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Born Under a Bad Sign

Today, June 11, is a day sacred to Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck. Luck, or more appropriately, the lack of luck, is a subject familiar to all followers of the hapless Cleveland Indians. Every team suffers misfortune, of course. Some teams catch more than their share of breaks (see the Cincinnati Reds this season). But the Tribe has been different. The Indians get dumped on, year in and year out. The Romans considered Fortuna to be a fickle or wayward woman. But Clevelanders see little of this, because for us she shows only one side: her bad one.

There are many examples. Consider the recent draft. Three (or was it four?) premium talents, followed by a legion of also-rans. Where does the Tribe draft? Fifth, of course, just out of the money. It's supposed to even out, but it doesn't. The best Tribe team in 80 years, and what happens? A strike. Snow. Fingers. Boras. And so on and so forth.

So what, you might ask, and you would be right. Bemoaning Cleveland luck won’t get you very far, and it’s not an endearing habit. Nor is it original. But lately I’ve been thinking about the place of Fortuna in baseball, and it has given me pause. There are times when I believe the entire game is random. Consider yesterday’s seventh inning: a single followed by two walks. (And then, of course, two strikeouts.) Why not two walks followed by a single? So much of the game is beyond the realm of talent or intent. Bloop hits, seeing-eye grounders, BABIP, RISP, draft choices—all merely rolls of the dice. What pitchers you face, which umpires call strikes and balls. The weather. The variables make fools of all of us. At times the game itself seems a child of chance, controlled by Dame Fortuna.

Branch Rickey said luck is the residue of design, but what did he know? He’s from Portsmouth, Ohio (also home of Al Oliver and Larry Hisle). Luck drives the game in extraordinary ways. It seems to dominate everything else. But it cannot be controlled or even predicted. Mostly the actions of fortune are inexplicable and baffling. Nobody knows how it works, or why.

Rationalists decry luck, though they will begrudgingly acknowledge its existence. Someday, perhaps, there will be a quantitative definition of the term, and we will see plainly when one team gets every bounce, and when Fortuna smiles on them. Louis Pasteur said, boldly, that fortune favors the prepared mind. But I think that’s ridiculous, and there’s no way to anticipate it. I prefer Lefty Gomez’s version: "I’d rather be lucky than good." Let this serve as a small offering to Fortuna. May she, finally, give the Cleveland Indians a break or two. Please.

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