The curse of the colonel

TOKYO – Many Americans — and certainly those who are baseball fans — know the Curse of the Bambino, which came about when the Boston Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, and then endured 86 years without a World Series title.

Japan — another country with a great baseball tradition — has a colorful superstition of its own: the Curse of the Colonel.

This one involves a pathetic team, fans jumping into a filthy canal, and the mystery of a missing statue of Colonel Sanders.

But like its American cousin curse, which ended in 2004 when the Red Sox finally won the World Series, the Curse of the Colonel may soon be history, too. Along with it, the Japanese economy may just be set to recover.

Let me explain.

The Hanshin Tigers have traditionally been both the most hapless, and the most fanatically supported, team in Japan. To celebrate its infrequent successes, rowdy fans leap into the polluted Dotonbori Canal in the center of their home city of Osaka.

In 1985, after the team's one and only Japan Series victory, fans most resembling the victorious players were dressed in the corresponding jerseys and encouraged to take the plunge. As the legend goes, one after another jumped into the canal.

Enter a problem. The Tigers had a star player — the bearded, the 6' 1'', 210 pound American slugger named Randy Bass. Not surprisingly, no Tiger fans resembled their hirsute hero.

A solution was quickly found after someone spotted a Colonel Sanders statue outside the local KFC. Since it was the closest likeness to Bass, the Colonel was duly dispatched to the bottom of the canal. Attempts to retrieve it the following day (by more sober fans) ended in vain.

As the Tigers natually resumed their losing ways, their fans began to speak of a Curse of the Colonel: the team would never win another Series until the Colonel was recovered. A local TV station even sent a scuba diver down to retrieve it. Failure of the mission only added to the legend.

Then something strange and wonderful happened.

On March 11, after missing for 24 years, the torso of Colonel Sanders was discovered by divers preparing for construction work on the canal. The following day, with a media chopper buzzing overhead, the lower half was located and raised, to the cheers of the watching crowd. A construction worker on the project told local media it felt more like he was rescuing a person.

With the Colonel back on dry land, Tigers’ fans believe the curse has finally been broken. Joy had, indeed, returned to Japan's version of Mudville.

But in this complex country the story — even one as dramatic as this — is never that simple.

There is another superstition surrounding the Tigers that has particular resonance during these troubled times: on the rare occasion when Hanshin wins championships, the Japanese economy grows. A Tiger economy, if you will.

The Tigers first two Central League wins were in 1962 and 1964 — just as the Japanese post-war economic miracle went into overdrive, finishing the decade with average annualized growth of over 10 percent. Shortly after the 1985 Series win, the now infamous bubble economy began its accelerated drive skywards.

It took another 18 years for the Tigers to reach the Japan Series, winning the Central League in 2003 — the year that marks the end of the post-bubble slump known as ‘the lost decade.’ Even the then finance minister, Heizo Takenaka, was cheering for a Tigers win, saying it would “Change the economic landscape in Japan.”

Still under the spell of the curse, they lost the Series, but the Japanese economy began a growth spurt that lasted until the current slowdown.

So what are Japan's baseball gods saying now?

The benchmark Nikkei index jumped nearly 14 percent in the two weeks since the Colonel was rescued. And hope, a familar feeling to baseball fans worldwide this time of year, is springing eternal. At least with Tiger fans.

Hiro Takayama, for one, is in no doubt as to the importance of recovering the Colonel. “The curse is broken now they’ve found the statue. The Tigers are sure to win the Central League and the Japan Series this season and then business is bound to start improving too."

As for the real Randy Bass? 

He's now a Democratic state senator in Oklahoma, who now resembles Colonel Sanders even more than he did in his glory days with the Hanshin Tigers.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Japan:

Japan's sumo scandals

Monks venture into bars and rap