Sunday evening, as the University of Cincinnati’s Bearcats started their second-round game in the NCAA tournament against Nevada, UC forward Kyle Washington was in flex mode, extending his jaw and jutting his biceps as his team jumped out to a big early lead. My father casually said, in the direction of the TV, “Don’t get too cocky.” It was a line repeated a few times over the next hour or so.
The defensive and offensive proficiency was exciting, but it’s hard for most Cincinnati sports fans — burned so many times before — to fully get comfortable and enjoy such things.
In the second half, the Bearcats were still in complete control of the game. This year’s team has been phenomenal, but in big games, it always seemed to be a scrap until the final buzzer. Up 22, I wrote a text to a friend: “It’s weird to watch the Bearcats in an important game and feel so confident they’re going to win.” But because of the wounded-puppy syndrome from which most Cincinnati sports fans suffer, I stopped myself before I sent it. “I don’t want to jinx it,” I thought as I deleted the text.
About 10 minutes later, I second-guessed my decision — perhaps not sending the text jinxed it! The Bearcats lost the game within the final 10 seconds. The 22-point swing in the final 11 minutes was an upset for the ages, one of the biggest comebacks in the tournament’s history.
My “jinx” worry was a classic sports-fan defense mechanism. In reality, one team started to play really well, and the other started playing really poorly. But that can’t be all it was. It was the referees’ fault (see: Xavier’s meltdown later that night)! The fans were taken out of the game and didn’t cheer hard enough! The coaching decisions were atrocious!
But sometimes there seems to be something else at work. Something inexplicable, but also easily explained. The ultimate otherworldly excuse for a sports team’s failure to win “the big game.”
On Feb. 4, 1991, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s Board of Directors passed a resolution in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s election rules making it so anyone who is deemed “permanently ineligible” by Major League Baseball is also ineligible for election into the Hall of Fame. The rule is technically Rule 3(E), but it’s basically the “Pete Rose Rule.” On Aug. 24, 1989, the Cincinnati sports icon voluntarily accepted a permanent ban from MLB. Rose has since fought the permanent bans — stemming from his betting on MLB games — and is now seen by most in the general public as one of baseball’s all-time best “quirky characters,” rather than one of the game’s all-time best players (which he certainly was, by any measure).
For anyone who has remotely paid attention to Cincinnati’s major sports teams since then, a deliberate assessment of the performance of those teams in the years since that 1991 announcement isn’t required. Teams from Cincinnati have not won a national championship since the Cincinnati Reds hoisted the World Series trophy on Oct. 20, 1990 in Oakland. It was the last time fans ran through the streets of downtown in celebration. And it was the beginning of what feels like a permanent unease that comes with watching your favorite Cincinnati sports team in a game. Anyone born on or after Oct. 21, 1990 has never experienced a Cincinnati championship.
Teams have been on the road to a championship a few times, and they’ve often failed spectacularly, historically and, yes, seemingly supernaturally. On the day before the Bearcats’ tournament loss, I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in the best way I — as a sober, non-religious person of Irish heritage — knew how, watching a few hours of the SYFY network’s Leprechaun movie marathon. In the third installment of the classic kitschy “horror/comedy” series, a college student wishes for a lucky streak at the casino in which he just lost all of his money. Because he has one of the titular leprechaun’s lucky gold coins, his wish comes true and he starts hitting it big on the roulette wheel. But the luck doesn’t manifest itself invisibly — somehow beyond the notice of the casino employee working the wheel, whenever he places the magic coin on his stack of chips, they move — Ouija-board style, without being touched — to the winning number.
While it’s easy to dismiss the Pete Rose/Cincinnati sports curse as some kind of TV-psychic mumbo jumbo, like those casino chips moving across the table all by themselves, local teams’ implausible, absolutely freakish meltdowns have happened in plain sight, with millions watching. And, though there is plenty of evidence, you don’t have to go back to the ’90s to tortuously relive those games and moments. Most of the worst have happened within the past five years.
In 2013, the Cincinnati Reds had a fantastic regular season, but limped to the finish line, necessitating a one-off play-in game against the Pirates, from Cincinnati sports’ nemesis city, Pittsburgh. The Reds were favored to win because their pitching ace Johnny Cueto was on the mound. But the game was in Pittsburgh and psyched-up fans who hadn’t seen their Pirates in a play-off game in 20 years were deafeningly loud. After Cueto gave up a home run in the second inning, fans amped up their “CUE-TO, CUE-TO” chants even more. Cueto took a minute to compose himself, wiped his brow and then… dropped the baseball. The chants grew even louder and the next pitch Cueto threw was launched into the left-field seats. Homerun. Pirates 2; Reds 0. By the time the Reds scored their second run, the Pirates had 6 and were on their way to the playoffs. On Wikipedia’s “Pittsburgh Sports Lore” page, this game has its own section titled “The Drop Heard ’Round the World.”
