“Killing the Curse” an edge-of-the-seat Cubs thriller

Book review & Interview Author Dennis Hetzel,-

Are the Cubs truly cursed? That question has fueled decades of debate in taverns across

Chicago’s North Side.

In Cubs’ lore, a billy goat is most often blamed as the source of the team’s curse. As the story

goes, Billy Sianis, a Greek immigrant who owned a nearby tavern (the now-famous Billy Goat

Tavern), had two $7.20 box seat tickets to Game 4 of the 1945 World Series between the Cubs

and the Detroit Tigers, and decided to bring along his pet goat, Murphy (or Sinovia according to

some references), which Sianis had restored to health when the goat had fallen off a truck and

subsequently limped into his tavern. The goat wore a blanket with a sign pinned to it that read

“We got Detroit’s goat.” When it started to rain, fans sitting in the vicinity of the Sianis goat

raised a stink about the objectionable odor and the two of them got booted from the game. Sianis

was outraged at the ejection and allegedly placed a curse upon the Cubs that they would never

win another pennant or play in a World Series at Wrigley Field again because the Cubs

organization had insulted his goat. The Cubs lost Game 4 and eventually the 1945 World Series,

prompting Sianis to write to Cubs’ owner Philip K. Wrigley the immortal words, “Who stinks

now?”

Others point to 1908, the last year the Cubs actually won the World Series. The theory goes that

the Cubs are being punished for over a century of bad karma that traces back to 1908, when,

some believe, the Cubs cheated to beat the New York Giants for the National League pennant in

an incident commonly known as “Merkle’s Boner.” As the Giants rushed the field after a game-

winning run, Giants player Fred Merkle turned and ran toward the dugout before tagging second.

Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers got a ball and stepped on second base, forcing him out and

canceling the winning run. Some, however, doubt the ball in Evers’ hand was the actual ball in

play. That play propelled the team into the last World Series that it won.

Those who believe in the curse point to all sorts of strange occurrences that have afflicted the

North Side team over the years since. A black cat that ran past Ron Santo in the on-deck circle

during a game against the New York Mets in 1969. A ball that rolled through Leon Durham’s

legs in 1984. An overzealous fan reaching over the wall to steal a ball from the mitt of outfielder

Moises Alou in 2003.

More sober minds lay the blame for the Cubs’ futility on decades of mismanagement and, well,

the team just not being good enough. It was such thinking that led the current ownership to tear

down the team from the bottom up and start building again from scratch.

But even in the dawning of this new Cubs age the reality is that the team still has yet to reach

baseball’s pinnacle in 107 years, which serves as the backdrop for “Killing the Curse,” the

winning debut thriller from journalist Dennis Hetzel and coauthor Rick Robinson.

In his 368-page book, Hetzel, a native of Chicago who now lives in Ohio, raises the

intriguing question of just how far a deranged Cubs fan might go to ensure that his team’s World

Series drought finally ends.

“The Cubs are in the World Series, so my joke is that it must be fiction,” said Hetzel.

At the heart of Hetzel’s story are four childhood friends from Palatine and how a tragic accident

when they are in grade school steers their future paths. One of those four follows a course all the

way to the White House, where, as president, he finds his past and present collide when the Cubs

reach the World Series.

Hetzel gives Cubs fans plenty to chew on, sprinkling throughout the book anecdotes that are

familiar to most long-suffering, die-hards. But at its core, “Killing the Curse” is not a baseball

book but a political thriller that comes at you as fast and furious as a 95-mile-per-hour fastball.

Readers will be sitting on the edge of their seats until its surprising ending.

Of course, the question heavy on the minds on all Cubs fans will be: Do the Cubs actually win

the World Series, even in fiction? Well, no spoilers here; you’ll have to read it to see how it turns

out for the boys in blue.

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A Wrigleyville Nation interview with Dennis Hetzel, author of “Killing the Curse”:

Wrigleyville Nation: Your book is titled, “Killing the Curse.” Do you believe that the Cubs are

cursed?

Dennis: I don’t really believe in curses. When it comes to the Cubs, I might make an exception.

When you think about all the weird stuff that has happened, it’s pretty amazing. I was just

watching that terrific ESPN documentary on Steve Bartman, “Catching Hell,” which has a lot to

say about scapegoating. What about the error Alex Gonzales made two plays later? How do you

explain Kerry Wood, at the peak of his career, unable to nail a win in Game 7? The film also

reminded me that the umpire probably should have called the Marlins batter out for fan

interference on the Bartman play. This would have been the second out instead of the start of an

8-run rally, likely sending the Cubs to the World Series. It would have eliminated the inspiration

for my book, too, so I guess I owe Steve Bartman some thanks.

Wrigleyville Nation: You are a Cubs fan. Tell us how you became a Cubs fan.

Dennis: My dad, Paul Hetzel, was born on the west side in an ethnic Hungarian neighborhood in

1908 – ironically the last year the Cubs won the World Series. So, I inherited my passion from

him. He remembered them when they were at least making it to the World Series, and I recall

him telling me about Gabby Hartnett, Stan Hack and other great Cubs of the 1930s.

Wrigleyville Nation: What is your most memorable Cubbie experience?

