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Cursed Sports Cities in America: Phoenix

Last week I started a new blog talking about the curses of cities in America.  I started with Atlanta as it is one of the top cities with just flat-out bad luck.  But that isn’t to say there aren’t others.  In fact, there are a lot of cities in the United States (and Canada) that have seen heartbreaks and unfortunate events around.  And for whatever reason, the teams cannot get over the hump in those towns.  This week, we go to Phoenix.

The Valley of the Sun has grown from having just one professional sports team (the Suns) before the 1980’s to having the four major sports now when the original Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix after the 1995-1996 season and MLB awarded the city with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Maybe because it does get overlooked as being “not in the east” in the country, but Phoenix gets overlooked a great bit with their sports.  Odd because while it is one of the few major cities I haven’t visited yet, seems like it is a great sports town.  The city also has been known as somewhat of a transient city similar to Atlanta where there are strong fan bases of other teams given people have moved away from their original towns and thus not having an actual strong fan base at home.  How true that is, I don’t know.  But when you see Coyotes and Diamondbacks games on television you get a good fraction of the opposing teams fans there.

As for the teams itself, Phoenix hasn’t garnered a lot of success over its time in the major four sports.  Only one world championship resides among them and that was the Diamondbacks in 2001, in a classic 7 game World Series tilt with the Yankees.  The others just have not rendered much success at all or at recent memory.  But let’s begin.

CURSED CITY: PHOENIX: HOME OF THE ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS, ARIZONA CARDINALS, PHOENIX SUNS, AND ARIZONA COYOTES

RESUME: 1 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP (DIAMONDBACKS-2001), 1 SUPER BOWL APPEARANCE (CARDINALS-2008), 2 NBA FINALS APPEARANCES (SUNS-1976, 1993); CHAMPIONSHIP DROUGHT OF 17 YEARS

Arizona

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS (1 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP-2001):  We’ll start probably with the “least cursed” out of them, and the “youngest” of the bunch in the Diamondbacks.  Arizona bucked the trend of the whole “expansion team” experience early on.  Yeah, the first season in 1998 wasn’t anything to behold as they were 65-97.  Again, that’s not a curse, but more of a franchise rite of passage.  In 1999, the Diamondbacks didn’t wait long and signed Randy Johnson to get fans talking about contention while getting strong contributions from the likes of Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley.  In their second year, Arizona won 100 games, but bowed out in the NLDS to the Mets on what was a highlighted moment of Todd Pratt’s walk-off home run to win it for New York, just past the outstretched gold glove of Steve Finley.  2 years later however, the Diamondbacks won the World Series thanks to Randy Johnson and then Curt Schilling, who were one of the most lethal 1-2 punches in this modern era.  The next year Arizona made it back to the playoffs, winning 98 games but were swept by St. Louis.  After that, the Diamondbacks made a string of questionable moves, trading Schilling to Boston and trading for Richie Sexson while Gonzalez and Finley continued to age.  Arizona had a record of 51-111 just 3 years after their World Series win.  However, after a quick rebuild, the Diamondbacks made it to the NLCS in 07 before being swept by the Rockies.  However the rebuild was short lived as the likes of Brandon Webb (who was supposed to be the next great ace and showed it in 06 and 07) was oft injured.   Chris Young never panned out as many hoped.  Mark Reynolds was all-or-nothing at the plate.  They brought Randy Johnson back after trading him to the Yankees after the 2004 season, but he was on his decline.  Dan Haren had a couple of good years on the mound for them but fell apart in 2010 before being shipped to the Angels.  Arizona made it back to the playoffs in 2011, but lost to Milwaukee in extra innings in Game 5 of the NLDS.  After that season, Arizona never made it past .500 until 2017 when they went into the postseason as wild card, beating rival Colorado but then being swept by the Dodgers.  Now there is concerns that the Diamondbacks may move out of Phoenix as they had been wanting the city to pay for upgrades and maintenance.  The city on the other hand has been telling them no.  So the question is will the Diamondbacks stay in the Phoenix area a la Glendale where the Coyotes are, or will they up and move to a whole new state?

