Last night, ESPN played one of their 30for30 documentaries and this one was called Catching Hell. It was about the infamous Steve Bartman and how he changed the course of history and the 2003 Cubs and how they choked away a chance to beat the Yankees in the World Series.
If you get a chance, I recommend watching one of it’s 8 million replays. It made for compelling television but like most documentaries these days, it failed to tell the whole truth—or, the truth was told from a certain point of view to hammer home an underlying point.
“You’ll find that a great many of the truths we cling to depend greatly upon our own point of view.” –Obi Wan Kenobi, Jedi Master
The point of this documentary was to show the classic theme, man’s inhumanity toward man. It opened with the hatred Bill Buckner experienced after missing a grounder between his legs in 1986 that cemented a World Series collapse and continued the Red Sox futility to win it all. It focused, however, on the incident in 2003, with the Cubs in Game 6 of the best-of-seven series with the Marlins. A Cubs win that day meant that the Cubs, after not having achieved the World Series since 1945, were going back to the World Series once again.
The Cubs were winning that game 3-0. We had our best pitcher on the mound and he was dealing and practically unhittable. Wrigley Field was JAM PACKED and Cubs fans who just wanted to be there filled the streets around the stadium so they could say that they were there and a part of the celebration. The city was abuzz—but that doesn’t do the state of the city accurately. Unless you live here, unless you’re a Cubs fan, unless you experienced it, you can’t possibly fathom what it felt like.
Just 5 outs away from a trip to the World Series, a foul ball was hit down the third base line. Moises Alou leaped to make a catch that replays show he almost certainly would have made. A fan named Steve Bartman (and many other fans in the area) reached out to catch the ball as a souvenir. Bartman’s hands were the ones that hit the ball though. He deflected it away from Alou and instead of having 2 outs in the inning the Marlins had new life.
Again, we get to one of those moments where, unless you were here, unless you were a Cubs fan, unless you truly understand what that entails you can’t possibly understand the aftermath of that fateful event. Cubs fans were waiting—just WAITING—for whatever was going to happen to pull the carpet out from under our dream. Cubs fans are Charlie Brown and Bartman was Lucy pulling the football away at the last second ensuring that once again, we wound up on our asses, covered in mud, laughed at, foolish and beaten.
The documentary showed the reaction of 40,000 people inside Wrigley and another 20,000 outside the walls—all of whom felt like they were on their asses, covered in mud, laughed at, foolish and beaten. They lashed out. Their target was this poor dork named Steve Bartman. He didn’t do anything that most other fans would have done in his situation. He didn’t do anything that other fans right next to him weren’t trying to do. His hands were the ones that hit the ball though. He was the one who changed the trajectory of the ball. And so, he became the symbol for changing the trajectory of our team.
Moises Alou threw a tantrum. Instead of handling it like a veteran player, he handled it like a toddler, told it’s time to go to bed. His antics exacerbated the situation. If he’d walked back to his position and played ball, none of this would matter. He didn’t. He acted like a child. The city deflated in that instant. We had a knowing feeling in the pit of our stomachs. We were Charlie Brown, in that final millisecond when his foot has started forward and it’s too late to stop and he recognizes that the ball is being pulled away.
We met the girl of our dreams and some dorky looking guy in a green turtleneck stole her away the day of our wedding. It was heartbreak.
Now, there were significant events that happened after that. There was still one out in the inning and the next play was an easy grounder to shortstop Alex Gonzalez that should have been a routine double play. He booted it. He kicked it. He flubbed it. If he’d made that play, like he’d made dozens of times that season the Cubs would still have made it to the World Series. That play, more than anything was the defining moment when it all went south.
Manager Dusty Baker sat on his ass and did nothing. He had a rattled team and he didn’t do anything to calm them down. A manager in baseball has so few things he needs to do but this was a moment when he truly could have felt the pulse of the situation, realized that everyone needed to take a deep breath and gone out to the mound to settle everyone down. He failed. The Marlins went on to score 9 runs.
It was over. The burden of not having won, the pressure of winning not only for that team, but all the teams and players and fans that came before them proved to be too much. The 7th game was lost as well. The Cubs, only 5 outs away from the Promised Land, had failed once again.
The documentary makes the Cubs fans look cruel and unfairly casts them in a poor light. Their immediate treatment of Bartman certainly warrants that and there was no excuse for the treatment he got from surrounding fans, but it’s greatest shortcoming as a documentary was the failure to place it all in the proper context.