Dennis: It’s funny how your teen-age memories stick. The hope and disappointment of the ’69

Cubs remains vivid. I can still see Ron Santo doing his little jig as he ran off the field after they

won and Don Young losing a fly ball in centerfield against the damn Mets. I just had a chance in

June to see the Cubbies in Cleveland in a game they won 17-0. Kris Bryant hit the most epic

home run I’ve ever seen in person – way over the large shrubs behind the centerfield wall. That’s

a great recent moment, stirring my hopes that this team is different. Still, we’re talking about the

Cubs. I see these brilliant young stars and think about “Calico Joe,” a Cubs’ phenom whose

career has a tragic ending in the beautifully written John Grisham novel.

Wrigleyville Nation: What inspired you to write the book?

Dennis: I have a close friend, Rick Robinson, who helped me with the book and has written a

number of successful political thrillers. Rick and I were driving back from Frankfort, Ky., after a

day of lobbying legislators, when we started brainstorming book ideas. He’s a diehard Reds fan;

I’m a diehard Cubs fan, and we both love baseball. At some point, I said something like, “So,

what if the Cubs actually made it to the World Series, and there was a crazed fan who’d do

anything to make sure they won?” That was the genesis of “Killing the Curse.” As all authors

will appreciate, it “only” took several more years of writing, rewriting and editing to turn that

idea into reality.

Wrigleyville Nation: Is there anything in the book that is based on your own life experiences?

Dennis: The book became a far-more personal and, I hope, richer story than I first envisioned.

As I started to flesh out the plot and develop the back stories for my characters, I kept

downloading from my memory banks, especially since the book involved Chicago, the Cubs,

growing up in the suburbs and coming of age during the Vietnam era – all subjects close to my

heart. For example, the scene in which young Bob and Luke, my two main characters, return

from lunch to find their teacher in tears with the news that JFK was shot is very much the way I

remember it. The brief tour the book takes into obscure corners of 1960s radical politics also

comes from experiences I had as an undergrad at Western Illinois University.

Wrigleyville Nation: Are any of the characters based on people you actually know or knew?

Dennis: Bob Walters’ daughter, Amie, is based on a sexy, knowledgeable bartender Rick met in

Texas. Some of the parents you meet in my characters’ childhoods remind me very much of my

parents and those of my friends. Many of the other characters are mash-ups of different media

personalities, sports figures, politicians and cops I’ve met along the way in my journalism career.

One of my best friends, Brian Davis, provided a lot of insight into the world of radio

broadcasting, but he’s nothing like Bob Walters. I imagined Bob as Rush Limbaugh doing sports

talk in Chicago.

Wrigleyville Nation: How much research went into the book? Who and what were your

sources?

Dennis: I dug into books about the Cubs, particularly their history, statistics and curses. Rick

Kogan’s book on the Billy Goat Tavern was helpful, as was F. Richard Ciccone’s biography of

Mike Royko, who makes a brief appearance in the story. I read a lot of sports and political non-

fiction anyway, so in some cases I just had to check recollections about what different people

had said, done or achieved. I thought I had heard about all the “curse incidents,” but that wasn’t

the case. For example, Bill Buckner was wearing his Cubs’ batting glove underneath his first-

baseman’s mitt when he committed the famous error that delayed the Red Sox from exorcising

their curse – proving, I guess, that ex-Cubs carry curse baggage with them. Google is a godsend

for quick research. In Chapter One, I killed a guy using Google Maps. I needed him to drive off

U.S. 12 into the Lochsa River in Idaho, and the Maps app helped me pick a good spot. I also

confirmed everything from western Idaho’s leading agricultural products to how a cell phone

could explode.

Wrigleyville Nation: Do you know if anyone in the Cubs organization has read the book? If so,

what was the reaction?

Dennis: I have made a few efforts to talk to the Cubs, but nothing has come of it. I think and

hope they’d enjoy “Curse” in the spirit in which it’s intended, as an entertaining exploration of a

city’s love affair and more-sad-than-mad frustration with a baseball team. I particularly

appreciate the reviews in which readers have said they aren’t from Chicago and aren’t Cubs fans,

but they thoroughly enjoyed the book and have a fresh appreciation of what the Cubs mean to

Chicago.

Wrigleyville Nation: Have you been to Wrigley Field since writing the book? Or do the Cubs

have you on a no attend list because of your book?

Dennis: I hope I’m not on any such list. I guess that would put me in the same league as the

Billy Goat. Because of my job in Ohio, I actually have more opportunity to see them in

Cincinnati. I haven’t had a chance to get back to Wrigley Field since writing the book. I saw

them clinch a playoff spot at Wrigley in 2008. Sadly, I was in Shea Stadium in 2004 when

LaTroy Hawkins threw a home-run pitch that essentially destroyed the Cubs’ chances of making

it to the playoffs.

Wrigleyville Nation: Do you believe the Cubs will actually win a World Series in your lifetime?

Dennis: Believe it or not, I do. Sports success is a crazy brew of things you can quantify and

things you can’t. Something seems different about this management group and this team. Call it

“mojo,” at least the most mojo I’ve seen since 1984. Ouch. I still hate the Padres.