CURSED MOVES:  Arizona is more of the “the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.”  They’ve had done some good moves such as trading Karim Garcia to Detroit for Luis Gonzalez and acquiring Curt Schilling from Philadelphia.  However, the Schilling to Boston deal didn’t pan out as well (though Brandon Lyon wasn’t too bad).  However, Arizona fans would love to have a mulligan on two big trades, ironically both 3 team trades with the Tigers and Yankees.  The first trade was letting young fireballer Max Scherzer go to Detroit while getting Ian Kennedy from the Yankees.  Kennedy did okay in his first year with Arizona but fell apart after.  And with Scherzer, well, you know that story right now.  The other 3 team trade was trading Didi Gregorius to the Yankees while getting Robbie Ray back.  So far, it hasn’t been a complete wash, but Ray has been injured a good bit this year after a Cy Young-like year last year.  Gregorius has come into his own as a good power hitting shortstop with the Yankees as Arizona right now is hoping Ketel Marte is a solution.  Speaking of Marte, he was acquired in a deal with Seattle that sent Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger, both of whom are major contributors to the Mariners strong season in 2018.   And an honorable mention of another stinging trade was trading Ender Inciarte and top overall pick in 2015 Dansby Swanson to the Braves for Shelby Miller who has pitched a total of 24 games in 3 seasons due to Tommy John surgery and has not pitched this season to this point.  Worse, he hasn’t been effective when he has pitched.  Inciarte has been a defensive wizard, winning two Gold Gloves in Atlanta and after a slow start, Swanson has picked it up.

DEFINING CURSED MOMENT:  I originally leaned towards Finley’s miss of robbing Pratt’s home run, but I label that more as heartbreaking.  I will say the 2011 NLDS Game 5 where it went to extra innings as Arizona opted not to intentionally walk Nyjer Morgan with Gomez on 2nd and 1 out as he hit a soft comebacker that snuck by JJ Putz and shortstop Willie Bloomquist that sent the Brewers into the NLCS.

CURSED RATING: 2/5 (SLIGHTLY CURSED-partly due to the poor trades in recent memory)

NFL: NFC Championship-Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers

ARIZONA CARDINALS (1 SUPER BOWL APPEARANCE-2009):  We will just talk about the Cardinals history in Phoenix/Arizona and not when they resided in St. Louis or Chicago.  So I will sum it up about the Cardinals run from when they were in the Desert since 1986 through 2007: 1 playoff.  And years of being completely irrelevant to the NFL.  The Cardinals only had one year of a winning record, going 9-7 in that time period.  There had been hope in the mid-90’s of bringing some sort of hope with Buddy Ryan and bringing in his defensive studs from those early 90’s Eagles defenses, but his demeanor and attitude didn’t help and while the likes of former Eagles Clyde Simmons and Seth Joyner were solid, Arizona didn’t look like those Eagles teams Ryan coached earlier.  The funny thing was, Arizona had some quality players like Aeneas Williams and Eric Hill who could work, but it would be another issue, notably on offense as they never had a consistent quarterback as they went with the likes of Neil Lomax, Dave Kreig, and Boomer Esiason to change things (but the latter two were well on the downswing of their careers) They had hoped Jake Plummer would turn things around and after a playoff win in Dallas, it would have happened to go along with Rob Moore and Frank Sanders while adding a beast at WR in David Boston from Ohio State.  But nope.  Plummer was inconsistent in his time with the Cardinals and Boston had is issues despite being a talented receiver.  Signings of aging players like Emmitt Smith didn’t help either.  However, things changed when the Cardinals picked up Kurt Warner, who was pretty much left for dead after his one year with the Giants, supposedly to help mentor Matt Leinart.  Instead, Warner, with weapons of Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald started turn things around in Arizona and got the Cardinals to a stunning Super Bowl run despite being 9-7.  It nearly was a Cinderella season as Arizona nearly pulled off beating the Steelers in the Super Bowl, but an amazing catch by Santonio Holmes from Ben Roethlisberger with 35 seconds left ended that hope.  Arizona made the playoffs again in 2009 but were out-gunned by a higher octane New Orleans Saints squad.  Warner retired after the season and left a huge void (Leinart had left for Oakland at the same time).  Arizona changed philosophy a couple years after and became a very defensive oriented team and bringing in veteran QB Carson Palmer.  In 2014, the Cards had a great shot being the first team to play a Super Bowl  in their home stadium starting off 9-1, but injuries to Carson Palmer and then backup Drew Stanton derailed that as Arizona lost the division to Seattle and then got unceremoniously bounced by the 7-8-1 Panthers in the Wild Card.  A year later and with a healthy Palmer, the Cardinals won the NFC West, beat Green Bay in a classic overtime thriller (had the Cardinals lost that game, everybody would have pointed to Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary as the cursed moment in Cardinals history), but then got embarrassed by Carolina as the entire bottom fell out that day.  Since then, Palmer was unable to keep healthy or consistent and despite having a young running back in David Johnson (who was lost early in the 2017 season due to injury and pretty much eliminating Arizona from any contention), the Cardinals have gone back to obscurity though only being 15-16-1, but they’re just not a threat in the conference or division at this point.

CURSED MOVES:  When you’re talking Arizona pre-2008, take your pick.  Signing of Emmitt Smith, drafting Leinart, drafting Wendell Bryant, etc. but to me trading Thomas Jones was a problem.  Jones had some great years with the Bears and the Jets he never had in Arizona and helped take the Bears to a Super Bowl and the Jets to an AFC Championship game.  Arizona may not have utilized him the way he should have or it may have been just a wrong scheme, but to me, this was always a bit of a shocker they gave up on him so early.

