Curse? You call this a curse? Why, Judge Bill Gibron was once hounded simultaneously by a troop of diabolical monkeys, a mustering of angry storks, and a flock of hungry goats. If a kind shaman hadn't led him to the yearly circus fundraiser on the lawn of the Memorial Hospital Maternity Ward, who knows what would have become of him.
The house of horrors that Ruth built?
Few sports inspire the kind of loyalty and dedication that baseball does. As the oldest athletic aspect of our still relatively young nation, the classic diamond dynamic of nine men versus a sole batter has always been the fodder for legend and myth. Many of the defining moments in the cultural landscape come from the boys of summer (the players), the intricacy of box scores (the game itself), and the fall classic (the World Series). Sure, with all its financial infighting and personnel shuffles, the once-important pastime for this country has given ways to grander, more glorified sports spectacles. But purists will praise baseball because of what it represents, not only skill and stamina, but also heart and head.
Still, as a contest, there is a single undeniable fact: for every winner there is a loser, for every champion there is a runner-up. And no one has milked that disparity better—or with more creativity—than the fans of the Boston Red Sox. Oh sure, you could argue that the city of Chicago and their lovable losers, the Cubs, have crafted a symbiosis between defeat and delight that makes cheering the Bums a yearly ritual in the ridiculously sublime. The moment Steve Bartman fudged with a foul ball that many felt cost the team a trip to the 2003 World Series, it became another saga in the never-ending story of loss snatched out of the jaws of conquest for the Wrigley Field foul-ups (never mind it was also the best Cubs season in several decades…). But Boston has a better story, a more shameless example of sports stupidity permanently "cursing" an entire organization for more than four-fifths of a century. In 1919, the Boston Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees…and The Curse of the Bambino was born.
What the HBO Sports Special The Curse of the Bambino does best is highlight the over-reliance on this mythical piece of superstition in deference to several more cogent reasons for the Red Sox' lack of several current World Series Championships. Sure, the whole Babe Ruth retaliation for being traded/sold makes for stellar stories, and the versions told here are whoppers. Using a talking-head documentary format, with stock footage and occasional recreations for atmosphere and clarification, we get to know the whole account of owner Harry Frazee and the deal that doomed the Red Sox. With Masshole celebrities like Denis Leary, Steven Wright, and Michael Chiklis all chiming in on why this dumb deal was done, you'd figure there'd be some truth to the tall tale. But what we learn is that, like every great urban myth, the reasons for Ruth's departure were more complicated than the desire of a businessman to leverage his star for financing funds (Frazee was a Broadway producer).
From his incessant womanizing to complete lack of team spirit, the Babe was not an easy player to live with. Many analysts, both then and now, recognize that in the light of all the problems and liabilities the superstar created, his on-field skills were hardly equal compensation. To some, Frazee made the smart play. For others, he set in motion a voodoo directive, a blight from the Bambino himself, to guarantee the Red Sox never won another series. And they didn't. While there is no proof that Ruth held such ill will, to hear the pundits, fans, and sportswriters speak about it, the day George Herman left Beantown for the bright lights, pinstripes, and the "House that Ruth Built," the Boston franchise was forever doomed.
The Curse of the Bambino relishes such yarn-spinning sentiments and highlights them often. But it also delves into a much darker side of the Red Sox history, one only hinted at on other sports shows. From the fights over forced busing to the 12-year delay in actually integrating their own team once said philosophy was league dogma, Boston has faced slanderous and scandalous charges of racism (the revelation that many minority players put "no trade to Boston" clauses in their contracts is unsettling) and unbridled bigotry. And Curse shows that some of it is true. To witness and listen to how former owner Tom Yawkey, owner of the club from 1933 until 1977, lived out his Southern plantation fantasy with this decidedly white-bread team is disturbing in our supposedly more enlightened era. And the argument that Yawkey's failure to fully embrace players of color does tend to support the non-competitive nature of his organization during the 1930s through the '70s. But there are other elements at play in The Curse of the Bambino, and this wonderful film tries to cover them all. From foolish human errors to the very nature of free agency, the truth behind Ruth and his spell seems sillier by the moment. Even Fenway Park, with its daunting right field feature—the Big Green Monster—is included in the blame game, its specific dimensions and layout supposedly responsible for the personnel decisions over the last few decades (basically, General Managers choosing players who could compete against the beast, forgetting they play 50% of the games away from home).
Much of this documentary is cleverly comic and very tongue-in-cheek. How could it not be when sensational stories like that of the Ruth Pond Piano Crew (a team bent on finding, restoring, and playing said instrument to lift the curse) or the various New Age and Wicca witches (attempting to exorcise the evil spirits in Fenway) are presented alongside scholars and smart sportswriters. It's almost as if the filmmakers intended to let the audience decide who's right and who's ridiculous. Indeed, is all the nonsensical naysaying and reliance on trades, draft acquisitions, and management more rational than having a priest perform an ancient Catholic ritual to help the team win—especially when the coherent approach hasn't provided a single World Series win? The lack of a real world answer makes the supernatural seem that much more understandable.
But the best part of The Curse of the Bambino is the emotional impact and die-hard histrionics of average Red Sox fans, depressed in their defeatism and eternally optimistic that, somehow, their team's fortunes will turn around. To hear them relive moments of misery from seasons and series past (including the infamous ground ball bobbled by Bill Buckner in 1986, and Bucky Dent's devastating homerun in 1978) is to watch the true meaning of fandom, in both its pride and partisan circumstances. The Curse of the Bambino may not answer the question of whether Ruth's uprooting is really behind Boston's baseball blues, but like all great tall tales, it sure makes for an entertaining experience.
Offered by HBO Video in a bare-bones package, The Curse of the Bambino looks luxurious and amazing in a brilliant 1.33:1 full screen transfer. There is exceptional color correction and visual clarity, along with a real reliance on near-mint archival elements and a nice cross section of baseball's past. Aurally, the documentary is presented in distinctive Dolby Digital Stereo Surround, occasional immersive elements at play to make the "game day" moments seem that much more realistic. Ben Affleck narrates this feature, and you can occasionally catch a lilt in his voice, a tremor of emotion or a winking wisecracker crassness that enlivens the presentation. But HBO fails to provide a single set of extras—no trailers or team info, no update to include future season(s) or events.
Indeed, in 2003, it looked like history was about to be made. The Red Sox were one game away from going to the World Series, facing the eternal rival Yankees again for pennant bragging rights. On the other side of the country, Chicago was working overtime to beat the Florida Marlins and make it to the big show. A dream series was envisioned…the loveable loser Cubs vs. the cursed Red Sox. Writers warmed up their laptops and broke out the thesauruses to prepare for the historical accolades this match-up would create. But then reality set in. Both Cinderella teams lost, and the upstart Miami misfits beat the Bronx Bombers to win a second Series title (a second in seven years, mind you). For Chicago fans, the failure to make it seemed like a bad dream. And while Boston could relish the defeat of their bitter rival, the questions came crawling back. Was Frazee's folly the reason for the failure to make it to the Championship…again? Was there ever going to be a cure for the bewitching the Babe put on his former team? Then, during the off-season, the Sox blew a chance to get arguably the best player in baseball, Alex Rodriguez, from the Texas Rangers. Where did A-Rod end up? The New York Yankees, of course. And there was the feeling again. Was it fate that dealt this blow, or the ever-present Curse of the Bambino? Like the superstitions of the rest of baseball, this documentary leaves it up to you to decide.
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