It used the idea of the curse as context. It made the reaction of the fans out to be a reaction based on a curse. Make no mistake about it, Cubs fans feel snake-bitten, unlucky, unfortunate and like fate is against them, but the idea of the Curse of the Billy Goat is just kind of a fun, cute way to encapsulate that feeling. The curse is something that only a very small portion of Cubs fandom takes seriously. More than anything else, it’s part of a tradition. It’s something to talk about and joke about as a means of explaining the unexplainable. It’s hearing a bump in the night and telling your wife that it must be a ghost as a means of breaking the tension and the immediate feeling of fear that might accompany it before realizing it was just the dog.
It made it out to seem as if all Cubs fans placed blame on Bartman. That was never true. The fans were angry that night and looking to lash out and they did. There is no excuse for that. Ask ANY Cubs fan to this day where it all went wrong and just like with the curse, they’ll make the joke that it was Bartman because he is the symbol. But any real Cubs fan will go on to lay the true blame at the feet of one of three people: Moises Alou, Alex Gonzalez or Dusty Baker and most likely, all of them. Bartman was the symbol. Alou, Gonzalez and Baker were the ones who collectively failed. There’s no real debate about that here in Chicago. It’s the reason Baker gets booed every trip he makes back to Wrigley Field managing other teams. It’s the reason you don’t see Alou or Gonzalez making any appearances in a city that LOVES it’s former greats.
The documentary makes it seem like Cubs fans ignored the true culprits and focused all attention and energy and hatred on Steve Bartman. That is false. The media focused all the attention and energy and hatred on Steve Bartman. And as sure as extremist political opinions on “news” channels incite angry people to false and idiotic points of view, so did the way the media grabbed this story, held on to it and kept after it help to draw out the loud and unintelligent who always need someone to blame.
The Cubs choked, after it seemed that it was finally going to be the year. Steve Bartman was just the punchline to the joke. And even that was and continues to be unfair—no doubt about it, but I promise you that any Cubs fan, when asked about Bartman, will immediately talk about the groundball hit to Gonzalez. That’s a fact. It’s a fact that wasn’t pointed out in Catching Hell.
In fact, Catching Hell seemed to go out of its way to protect the media. Oh, it placed a piece of the pie at their feet but it was a small slice and the underlying tone was always that while it was unfortunate, they were just being responsible journalists and doing their jobs with as much integrity as they could. In fact, Steve Bartman was salt that the media got to use to throw into the gaping wound of a dispirited and disappointed city who had come to believe only to be let down once again.
Cubs fans don’t feel any animosity toward Steve Bartman today. He is and forever will be part of the lore and part of the punch line the same way the Billy Goat Curse is but the man lives and works in Chicago to this day. His reclusiveness and his exile are self-imposed. It’s perfectly understandable that he would choose to do so, he was treated HORRIBLY that night by the worst of the Cubs fans. But the people who threw beer at him weren’t the ones sitting next to him. They were the whack jobs who came from all over the park, drunk and stupid as fans often are at sporting events.
The newspapers, the local news shows, the national media all focused on Bartman. Alex Gonzalez’s error wasn’t the leading story anywhere. No one thought that it was a good idea to publish Gonzalez’s address in a newspaper. They had no such issues with releasing Steve Bartman’s address though. If the media had focused on the actual news, Bartman would be a footnote. There’s no romance, intrigue and excitement in that though. Players make errors every day. Managers fail to do their jobs and players throw tantrums all the time. That’s a one-day story. Bartman offered the media a chance to run with something for weeks. They took it. The play itself incited the idiots in the crowd. The media incited all the rest of the idiots in the third largest city in the U.S.
And they were convincing. They got a lot of us. They incited a lot of anger and it was easy to blame Steve Bartman, it was easy to make him the symbol of failure.
Catching Hell seemed to want to show the dark side of man. It wanted to show how cruel fans could be. It made the city of Chicago and it’s people out to be small and petty. It failed to make it’s audience understand what that trip to the World Series would have meant to us. It failed to give an accurate account of the silent majority. It further amplified the voice of a loud minority and it left the media virtually blameless and in many ways, even reluctant and noble.
That’s not what happened. That’s not how it went down. That’s what happens when a Boston Red Sox fan makes a documentary about the Chicago Cubs. Make no mistake, Steve Bartman is a tragic and unfortunate scapegoat. He has suffered pointlessly and cruelly. But if you think you got the whole story from watching Catching Hell, you’re wrong. You got a biased and uneducated version from someone who applied what he knew—the situation with Bill Buckner in Boston, to something he didn’t know—the situation with the 2003 Cubs and while there are similarities, it just wasn’t the same. The situations are not the same and they never were. The perspective of Catching Hell was clouded by a Red Sox fan’s perspective and point of view. And that is why it failed. It made for great television. It was very compelling. It just wasn’t very accurate and that’s sad because the real story is one worth telling.