DEFINING CURSED MOMENT: Probably the Holmes catch on the Cardinals in the Super Bowl.  It was a great catch and a catch not many could have done.  And Holmes did it with 35 seconds left to keep the longest championship drought in NFL history going.

CURSED LEVEL: 4/5 (PRETTY CURSED)

Arizona

PHOENIX SUNS (2 NBA FINALS APPEARANCES-1976, 1993):  As far as my memory serves me, I have always remembered the Suns when they were near the top of the NBA mountain of being one of those offensive juggernauts.  The Suns made a Finals appearance in 1976 against Boston despite being only 42-40 and took the Celtics during their glorious run to 6.  And bear in mind Phoenix at that point was still a young team.  The Suns slowly flexed their muscles in the late 70’s/early 80’s, but had difficulty getting to the Western Conference Finals in that time (remember this is when the Lakers ruled the roost).  However, you saw a small rebuild in the mid-80’s which probably led to the Suns golden era from 1988-1995.  They were an offensive juggernaut, ranking near the top of the league in scoring and it was led by Kevin Johnson, Jeff Hornacek, Tom Chambers, Eddie Johnson, and then later on with Dan Majerle and Cedric Ceballos.  For four seasons, the Suns made it past the first round 3 of those years and ended up being in the Conference Finals two of those years before bowing out to the Lakers and Portland.  Phoenix needed some toughness as many considered them being too flashy to win and traded for Charles Barkley.  Barkley made an impact as Phoenix won 63 games in 1993 enabling them homecourt throughout the playoffs.  However, the Suns failed to win a game at home in the Finals to the Jordan-led Bulls team, losing in 6 games.  With Jordan retiring, many penned the Suns to roll out West, but somewhat scuffled in 1993-1994.  They get into the playoffs looking like the team before, sweeping Golden State and taking a 2-0 lead on the Hakeem Olajuwon led Rockets winning both in Houston.  However, the Rockets crushed Phoenix in the next two and ultimately winning in 7.  A year later, the Suns built really a superteam before we knew it, adding Danny Manning and Wayman Tisdale as they all wanted the ring.  The Suns won the division and faced Houston in the semis, where this time Phoenix took a 3-1 series lead only to blow it.  Then the Suns traded Majerle to the Heat.  And Barkley was unhappy on the team’s direction, wanting a trade.  Phoenix sent Barkley to Houston for 4 guys including Robert Horry, Sam Cassell, Chucky Brown, and Mark Bryant.  The trade was a mess in all actuality as Horry hated being with the Suns and an image of him throwing a towel at coach Danny Ainge has pretty much been his lone Suns highlight and was traded to the Lakers to bring back Ceballos.  Cassell didn’t make it past one season as he was shipped to Dallas for Jason Kidd.  The Suns from 96-03 were still playoff bound most years, but one-and-done save for 2000 when they got stomped by the Lakers.  After bringing back Steve Nash and hiring Mike D’Antoni, the Suns returned to being the high-octane offense that served them well in the late 80’s/early 90’s, getting back to the conference finals in 05 and 06, but as their offense rolled, the team defense was a mess, and was bounced out by teams with a defensive prowess with San Antonio and Dallas.  A couple of playoff runs that had them bounced again thanks to defensive woes and a rare miss of a playoff despite being 46-36, the Suns became the Lakers bridesmaids once more thanks to a porous defense to compliment the #1 offense led by Nash and Amare Stoudemire.  After the 2010 season, Phoenix has not made a playoff appearance despite one year winning 48 games (and in the East that would have netted them a homecourt advantage in the first round most years).  So this team to me is pretty cursed.

CURSED MOVE:  The Suns in their first golden time in the late 80’s/mid-90’s couldn’t have done anything wrong, whether it was trades, signings, or drafts.  They were known for making good draft steals (Nash, Majerle, Wesley Person, Ceballos, Michael Finley, etc.) and while the Barkley trade itself was a mess in its own right, they ended up getting Jason Kidd back ultimately.  And really it wasn’t a move that the Suns did, but it was a move the Suns DIDN’T do.  And that was to counter the Rockets in the mid 90’s with Hakeem Olajuwon.  I know they couldn’t have traded for Shaq, Robinson, or Ewing, but Mark West was not the man to stop him.  And Oliver Miller, while young constantly battled weight issues throughout his career.  And then there was Joe Kleine…and Danny Schayes.  Those moves the Suns made of getting Manning and Tisdale weren’t awful by any stretch.  But it made Phoenix a smaller team in a conference where they had to see Hakeem and Robinson in the playoffs in 1995.  They brought in Hot Rod Williams the year after, but the damage may have been done as Phoenix wasn’t considered a front-runner by then.  I was a bit stunned that the Suns didn’t inquire about Kevin Willis with the Hawks before the 1994-1995 season began as he would have filled a huge void in the middle.

