Editor’s note: The following story appeared in The Kansas City Star in November 2008 but seems every bit as relevant today. Without further comment, we offer it for your review, discussion and lament.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
Strange. Turns out the evil plaguing Kansas City’s pro football and baseball teams the last 15 years looks nothing like Carl Peterson’s ego or David Glass’ wallet.
It looks, well, harmless. The evil comes in two parts, each 18 feet long, mostly white with orange tips, and made of aluminum and plastic. It is displayed in the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum. You may know this evil as the Shuttlecocks.
From now on, you should know it as Kansas City’s sports curse:
The Curse of the Shuttlecocks.
“I don’t think anybody here wants to talk about that,” says a Nelson-Atkins Museum spokesman.
He’s either a non-believer or part of a cover-up — can’t tell for sure — but by the end of this story, you will know exactly why our teams have been cursed going on 15 years. Chicago has its Billy Goat, Sports Illustrated has its cover, and John Madden has his video game.
Here in Kansas City, we have our Shuttlecocks.
It is our local sports curse, discovered recently by Kansas City Museum director Christopher Leitch and now made public for the first time.
Glass’ fight hasn’t been one of a small market, but rather one of a small ectoplasmic market. Peterson hasn’t been inept, he’s been fighting against a disruption of the space-time continuum.
•In the three NFL seasons before the Nelson-Atkins commissioned the Shuttlecocks, the Chiefs won three playoff games.
•In the 10 baseball seasons before the Shuttlecocks, the Royals had seven winning seasons and a world championship.
•In the 29 combined seasons since, the Chiefs have won zero playoff games and the Royals have just one winning record.
“Wow, I didn’t know that,” says Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe. “I mean, wow. For real?”
You nod yes. He pauses, looks in the distance, and now back in your eyes.
“They need to take ’em down then, man.”
Curses are a time-honored tradition in our sports world. Google returns more than a million results for “sports curses.” Fans have noted at least 51 curses of varying degrees of validity on Wikipedia.
Books have been written, beers have been downed, arguments started, and hearts and televisions broken over sports curses. And this is more than witchcraft, too. New research shows that human brains are wired to believe in magic, which explains why people have gone into and out of sickness based on nothing more than curses.
“It’s great to make light of it,” says Phil Stevens, a professor from Buffalo who’s spent 25 years studying such things. “But it can get into the collective psyche. It is fundamentally human.”
A Greek immigrant named Billy Sianis paid $7.20 for a box seat to game four of the 1945 World Series at Wrigley Field. For reasons that still aren’t clear, he brought his pet goat, and for reasons that seem pretty obvious, the Cubs ejected him.
Furious at the disrespect, Sianis supposedly cursed the Cubs to never reach the World Series at Wrigley Field again.
They haven’t, and anybody who remembers the look on Moises Alou’s face when Steve Bartman interfered with that foul ball in the 2003 playoffs might just think there’s something to the goat black magic.
“The look was, ‘Oh, (expletive), it’s happening again,’ ” says Randy Roberts, who wrote a book on sports curses. “If you believe you’re cursed, you can look for things to go wrong.”
Various curses say no Mets pitcher will ever throw a no-hitter after the team traded Nolan Ryan, the Arizona Cardinals have a history of stinking because the franchise undeservedly claims the 1925 NFL title, and the Giants either can’t win a World Series because they left New York — or they won’t until their broadcaster Mike Krukow stops predicting it.
Oh, and also, Cleveland’s pro teams can’t win for any number of reasons that include Jim Brown retiring from the NFL to star in “The Dirty Dozen.”
So much of sports curses — including everything in this story — is silly, but it can’t hurt Kansas City’s chances at defeating the Shuttlecocks’ jinx that the last four years have picked off hexes with the type of precision Chiefs fans wanted from Lin Elliott.
Curses of Len Bias (Celtics), Keith Hernandez (St. Louis Cardinals), Billy Penn (Phillies), the Bambino (Red Sox) and the Black Sox (White Sox) have all been zapped since 2004.
