The Pedro Borbon
Voodoo Hex

Was one of the most successful baseball franchises in history undone by bad management or bad mojo?

taken from ChinMusic#4

by Mr. Brian Baker

Over the years, there are words and phrases that have been associated with baseball teams and players that evoke very palpable memories and responses. The Brown Bomber. The Green Monster. The Bambino. The Amazing Mets. Joltin' Joe. One of the most recognizable and formidable of these catch phrases from the history of baseball describes what was arguably the most concentrated collection of talent ever assembled on a single major league team: The Big Red Machine. The Cincinnati Reds in the mid-'70s were a juggernaut of offense and defense, nearly invincible in must-win situations, and unstoppable once they claimed a lead. The contributors included Johnny Bench, who was busy rewriting the catchers' handbook for generations to come, reliable infielder Tony "Doggie" Perez, who excelled at hitting in the clutch, slugging Joe Morgan, manager/heating and cooling expert Sparky Anderson, and, of course, eventual all-time hit leader Pete Rose. That roll call alone would have been enough to propel most teams into the World Series, but the Reds were even deeper than that, with an ace pitching staff and an incredible bench for rotating players in key situations, a strategic talent that Sparky would take with him to Detroit in the '80s, and that ultimately earned him a well-deserved spot in Cooperstown this year as the only manager to ring up world championships in both leagues. The Reds' back-to-back Series wins in '75-'76 were among the most thrilling baseball games ever broadcast. But almost immediately after the '76 season, general manager Bob Howsam began overhauling the Big Red Machine, to the point that once he had it put back together, there were pieces left over and rather than fix it properly he discarded the leftovers. The mess that was left in the wake of idiot trades and blown dealmaking would haunt the Reds throughout most of the '80s. One of Howsam's final acts was to trade Perez to Montreal, a deal that he publicly regrets to this very day. Shortly thereafter, Howsam resigned as general manager, to be replaced by Dick Wagner, who continued Howsam's destruction of the Machine. It was Wagner who would commit the greatest atrocity in Cincinnati sports history by losing Joe Morgan and Pete Rose to free agency, an idea that Wagner found abhorent and refused to acknowledge as a legitimate baseball business maneuver. (20 years later, local sports personality Dennis 'Wildman' Walker still ends his sportscasts on WEBN radio with this occasional postscript: "Pete Rose forever, Dick Wagner never!") But there is another side to the story that has far more sinister repercussions than the moronic business dealings of a little tin GM. A substantial number of baseball players are ruled by their superstitions, compelled by primal forces to maintain a hitting or pitching or winning streak by dressing in the same order before every game, or wearing some talisman of luck, or eating the same meal. And it is this very superstitious nature of some of the game's best players that may have led to the downfall of the post-Big Red Machine Reds. It has been alleged down the years that pitching ace Pedro Borbon, one of the finest arms to ever spring from the Dominican Republic, and certainly one of the truly vital components of the Big Red Machine, was so incensed at being traded in 1979 that he put a voodoo curse on the Reds that lasted for an entire decade. There was little hard evidence supporting the Borbon hex story as anything more than an odd urban legend of sorts. Weeks of web surfing turned up not one single reference to the curse, and Cincinnati Enquirer sportswriter Tim Sullivan, who has been covering the Reds for the better part of the last 15 years, including the majority of the regrettable '80s, had never heard anything about the purported hex. Sullivan suggested contacting veteran sports scribe Hal McCoy, staff writer at the Dayton Daily News and assigned to the Reds for the past 28 years, to determine the veracity of the story. McCoy verified the whole thing. "I'm shocked that Tim Sullivan doesn't know that story," McCoy said in response to our original local dead end. "It is absolutely true. Borbon was big into voodoo and curses and cockfighting. When he was traded, he said he was putting a curse on the Reds and they'd never win again." So strong is the power of ritual and superstition in baseball that the mere suggestion of an official otherworldly sanction against a team might be enough to make it real. The Red Sox "curse," invoked when they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919, was still being groaned about nearly 70 years later when Bill Buckner misplayed a sure ground out in Game 6 in the 1986 Series against the Mets, ultimately costing the Sox the world championship. Of course, the question of the Reds' hex becomes one of perspective - did the dismal '80s inspire the legend of the curse, or did the curse inspire the legendarily dismal '80s? There is at least some empirical evidence to suggest the latter. Looking at the Reds' teams during the decade of the hex, it's clear that they had an incredible amount of talent in nearly every year. Whether that talent was enough to win despite Borbon's mojo is a matter of pure conjecture, but there is no disputing the fact that throughout the '80s, the Reds seemed to possess the caliber of players that would lead many sportswriters to pick them to win their division, only to see them falter and fade by season's end. A quick look at the Reds of the '80s shows an odd pattern of losing despite their better than average chances each year. The Reds actually won the division in the second half of the strike shortened 1981 season, but lost in the initial playoff round. After that, the Reds occupied a variety of also-ran spots in the divisional standings, including three consecutive second place finishes from 1986-88, and back-to-back last place finishes in 1982 and '83. Even more intriguing is the fact that the Reds were the only team in the NL West that didn't win a divisional championship in the '80s. The story of the hex is strange enough in its own right, but the story of its dissolution looms even larger in the history of baseball in general and the Reds in particular. After the end of the 1988 season, the Reds' made some key acquisitions and moves (including Todd Benzinger and Mariano Duncan in '88, and Billy Hatcher, Glenn Braggs, and Hal Morris in '89) and put together what many observers considered to be the worthy successor of the Big Red Machine of the '70s. But with all of the high hopes for the impending season, there was a single dark cloud that obscured the view of the 1990 season: the curse. "The Reds had a good team in 1990, one that folks thought had a chance to win," McCoy recalls. "I don't know who did it, but somebody who knew about Borbon's curse got in touch and asked him to lift it. He said he would and did. Curious, yes, but also true." So, at the behest of a party or parties unknown, Pedro Borbon erased the mojo that his former team had been living under for all of the '80s. McCoy said that when he heard about the curse being dismissed, he immediately contacted Borbon for a response, and said that he replied, "Yeah, I lifted it. I told everybody when they traded me that I was putting a curse on them and they'd never win again. The people who did me wrong are not with the team any more, so now I don't care if they win." The team took Borbon at his word. The 1990 Reds won their first game of the season, and never looked back, compiling a record of 91-71, going wire-to-wire in first place to win the NL West division, dominating the playoffs against the Pirates to win the NL Championship, and ultimately taking four straight away from Tony LaRussa's heavily favored Oakland A's for the world championship. The synchronicity of the two occurrences is hard to ignore. The team that won it all in 1990 was virtually the same team that had finished a desultory fifth the previous year. Were the Cincinnati Reds destined to lose for an entire decade because of ancient forces unfathomable to modern man? Or were they simply undone by the hamfisted maneuverings of dimwitted baseball savants who accidentally assembled the greatest team in sports history and then purposefully dismantled it? The truth, as we know from the X-Files, is out there, but, in the case of the Reds' hex, it may forever remain unknown and unknowable.

Tess Lotta, ultimate fabulous babe and card-carrying member the bass-player bad-ass jet-set, is also affiliated to the fine folks from Vain hair care products. We at ChinMusic! use and endorse their excellent line of quality products. Especially the čber-excellent Intervention and Stick-Up. Tess is loved and revered by all.

Garth Brooks on the other hand gave up his baseball dream just prior to the start of the 1999 season.



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