DEFINING CURSED MOMENT: Two moments stick out in my head for the Suns actually and both can be defined as the cursed moments.  I’m emulating Marv Albert’s voice here: “Here’s Paxson for three! Yes!” The Suns in the 93 Finals were down 3-1 and beat Chicago on their court for Game 5.  They came back to Phoenix and the Suns clamped down on the Bulls in the 4th in Game 6, taking a 2 point lead late.  After a dish by Pippen to Grant who found the open Paxson, he nailed the shot as Paxson ran down the court arms up in the air right after.  An honorable mention was Mario Elie’s game winning 3 pointer in 1995 in Game 7 of the semis completing Houston’s comeback as Elie blew a kiss towards the Suns bench right after.  Really, the kiss of death for the Suns of that time period (oddly, Elie would play for Phoenix 6 years later).

CURSED RATING: 4/5 (PRETTY CURSED)

Arizona

PHOENIX/ARIZONA COYOTES:  Oh boy.  It’s hard to believe at one point when the Coyotes first arrived from Winnipeg they were considered a Western Conference front-runner alongside the likes of the Avalanche, Red Wings, and Stars of the late 90’s, but they were.  They had all-stars in Keith Tkachuk, Cliff Ronning, Mike Gartner.  They had quality veterans in Dallas Drake, Dave Manson, Darrin Shannon, and Teppo Numminen.  Then you had some young stars in Shane Doan, Oleg Tverdovsky, and Nikolai Khabibulin.  And just to get the new home fans excitement, trade for all-around star Jeremy Roenick from Chicago.  And what do you get out of it?  How about no playoff series wins.  The Coyotes continued the tradition that plagued the Jets since 1988 of being one and done in the playoffs.  From 97-02, the Coyotes were eliminated in the first round 5 of the 6 years (with the lone year they were out of the playoffs).  After that point, the Coyotes suffered 6 straight years of not making the playoffs ironically at a time when Wayne Gretzky (yes, that same Great One Wayne Gretzky) was coaching them.  Dave Tippett took over for Gretzky before the 09-10 season and had a re-birth for the Coyotes getting back to the playoffs with the likes of Doan, Matthew Lombardi, Ed Jovanovski, and Radim Vrbata and a good young blue-liner in Keith Yandle.  However, two more first round eliminations happened thanks to the Detroit Red Wings (whose dynasty was waning at this point).  Also, talks of the Coyotes leaving back to Winnipeg took full focus thanks in part to porous attendance. However, Gary Bettman stepped in and helped Phoenix keep its hockey team while Winnipeg would take Atlanta’s team instead.  After the save, Phoenix broke the 1st round curse in getting to the Western Conference Finals in 2012 before losing to the eventual champion Kings.  Since then however, it has been more of a mess for the Coyotes as they have missed the playoffs for the last 6 years, and not even coming close at all.  Worse, the Coyotes are near the bottom of attendance once again as only the Islanders had worse attendance numbers and the Isles & Hurricanes had a lower percentage of fans to come out to their home arenas.

CURSED MOVE: I wouldn’t call it a move on the Coyotes part, but those early years while the Coyotes were figured to be a contender in the West, the thing that really stuck out was two of the youngsters, Khabibulin and Tverdovsky had contract disputes with the Coyotes which really ultimately led the Coyotes having to trade them later on.  Had the Coyotes kept those guys for the long run and solved those disputes, who knows what the landscape of the Western Conference would be with the Red Wings, Avalanche, and Stars owning it.   Could the Coyotes have mixed in with those teams?  And also, could hockey in Phoenix have been very different than what we see now?  The worse part was that Khabibulin and Tverdovsky, after both left Phoenix, would win Stanley Cups elsewhere.

DEFINING CURSED MOMENT:  There hasn’t been many successful seasons in Phoenix, but I go back to the 98-99 season when the Coyotes were ranked 4th behind the Stars, Avs, and Wings.  They went up against a Blues team without Brett Hull and many figured the Yotes would win that series.  The series got pushed to 7 after the Coyotes had a 3-1 series lead.  And Pierre Turgeon scored the lone goal via deflection, a game-winner late in the first overtime to end it for Phoenix.  Honestly, it may have been a game that the franchise has never recovered from either.

CURSED RATING: 4/5 (PRETTY CURSED)

Overall, Phoenix isn’t the most cursed sports city in America, but they’ve had their share of rough moments and all within the modern time period.  Sure, it won’t get the hype like Cleveland has or Philadelphia/Washington has, but the fans out there have experienced a little too much heartbreak out in the desert with their teams.  But at least Luis Gonzalez and the Diamondbacks came back off of Mariano Rivera in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series so that has to account for something.

-Fan in the Obstructed Seat

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