Who cursed the Yankees? AL Wild Card loss raises spectral question

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 05: Adam Ottavino #0 of the Boston Red Sox (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 05: Adam Ottavino #0 of the Boston Red Sox (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

As I watched the New York Yankees go out quietly to the Boston Red Sox in the 2021 AL Wild Card game (except you Giancarlo Stanton, you get a gold star), I tried to think of what I could say.

Following Nathan Eovaldi’s dominant performance, I could comment on how the Yankees fail year after year to sign elite pitching … but then again, it’s hard to get more elite than Gerrit Cole.

I could also comment on how the Yankees have failed to prioritize power over consistency at the plate, with none of their current hitters batting .300. Then again, the Yankees went into the season with at least two viable .300 (or near-.300) hitters in D.J. LeMahieu and Gio Urshela. And sometimes, the type of player you need simply isn’t available to acquire.

I could also point out that even the best baseball teams lose quite regularly, and one game is but a small sample size. I could take solace in the fact that, overall, Eovaldi is a very good pitcher, but that the Yankees easily could’ve beaten him on any given night. That would be a rational response, but it doesn’t feel right in the heat of the moment.

With no easy answers for why the Yankees lost this all-important game, I have no choice but to turn to an alternative explanation: a curse. Yankees fans know curses well. We helped inflict one on Boston in 1919 when we acquired Babe Ruth from the Sox and deprived them of a World Series title for 86 years.

But with Boston having won four titles since 2004, it’s very much evident that the tables have turned. There may be a specter haunting the Bronx, and now we must do detective work and figure out why this is the case.

The Manager’s Curse 

The Yankees didn’t technically fire Joe Girardi after the 2017 season, but it sure felt that way.  Girardi was let go after 10 years with the team, despite guiding an unlikely Yankees team within one game of the World Series. Girardi’s dismissal felt like the breaking of an unwritten rule. While the Yankees may have had reason to want another manager, Girardi hadn’t done anything to necessarily deserve his fate.

If Girardi cursed his former club, he may have targeted one player in particular. Girardi notoriously benched Gary Sánchez after the young catcher made a series of defensive blunders. Sánchez was a truly promising talent under Girardi, batting .299 in 2016 and .278 in 2017 and took the league by storm with his power.

In the four years since Girardi left, Sánchez has struggled to bad above the Mendoza line, and his defense has hardly improved. He hasn’t started a playoff game for the Yankees since 2019.

The Slighted Shortstop

Perhaps Girardi found a co-conspirator in Philadelphia. Upon signing with the Phillies in the 2019-20 offseason, former Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius made clear that he was disappointed not to have returned to the team where he’d made a star of himself over five seasons. While Gregorius should have expected to be let go, given the seasons Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu had produced at the time, he felt particularly jilted as, by his account, the Yankees barely even tried to contact him.

Torres, who took over shortstop from Gregorius, has struggled mightily in the two seasons since his predecessor left. Torres’ performance has, however, improved over the last few weeks with the Yankees deciding to let him return to second base. Perhaps the devious Didi had decided that if he couldn’t be the Yankee shortstop, then no one could.

Furthermore, Gregorius has made comments about how Sánchez might benefit from a change of scenery. What gave Gregorius this insight? Could it be that he knows that El Gary is playing on cursed grounds?

That’s What You Get for Giving Up On Me

Eovaldi has now won two playoff games against the Yankees, his former team. The right-hander pitched for the 2015 and 2016 Bombers, and while he did nothing to distinguish himself, he achieved enough as a young pitcher (particularly in 2015 when he put up a 2.3 WAR), that he perhaps deserved more time beyond 2016, but it wasn’t to be.

Eovaldi injured his right elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. And just to make his recovery all the easier, the Yankees released him. Granted, in the cut-throat world of baseball contracts, releasing an injured player it not a particularly sinister decision. Still, it may have been enough of a chip on Nasty Nate’s shoulder to motivate him to two playoff wins against the Yankees (and perhaps to engage in some dark magic as well).

You Could Have Sent Me Anywhere Else!

I didn’t know much about relief pitcher Adam Ottavino when he first signed with the Yankees ahead of the 2019 season. I quickly developed a liking for him, however, when he shared a picture of himself as a young Yankees fan getting an autograph from David Cone. Ottavino, in fact, was born in Manhattan. This guy was a New Yorker!

But it all went south.

When the Yankees traded Ottavino (for cash and a player to be named later), he became the first Yankee traded to the Red Sox since 2014. Given how little the Yankees expected in return for Ottavino because of his high salary, one has to wonder whether Brian Cashman and Co. had shown enough respect for their reliever to at least consider trading him to literally any other team than the one he likely reviled as a young kid.

While Otto did not factor into Boston’s victory over New York, part of me wonders whether he was the puppet master behind Cole’s struggles on the mound. Cole, like Ottavino, celebrated his arrival in the Bronx by sharing a picture from his childhood as a Yankees fan. Ottavino took a hit to his childhood memories, and perhaps he spitefully wanted Cole to suffer the same fate.

On a related note, Ottavino famously claimed that Babe Ruth would’ve never gotten a hit off of him. Given this swagger, Ottavino seems like one who would have the ambition to re-cast and reverse the famous curse Ruth cast on Boston.

Unlucky No. 13

The Yankees, to their credit, have retired many numbers over the years. Nonetheless, for the sake of preserving two-digit numbers, not every important Yankee has been afforded this honor. Alex Rodriguez is probably the best Yankee whose number has not been taken out of circulation, and after a five-year hiatus, his number, 13 was given to a fellow former Texas Rangers slugger in Joey Gallo.

Rodriguez was on ESPN’s broadcast team for the fateful Yankees-Red Sox game, and he wasn’t exactly kind to the struggling Gallo. He repeatedly said that if Boston could pitch around Giancarlo Stanton, they would be rewarded with the safe “landing strip” of Gallo.

If you’re a team looking for excuses not to retire every number in existence, chances are you’re going to pass on the guy who was suspended a whole season for performance-enhancing drug use (especially if that guy was suspended for a second time offense, after supposedly apologizing for his past use).

If A-Rod were objective, he would know that the Yankees aren’t going to retire his number. But then again, A-Rod was also willing to hail the comeback story of Red Sox manager Alex Cora, ignoring that Cora only had to “come back” because he too had served a year-long suspension for cheating.

A-Rod may present himself as a Yankee for life, but curses can come from the most innocuous of places. If Gallo is still in New York in 2022, I’m inclined to think he’ll regain his All-Star form. Then again, a secretly vindictive slugger-turned-dark-magician could keep that from happening.