April 1, 2023

Shedding Light on a Sunshine State Curse

January 16, 2023 by · Leave a Comment 

The phrase “pitchers and catchers report” resounds throughout the land in the middle of February. All well and good, particularly if you live in Arizona or Florida, but if you are a college baseball fan, the simultaneous opening of the Division I season may be more meaningful. Some of the less heralded divisions start playing as early as late January – before Punxsutawney Phil is awakened from his sacred slumber for his annual augury.

If you live in some snowbound burg at a northern latitude, the opening of college baseball season might elicit a “ho-hum” reaction. Thanks to the internet, however, it is possible to listen to college baseball broadcasts or to watch live-streamed games. The sunbelt states have numerous first-rate college baseball programs, so how would a frostbitten Seamhead select a team to root for?

Of course, if you are an alum of a particular university or you have a son, grandson, nephew or maybe a kid from your neighborhood who is on the roster, then pledging your allegiance is easy. If that is not the case, then what to do? I have a suggestion: adopt the Florida State Seminoles (the polysyllabic-averse refer to them as the Noles) of the Atlantic Coast Conference as your team. Why do I recommend Florida State?

FSU is a perennial power in college baseball so the level of play is reliably good. In fact, the Seminoles have an all-time winning percentage of .721, second only to the University of Texas. Former head coach Mike Martin (1980 to 2019) won more games (2,029) than any other coach in college baseball history.

FSU has never had a losing season. They have recorded 24 seasons with at least 50 victories. They have won 11 conference championships and 20 conference tournament championships. They have been to the College World Series 23 times starting in 1957. Only the Miami Hurricanes and the Texas Longhorns have logged more trips (25 and 37, respectively) to Omaha.

As you might expect, numerous FSU players have advanced to the big leagues. One of the most hallowed names is the late Dick Howser (who was also head coach for one season before being named Yankee manager), for whom the FSU ballpark in Tallahassee is named. Among the others are Terry Kennedy, Deion Sanders, Paul Sorrento, Paul Wilson, J.D. and Stephen Drew, Doug Mientkiewicz, Kevin Cash, Tony La Russa, and Buster Posey.

Now you might wonder why I’m suggesting a blue-chip team that appears to be the college baseball equivalent of the New York Yankees. What makes them different from, say, Arizona State, Texas, Miami, Florida, LSU, Stanford, Vanderbilt, or any other elite program?

Believe it or not, despite those 23 appearances in the College World Series, the Seminoles have yet to win a national championship. Oh, they have come close. They were runners-up in 1970 (to USC), 1986 (to Arizona), and 1999 (to Miami) but couldn’t seal the deal.

To be sure, a number of teams have had multiple bites at the apple, but FSU is in an orchard by itself. The next most-frustrated team is a distant second: the Clemson Tigers have made 12 trophy-less trips to Omaha.

Well, you can’t win ‘em all, but it is difficult to believe FSU’s esteemed baseball program has never produced a national title. The odds would seem to dictate that at least one title would have come their way after so many appearances in the CWS. There is no rational explanation for it. So perhaps it is time to seek an irrational, or at least non-rational explanation.

You doubtless know about the Red Sox and the Curse of the Bambino, and the Cubs and the Curse of the Billy Goat, longstanding hexes that finally dissipated in the 21st Century. So let’s explore the possibility that FSU has been victimized by a curse, and if so, why and by whom.

Let’s start with the nickname, the Seminoles. As you know, the Cleveland Indians divested themselves of the Chief Wahoo logo years ago and finally shed the Indians nickname in favor of Guardians in 2022. The Atlanta Braves retired Chief Noc-a-Homa after the 1985 season and have been under pressure to change their nickname (assuredly, reverting to the old minor league moniker, the Crackers, is not on the table). Of course, having won the World Series as recently as 2021, the Braves are not battling a curse so they can contemplate rebranding at their leisure.

A number of colleges have already swapped out nicknames (e.g., the Stanford Indians are now the Cardinals, the Dartmouth Indians are now the Big Green, and the Marquette Warriors are now the Golden Eagles). The Seminoles, with so many fans and alumni, would be a tougher nut to crack.

FSU formally adopted the Seminoles nickname after a fan vote in 1947 – the first year of the College World Series. Mere coincidence?

A seminal moment in Seminole history was the introduction of the tomahawk chop at a football game in 1984. The Atlanta Braves adopted the gesture several years later (of course, a tomahawk had been embroidered on the front of their uniforms for decades). A number of activists have bemoaned the chop, but the fans continue to employ it.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida has given an official thumbs up to the university’s use of tribal imagery, including a Chief Osceola human mascot, so FSU isn’t likely to make any changes any time soon. Even if the administration had a change of heart, it would be extremely difficult for them to nix the Seminole nickname and then bury the hatchet with fans and alumni.

Of course, another problem with eradicating the tomahawk chop is that it’s fun. In an era of light sabers and ray guns, there is just something cool about old school weapons – how else to explain the rapid rise in competitive axe throwing? Tomahawks are ideal for concealed carry or open carry, but I wouldn’t try to smuggle one through security at the stadium.

So it is tempting to blame the frustration of FSU baseball on the Curse of the Seminoles. But who invoked it? It could be some long-dead shaman or warrior. Could it be the curse of Jim Morrison? No, not the former Pirates second baseman but the Doors front man. That may sound outlandish but hear me out.

