today’s story, and to involve readers who have followed the team for a long time. In future studies, it would be useful to compare his writing to other columnists in the region who covered the team during the same era. This would give context to his style and themes. But, this sort of analysis is beyond the scope of the present study.

Limitations of the Study: Winning

        Another limitation of this study is that my research only included writings from 2003 through 2007, in addition to his books. It is hard to gauge whether Shaughnessy reverts to his pessimism because the team was so successful during this era. They won two World Series during the timeframe: in 2004 and 2007. It is difficult to predict if he would return to his prior emotional baseline had the team lost again because they hadn’t. It would be useful to study his writings to present day: except that the Red Sox also won a World Series in 2013.


Works Cited

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Prakash, Abhijay. “Comprehending the Narrative Power of the “Curse of the Bambino.”
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— “Again, A Nation Waits Red Sox Open Season With New Hopes, Old Disappointments.” Boston Globe. 4 April 2004. Web.

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— “Damn, Yankees Do it Again Damn, Yanks Hit Back.” Boston Globe. 15 February 2004. Web.                                                                                                                                                     

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