I prefer to give the NCAA a wide berth; something about being true-to-your-school, Beach Boys fashion, never really grabbed me.
Perhaps it was because Rutgers might not have won a football game the entire time I was there, or it could be that the whole “student-athlete” thing always overstretched my willing suspension of disbelief. If I want science fiction, I’ll buy a Ray Bradbury collection. Otherwise, let’s just call a thing what it is.
Still, March Madness exists for a reason, like chain restaurants. And with the madness of crowds comes superstition, another popular pastime, so let’s give the people what they want and delve.
Yesterday, the University of Kentucky defeated Kansas to win its eighth NCAA basketball title. It turns out, a Kentucky win has amazingly predictive powers. Aside from 1948, every year the Wildcats have won, so have the Yankees: 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996 and 1998.
Even Yankees GM Brian Cashman endorsed the connection today, saying, “He [John Calipari] did all the work on his end. Now we gotta do the work on our end.”
Now, some would argue that 1948 puts the lie to the whole thing right there. After all, what kind of magical bond leaves room for exceptions? Really, though, the magic was on. It was just the Yankees that were off.
The Yankees had the pitching, they had the hitting, but between a hands-off manager in Bucky Harris (first reason he lost his job after the season) not being able to decide how to use a young Yogi Berra (second reason) and closer Joe Page carousing himself out of effectiveness (third reason), they couldn’t quite seal the deal.
As for the rest of the time, the correlation has been ironclad. You’ve heard of the Curse of the Bambino? The Yankees have benefitted from the Blessing of the Kentucky Colonel, named for their early Hall of Fame center fielder Earle Combs, born in Pebworth, Ky.
Combs shortened the heck out of his career and possibly his ability to do higher math by running into too many walls, but as they carted him off the field after his final skull fracture, he was heard to declaim, “I ain’t bitter. Though I water this field with my blood and bone, may the fate of the Yankees and my beloved state of Kentucky remain entwined forevermore.”
Then they cremated him, even though he had yet to be officially pronounced dead, and in fact lived on until 1976.
The Blessing of the Kentucky Colonel endured down through 1998, but the Yankees have since knocked down the park in which Combs played, so no guarantee that it pays off this time around. Those other seasons, the Colonel’s magic had help in that the Yankees fielded really strong teams with amazing depth—when Tim Raines is one of your bench players, you’re really dealing from strength.
The Yankees don’t have any should-be Hall of Famers lying around in the broom closet this time around, but they’re still the class of their division, if not their league. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA system projects them to score the most runs in baseball.
The pitching staff is another matter—the Rays and the Angels will be better, likely a lot better, especially now that Michael Pineda has gone from almost Rookie of the Year to complete question mark. In a short series, that could make all the difference, regardless of what Kentucky has done this year.
Coincidence is powerful, but Jared Weaver and Dan Haren are even more powerful, and Ervin Santana is even stronger than they, at least when the other team doesn’t have a No. 3 to match up with him.