Morrison is usually portrayed as a blissed-out SoCal dude, but before he matriculated at UCLA he attended FSU, where he was once arrested for drunk and disorderly behavior.

A key part of the lore that surrounds this rock legend was a traumatic childhood experience when he witnessed the aftermath of an auto accident involving Pueblo or Hopi Indians in New Mexico. He believed that the victims took refuge in his soul…or something like that. It may sound like shameless self-dramatization but what can you expect from someone who dubbed himself the Lizard King? FUN FACT: The next time you listen to “L.A. Woman,” keep in mind that Mr Mojo Risin’ is an anagram of Jim Morrison!

Nevertheless, supposing these Indians had taken up residence in Morrison’s soul, we can see how they might have been upset by the cultural appropriation at FSU during Morrison’s time there, and they probably weren’t thrilled when he got busted by the Tallahassee police.

Having spelled out my Jim Morrison theory, now I must retract it. After all, if Jim Morrison and/or his Indian guides placed a curse on FSU, how did the football team win championships in 1993, 1999, and 2013? More recently, how did the FSU softball team win the women’s World Series in 2018? If Jim Morrison and his spirit shamans had any cosmic grudge against FSU, it is doubtful they would single out the baseball team. So we must search elsewhere for an explanation of FSU’s CWS frustrations.

Baseball Almanac is a handy reference tool for a number of reasons, and in this case it serves our search for answers by offering a list of all the Native American players in major league history. From Louis Sockalexis (Penobscot) in 1897 through the present (Cherokee Ryan Helsley of the Cardinals and Chickasaw Brandon Bailey of the Reds), 52 players are listed.

Of course, some of the players need no introduction. Among them would be Chief Bender (Ojibwe), Jim Thorpe (Fox and Sac), Allie Reynolds (Muscogee), Rudy York (Cherokee), and Pepper Martin (Osage). In addition to the aforementioned tribes, Lakota, Mohawk, Seneca, Kickapoo, Cheyenne, Winnebago, Potowatomie, Choctaw, Creek, and Navajo players are listed. Yet there is one well known tribe that is not represented. You guessed it, the Seminoles.

How to account for this? The Seminoles’ ancestral homeland, present day Florida, is a warm weather haven, a longtime destination for snowbirds fleeing northern winters. Today there are two major league teams in the state as well as numerous minor league teams. Florida’s Grapefruit League has long been a mecca for major league teams preparing for the regular season.

Now you might respond that the Seminoles were evicted by President Andrew Jackson in his starkly titled Indian Removal Act, which resulted in the Seminoles decamping from Florida and blazing the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma (then known as Indian Territory) along with four other southeastern tribes (Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickashaw, and Creek).

True enough, but it’s not as though baseball is unknown in Oklahoma. The state has had its share of minor league teams at various levels, and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are often top-ranked in college ball. Western Oklahoma State College in Altus is a renowned hotbed of junior college baseball and a reliable player pipeline to four-year schools or professional contracts.

Given the long history of major league baseball and the thousands of players who have played at that level, it is indeed puzzling that not one member of the Seminole tribe has ever appeared on a major league roster, just as it is hard to account for as FSU’s numerous trips to the College World Series without earning a trophy.

Could it be that the curse on the FSU baseball team will vanish when the first Seminole player attains major league status?

If any FSU boosters read this essay and think I’m on to something, it might behoove them to urge the team to make an effort to scour the Sunshine State and scout for baseball players with Seminole roots. Of course, there’s no assurance that any of them will be drafted by a major league team, much less make a major league roster, but the more players you sign, the greater the chances. Given FSU’s track record for producing professional players, sooner or later there will be a breakthrough.

There is no way to put a timetable on this sort of thing, but no time like the present to start. It’s too late for the 2023 FSU season (opening on Friday, February 17 vs. James Madison University), but there’s plenty of time to recruit for 2024.

There is one more possible explanation for the curse but I hesitate to bring it up. The Seminoles bill themselves as the only Native American tribe never conquered by the U.S. government. Despite devastating losses in three Seminole wars and the aforementioned banishment to Oklahoma (resulting in an estimated 3,000 deaths), the Seminoles never surrendered and never signed a peace treaty. Many of them took to the swamps rather than make the move to Oklahoma. So one must ask an indiscreet question: if the State of Florida could persuade the feds to fight a Fourth Seminole War and finally conquer them, would that lift the curse?

Maybe, maybe not; but the spoils of war, i.e., confiscating the cash and coins at the Seminole casinos in Florida and Oklahoma, would certainly provide a welcome infusion of funds into the coffers of the U.S. Treasury. Admittedly, mounting a war of conquest against the Seminoles would be a huge public relations challenge and the optics would be awkward. But when has that ever stopped the U.S. military?

As I write this, FSU’s chances of reversing the curse in 2023 do not look good. Coming off a mediocre (for them) 34-25 season and ranked No. 32 in the nation, they do not appear to be in good position to compete for a national championship.

Even with an outstanding regular season and a loaded roster, a team faces a stiff challenge in the quest for a championship. Appropriately enough, the Omaha tribe took their name from their language’s word for “upstream” or “against the current.”

There is probably a similar word in the Seminole language, and after 23 trips to Omaha, the FSU baseball team might want to adopt it as their motto.

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