Also on the “Pittsburgh Sports Lore” page is a section for “The Collapse.” In early 2016, the Cincinnati Bengals seemed destined to break their playoff-win drought under head coach Marvin Lewis when they made a miraculous comeback against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers dominated the Bengals in the AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Paul Brown Stadium until the fourth quarter. The Bengals overcame a 15-0 Steelers lead after a touchdown with under two minutes left in the game. Up 16-15, the defense got the ball back almost immediately with an interception and the offense just needed to run out the clock, seconds away from taking a knee. Then running back Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball. A wounded Ben Roethlisberger was back in the game, but still had to lead the Steelers a long way to get into field-goal range. Two consecutive defensive penalties helped add 30 yards to their drive and the Steelers kicked a fairly easy field goal with 14 seconds left to win the game.
There was a lot of talk on social media about the Bearcats experiencing the worst meltdown in Cincinnati sports history (I’d point you to the paragraph above for the actual worst), but after Xavier’s loss in the tournament later Sunday, talk turned to it being the worst night in Cincinnati sports history (again, hard to top the paragraph above). Musketeers fans were still reveling in Xavier’s No. 1 seed in the tournament, a first. The Muskies had to feel especially confident in their chances of beating No. 9 seed Florida State and many fans were even more buzzed about their crosstown rivals’ loss in the game prior. At halftime, Xavier was up two, but with just over two minutes left, Florida had overcome a 12-point deficit and tied the game. A minute later, a clutch Florida State 3-pointer put them up for good. Xavier lost 75-70.
The Pete Rose curse strikes again. Twice. On the same night. In the same city. In the same arena. And we all saw it, no magic coin necessary.
Sports curses have been blamed on everything from goats and a player’s on-field blunder to unspoken building code violations. So putting Cincinnati’s sports problems on the scandalous escapades of the city’s biggest homegrown superstar seems completely reasonable. Or at least reasonable enough to be the cause of an alleged “curse.”
But there is hope. While local sports fans might feel particularly lonely right now (“Why does this only happen to us!?”), the sports curse is a global phenomenon. Cincinnati is far from alone in the entire-city curse, and many of those cities have seen them reversed in recent years. Cleveland and Houston ended their championship droughts in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Philadelphia’s curse — the city’s teams hadn’t won a championship since the 76ers swept the NBA Finals in 1983 — was alleged to be the curse of William Penn. Fans believed that when a verbal agreement to not construct any buildings higher than the statute of Penn atop city hall was broken in 1987, the curse kicked in. But the Eagles broke the curse with this year’s Super Bowl.
Surely you’re asking yourself — what can Cincinnati do to see our sports curse reversed? It hard to say, definitively, as the media and fans seem to forget about curses once they are broken, so finding the flashpoint for the breaking is difficult. And since logical solutions like fans cheering louder and me not sending that text are not working, it’s anyone’s guess. But here are a few suggestions. Having seen several movies about curses and hexes and magic in my life (Big, The Craft, Leprechaun 3), I am an expert on the topic, so one or a combination of these will definitely work.
• Some sort of statement or gesture from Pete Rose himself. Is Pete Rose a man-witch? In his anger and frustration over the lifetime ban from baseball and its hall of fame, did Pete put a hex on Cincinnati sports? Can he reverse it? I bet for $100 he’d be willing to write on a baseball, “I take back my 1991 curse of Cincinnati sports teams.” Keep an eye out for his next autograph signing. If enough of us do that, it should do the trick.
• Get Pete Rose into the Hall of Fame. If a campaign can be devised to get Donald Trump elected to the highest office in the land, with the help of some evil geniuses, getting Pete into the Hall can’t be that hard, right? Let’s rig Facebook or get some help from Russian operatives to put serious pressure on the Hall of Fame’s members and the baseball writers who elect them.
• A tasteful sacrifice. Do not try to hurt Pete Rose! Despite his faults, many Cincinnatians love him and want what’s best for him. So instead, perhaps some sort of other sacrifice would unlock the curse. Burning effigies has monstrous connotations — as do en-masse bonfire burnings — so maybe it could be something as simple as breaking an item of Rose memorabilia, forsaking its questionable future value for the sake of Cincinnati sports as a whole. A sacrifice to the sports gods. Rip out a few pages of My Prison Without Bars. Put a very moist beverage on that cardboard coaster you got Pete to sign at his Perkins-style restaurant back in the day. Get Chris Sabo to sign his name overtop of Pete’s on that autographed baseball you paid $100 for. Let’s pick a day and everyone do it all at once — Feb. 4 might work. Or Jan. 4 (aka 1/4, for Pete’s jersey number)?
• A sports-wide acknowledgement of the curse. On Opening Day, at the first Bengals game of 2018, at the start of next year’s college basketball season and maybe even when/if FC Cincinnati gets their new soccer stadium built, every team should have a “Reverse the Pete Rose Curse Day.” Make some t-shirts. Shoot them into the crowd. Hold a ceremony. Invite Pete to all of the ceremonies. Let the crowds chant “PEEEEEEETE,” followed by “STTTOOOPPPPP IIIIITTTT.” Bam — no more curse. (Maybe?)
• Ride it out. Besides arguing on sports talk radio and quietly crying in bed at night, no one did anything to break the curses in Cleveland or Philadelphia. Baseball season starts soon. The Bengals 2018 campaign begins in about seven months. And we’re about 365 days from the start of the 2019 NCAA basketball tournament. Just hold tight. Maybe this calling-out of the Pete Rose curse will finally put an end to it. Fingers crossed.