Pedro Martinez didn’t believe in “damn curses.”
When the future Hall of Famer uttered those words in 2001, his Red Sox hadn’t won the World Series in 83 years, but the ace derisively told reporters to “wake up the damn Bambino” and have him face Martinez, who brashly suggested he would drill Babe Ruth in the backside.
The Red Sox—and Martinez—proceeded to go into a tailspin that season, and when they melted down in the 2003 playoffs, Yankee fans gleefully reveled in the certainty that the Red Sox would never win another World Series.
But it turned out, Martinez was right all along. There is no such thing as a curse. The Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. Then they won it twice more in the next decade.
The Atlantic Coast Conference is not cursed in baseball, either. Someday, an ACC team will win the College World Series, giving the conference its first national title since 1955, when Wake Forest won it all.
But 59 years is an awfully long title drought, and it’s hard to blame fans of Pacific-12 or Southeastern conference teams who reflexively mock our selection of ACC power Virginia as preseason No. 1, the front-runner to win the CWS.
How does a conference send 44 teams to Omaha over six decades and fail to capture one championship? Is the ACC just extremely unlucky? Is the drought simply a bizarre coincidence? Or does the conference possess some innate quality that renders its teams unable to perform when the pressure is on?
History Of Underachieving
SEC fans might have been asking themselves those same questions back in 1989, because up until that point, no SEC team had ever won the CWS. Then Georgia broke through to win the conference’s first national title in 1990, and Louisiana State followed with five championships over the next decade. The supercharged bats of that Gorilla Ball era were a perfect fit for LSU coach Skip Bertman’s physical, powerful rosters.
But ACC teams like Florida State and Georgia Tech adjusted well to that era too, and each of those two programs reached the national title game during the 1990s, but fell one victory short of ending the drought. It’s hard to buy the idea that the Seminoles were good enough to win 57 games in 1999, but their conference affiliation somehow prevented them from winning a 58th.
During the wood-bat and early metal-bat days of the 1960s and ’70s, the ACC simply was not much of a factor on the national stage. Teams from the conference made just seven Omaha appearances during those two decades. During that same time period, Southern California made 12 CWS appearances by itself. The low-scoring climate of that era placed a premium on playing rock-solid defense, manufacturing offense via small ball, and throwing strikes—aligning nicely with the typical West Coast style of play, which takes advantage of polished California players with advanced baseball instincts honed by playing baseball year-round for their whole lives.
But during the last two decades, the ACC has certainly had its share of teams with national title-caliber talent fall short of the ultimate prize. Florida State, famously, has been to Omaha 21 times and to the Finals three times without winning it all.
But you might be surprised to learn that the Seminoles have never entered a season as Baseball America’s preseason No. 1, the clear-cut favorite to win it all. Their highest preseason ranking in the 64-team era is No. 4, in 1999 and 2003. In fact, before last year, the only ACC teams to top BA’s preseason rankings were Georgia Tech in 2001 and ’03 (and neither team reached Omaha). So this year marks the fourth time in our 34 years that we have anointed an ACC team as preseason No. 1.
The most talented team usually doesn’t go all the way in the postseason; the hottest team does. But elite talent certainly increases a team’s chances, and this year, the ACC appears to have more teams stacked with top-end talent and experience than any other conference. In 2014, three of the nation’s most complete teams will play in the ACC, and all three of them—Virginia, N.C. State and Florida State—are ranked in our top six, ahead of any SEC teams and all but one Pac-12 team (No. 2 Oregon State).
This year is the exception, not the norm, for the ACC.
Last year, for instance, there were four SEC teams between the top ACC team (No. 1 North Carolina) and the second ACC team (No. 8 N.C. State) in our preseason rankings. In 2012, our rankings had four SEC teams before the first ACC team (No. 9 UNC). In 2011, three SEC teams came in before our top ACC team (No. 10 Clemson).
Having the most teams near the top of the preseason rankings obviously doesn’t ensure a national title, but it does increase a conference’s odds. This year, we feel good about the ACC’s chances.
That doesn’t mean we think the ACC is a better baseball conference than the SEC or the Pac-12, because we don’t. Anyone who follows the sport knows those are the two premier conferences, with the richest histories. That is the biggest reason for the ACC’s drought: it just has produced dramatically fewer elite teams over the years.
But looking ahead to 2014, we expect a banner year for the ACC. Next year at this time, when we look ahead to the season, we’ll re-evaluate based on the makeup of each team’s 2015 roster. We certainly won’t give any thought to whether or not a program won a championship in the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s.
Because what happened a half-century ago is irrelevant to this season. Just ask South Carolina or UCLA—two programs that went decade after decade without ever winning the CWS, despite playing in the SEC and Pac-12. Then, in the last four years, both programs broke though and captured their first titles.
The 2010 Gamecocks did not believe they were cursed. The 2013 Bruins did not believe they were cursed.
The 2014 Virginia Cavaliers surely will not believe they are cursed, either. We believe in their talent. We don’t believe in curses.