Maybe if we embrace the Curse of the Shuttlecocks, we can eventually overcome it.
“I don’t believe in it,” Chiefs kicker Connor Barth says. “But where is that? I’ll have to check it out.”
This is the painful part. Some old wounds might open. Apologies in advance, but enough sitting around and listening to other cities’ claims of sports ineptitude when the Curse of the Shuttlecocks continues to make losers of the Chiefs and Royals.
It’s time those other cities — we’re looking at you, Cleveland — take a good, hard look at what those blasted birdies have done to our two major pro teams.
The Shuttlecocks date back to Clinton’s first term. They’ve been here as O.J. rode in the white Bronco, Will Smith’s movies produced more than $5 billion, and the Backstreet Boys made it, went away, then came back again.
More to the point, the Shuttlecocks have seen years seven through 20 (and counting?) of Carl Peterson’s five-year plan. They’ve watched Elvis Grbac miss passes and Elliott miss field goals, saw Neil Smith swing for the fences at Arrowhead Stadium and win championships with the Broncos.
Two Chiefs teams have gone 13-3 and lost their first playoff game. Dick Vermeil’s “Greatest Show on Turf” never got going on the grass in Kansas City. Each time the police have been called to Blonde for Larry Johnson, their lights have flashed less than a mile from the Shuttlecocks.
On the Shuttlecocks’ watch, coaches for both teams have found out they’ve been fired from sources other than their boss. Gunther Cunningham read about it on the Internet, and Tony Muser heard from a reporter for The Star.
The Curse of the Shuttlecocks could be blamed for any number of Royals disasters. Kerry Robinson climbed the center-field fence to rob a home run only to see it bounce on the warning track and over his head. Ken Harvey was hit in the back with a cutoff throw. David DeJesus was picked off when he — literally — fell off first base.
Tony Peña showered with his clothes on, Muser told everyone to drink tequila, and Buddy Bell lost 19 games in a row. You know, when Bell said he’ll “never say it can’t get worse,” maybe he knew all about the Shuttlecocks.
“Sounds like to me that you want someone to remove those badminton birdies,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore says. “We’ve got more to worry about than the Shuttlecocks.”
Moore and Barth and everybody else can pooh-pooh our Shuttlecocks theory all they want. And maybe it hurts a little that Roberts, the guy who bylined a book on sports curses, says, “I’m not validating your curse.”
But closed-mindedness is an ugly thing, which is why it’s so nice to hear from Bowe.
“Evidently some of these guys might believe in it,” he says. “What can I do to help out with this?”
You tell him that the first step is education, so you go through Leitch’s theory, that the installation of the Shuttlecocks “occasioned a displacement of the ectoplasma energetic fluctuations of the space-time continuum,” which resulted in “a steady shift toward the fine arts and gallery scene in Kansas City, away from success in sports.”
You relay to Bowe what Leitch says about the cultural energy following the Shuttlecocks, effectively zapping the Truman Sports Complex of success and taking it closer to midtown — to the opening of the World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, to the Nelson-Atkins expansion, to the Kansas City Museum’s restoration and the revitalization of the Crossroads district.
There is only so much ectoplasmic real estate to go around, and right now it’s going toward people who paint canvases, not their faces.
“It’s like a black hole,” Leitch explains, “of artistic and cultural influence compounding its gravitational implications, ripple-like, on the rest of the community.”
Bowe listens to all of this. You tell him that Leitch hopes the public unveiling of this curse has the effect of “switching on the light and watching the roaches scatter,” that this is “activist journalism of the highest caliber,” and that the Royals and Chiefs might soon find their way.
Bowe smiles. He nods. He still wants to know what he can do to reverse The Curse of the Shuttlecocks.
You suggest he get Tony Gonzalez, Zack Greinke and Alex Gordon together, rent a big truck and steal the Shuttlecocks.
“Can’t do that,” Bowe says, “I need these guys on Sundays.”
There’s a pause. He thinks. Then it comes to him.
“Maybe I’ll get some of my homies from back home in Miami — they’ll be sure to do it.”