The Curse of Bonds, or, Is This Blog on Human Growth Hormone?!

Is this blog on HGH? We've already sprouted some more muscle in the form of a new contributing editor, Art Remillard. Art edits the Journal of Southern Religion and so writes about the South, of course, but he's got a side interest as well in religion and sports, hence his first post below! Here's a quick bio, then his post!

Art Remillard teaches at St. Francis University (Loretto, PA) and directs their study abroad program. His scholarship focuses on religion in the American South and religion and sports. Recently, Art composed an article, “From Muscular Christianity to Divine Madness: Sports and/as Religion in America,” for Chuck Lippy’s three volume series entitled, Faith in America.

Cursing in the Church (of Baseball)
By Art Remillard

There’s trouble afoot in Church of Baseball. A heretic is poised to inscribe his name on the immortal tablets of the game. His name: Barry Bonds. His sin: steroid use. The threat: the imminent possibility that the “sinner” Bonds will eclipse Hank Aaron’s career homerun record. From my admittedly under-informed perspective, it seems that journalists, purists, players, and fans (outside of San Francisco) simply don’t like Bonds. They root against him with delight. They find him arrogant, unapproachable, and unrepentant for his pharmaceutical pitfalls. None of this matters, though. Bonds is confidently poised to break the record.

“But,” wonders the baseball faithful, “what if he could be stopped”?

If nature takes its course, the slugger will no doubt find solid contact with many more fastballs. Until Thursday (July 19), however, Bonds was riding a hitless streak, causing Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle to wonder…

Bonds announced on the fifth of this month, a Thursday, that he would not participate in the Home Run Derby. Snap went Peter Magowan, the Giants’ managing general partner. Imagine if your only daughter is getting married, you’re planning a lavish and extravagant event, and her fiance announces that he will attend the marriage ceremony but he won’t participate in the reception. “I’m tired,” he explains wearily. “It’s been a long courtship, and I need to save my energy for the honeymoon.” Bonds singled July 5. His no-Derby announcement hit the papers the next day. Since then: Zip. Seven games played, no hits, no homers, thanks for stopping by. Magowan probably didn’t want to resort to a curse, but his options were limited. How else could he properly express his sense of outrage at the betrayal of his loyalty and generosity?

So Bonds has been cursed—of course! I wonder whether others are also cursing Bonds. I haven’t followed baseball closely since the Pittsburgh Pirates were actually good (in the early 1990s). Then, Bonds was a Pirate, and notably skinnier. Living near Pittsburgh once again, I sense Steel City fans still ruefully recall Bonds’s sub-standard playoff performances, epitomized by his failure to throw out a limping Atlanta base runner (Sid Bream) at home plate during a critical playoff game in 1992. There are those fans who still reason that Bonds alone had cost the team the National League Championship that year. And that his tainted spirit infected the Pirates like a virus, a team that has stunk up the league ever since he left. What if, then, Pittsburghers are joining Magowan, projecting their collective curse derived from a bitter memory? Oh poor Barry—so many curses to endure.

The strange intermingling of athletics and religious language never ceases to grab my attention. It forces me to think about what religion is, and where I may find it. In some settings, cursing is a decidedly religious act, wherein a spiritual specialist conjures unfavorable forces against an assigned foe for some perceived wrongdoing. Can we properly call a baseball curse a religious act?

In his Authentic Fakes, David Chidester argues that “the traces of transcendence, the sacred, and the ultimate” exist throughout American popular culture, baseball included. My friend and colleague Joe Price, author of Rounding the Bases, has also examined the intersection of religion and baseball. In an article about curses, he concludes that “the culture of curses [in baseball] thrives because of the larger system of superstitions from which it draws its energy and support.” In other words, the act of cursing is part of a tendency to favor superstition, as demonstrated when players and fans describe events not simply as products of dumb luck, but rather as moments when divine forces have intervened, for better or worse. Perhaps Price is correct, and the example of cursing in baseball represents a “trace” of religion. Or perhaps I need to stop considering such matters, and instead join my fellow Western Pennsylvanians in sending malevolent wishes to San Francisco.


Kelly J. Baker said…
Welcome aboard, Art!
Randall said…

Enjoyed your entry. I haven't thought much about this but there is so much there once you look a little closer. Why are baseball players so superstitious when compared to athletes in other sports? Chicken bones on foul lines. Same socks worn over and over again. Does it have to do with the nature of the game? I wonder if any team’s management has consulted a psychic or voodoo priest(ess)? Would cricketers turn to Anglican Bishops or horoscopes?

The Brooklyn Dodgers documentary that recently aired on HBO offered some insight: I had no idea: a Brooklyn priest had his congregation offer prayers for Gil Hodges when the first baseman went 0-21 during the 1952 World Series. It seemed to do the trick. I wonder how many Assemblies of God or Nazarene churches in my hometown, KC, have been praying for perennial losers, the Royals. If so, it hasn’t worked.

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