First Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated on February 25. He was pictured standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, bat over his shoulders, US Capitol in the background.
This week pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg stares from SI’s regional cover with the headline “Mr. October” and this subhead: “The Nationals Will Break Through and Win the World Series.”
Expectations are high!
Fans are pumped!
Opening day on April 1 has been sold out for weeks.
But I fear the Nationals are doomed—headed into a season of mishaps, mediocrity, and dashed expectations. Predictions too often foretell frustration. Worse, showing up on the cover of Sports Illustrated is often the kiss of death.
They call it the SI jinx.
Ask Albert Pujols. Last year at this time, the slugger gazed menacingly from SI’s baseball preview cover. The caption read: “The game’s greatest slugger starts over with the Angels.” Pujols then failed to hit a home run for the first 28 games of the season. He went on to hit 30 home runs, which is more than respectable, but his .285 batting average was the lowest of his career.
In the middle of last season, the Dodgers were the hottest team in the majors. Sports Illustrated put outfielder Matt Kemp and part-owner Magic Johnson on the May 23 cover. The Dodgers lost their next three series and 8 of the next 11 games. Kemp’s minor injury hampered him through the season, though he racked up impressive numbers.
To preview last year’s World Series, Sports Illustrated featured Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera with the bold headline: “Fear His Awesomeness.” Cabrera went 3 for 13 at the plate during the fall classic. The San Francisco Giants swept the Tigers in four games.
And these are examples of the SI jinx in baseball alone.
You can dismiss the Sports Illustrated cover downer as the stuff of lore. To be sure, there are plenty of stars depicted on the cover who went on to greater feats.
What worries me more about the run-up to the 2013 season is the drumbeat of predictions that the Washington major league club is the best in baseball and headed to the World Series. No doubt Davey Johnson is an extraordinary manager. Without question the Nats have a young and talented squad. They had the best record in baseball last season.
But that means nothing after Stephen Strasburg hurls his first pitch on April Fool’s Day. Players get injured. Arms wear out. The 162 games can grind spring expectations into late-summer dust. Check the past few seasons: You will find that teams that finish well in the fall prevail over the ones that are expected to win it all and have the best records.
Meanwhile, we can enjoy watching a competitive team play in the nation’s capital, and that’s a gift.
As for the SI cover and its raised expectations, I prefer the lower expectations for my team, the Philadelphia Phillies. No one predicts them to have a decent season. They have nowhere to go but up.