Alex Gibney's film Catching Hell—about Cubdom's favorite scapegoat, Steve Bartman—aired tonight on ESPN. Last year, we adapted the following excerpt about Bartman from Will Leitch's book Are We Winning? Fathers and Sons and the New Golden Age of Baseball. Originally published May 4, 2010.
I look to left field. Every time I go to Wrigley, I look for it. People still sit there. I wonder if he looks for it when he watches games on television. He surely does.
* * *
Moises Alou was already feisty at the end of the seventh inning. With runners on first and third base, Alou had a chance to truly put Game Six of the National League Championship Series away once and for all. Florida Marlins reliever Chad Fox had just given up a single to Sammy Sosa, and the Wrigley Field crowd, already feeling history, was ready for the killing blow. The Cubs were just six outs away. Alou had a chance to make those six outs pass by right quick.
On a 1-1 pitch, Fox, clearly reeling, threw a mistake pitch, a meat 93-mile-per-hour fastball on the bottom half of the plate, right where Alou is famous for liking it. As usual, Alou wasn't wearing batting gloves, because Moises Alou says he urinates on his hands to "alleviate calluses," which is a strategy, one supposes. Heck, that's why I do it.
Alou's eyes lit up and he reared back for the swing of his life. (You can see his eyebrows raise slightly when he sees the pitch coming.) And … he flicked it harmlessly into right field, landing in the glove of 2003-skinny Miguel Cabrera. Alou, realizing he's missed the perfect opportunity to secure his Cubs legend, hops and spins in the air angrily after he makes contact, furious with himself, clearly feeling the pressure of this massive moment. It's a familiar sight to Cubs fans. That would not be the last time Moises Alou would jump into the air and spin angrily that evening. He'd do it again about 15 minutes later. People remember that one.
* * *
Here is what Thom Brennaman said on FOX as the top of the eighth inning of Game 6 of the National League Series began, as the center field camera panned over Wrigley Field, capturing the glory for posterity. This was a big moment for Brennaman. This would be the highlight of his broadcasting career. This is what he would be remembered for.
39,577 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, for Game 6 of this National League Championship Series. On this October 14, 2003. It was on this date in 1908, 95 years ago today, that the Cubs defeated the Detroit Tigers 2-0, to wrap up their second straight World Series championship. With a victory tonight—as he said, he did not go around on the pitch there [Mike Mordacei had a check swing off Mark Prior, and the first base umpire gave the safe sign]—with a chance to win their first title since this day, 1908.
The camera cuts to the important figures. Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell looking forlorn in the visitors dugout. An elderly woman wearing an oversized Cubs sweatshirt and blue beads around her neck. The obligatory photo of the 1908 Chicago Cubs, all sepia and dead and about to be resurrected. An easy fly ball to Alou in left field. You can't see Steve Bartman in the shot. He's there, but the camera doesn't catch him.
How excited he must be. He's sitting out there, in Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113, nice seats, quality seats. For a regular season game in 2009, that seat runs you about $125 on StubHub. What a gift, really, for a guy like Bartman, a lifelong Cubs fan who cared about his team as much as I care about the Cardinals, as much as any of us care about anything. Bartman was 26 years old, single and working a dull desk job, coaching a youth league team in his spare time. The Cubs were the center of his life. He talked to his father about them all the time. He traveled to their spring training in Mesa. He listened to the game on the headphones, an old school move, a true fan move. It is almost surprising he doesn't have a scorebook. God, he is just like me.
How many years had he listened to Ron Santo ache and moan on the broadcasts, sneaking his walkman into class at Notre Dame, refreshing MLB GameDay on his office computer? He lived three miles away from Wrigley, away from Wrigleyville, where all the pretty people drank away their days and nights, checking out the game in between attempts to talk that girl from Naperville into their one-bedroom just a few blocks away. Those Cubs fans weren't real Cubs fans, not really. The Cubs were just a conversation topic, a phase in life, way back when, when they lived by Wrigley and partied, man, partied until grownup life caught up with them and it was off to Lake Forest, for an easy commute into the city and quality school for the inevitable children. Baseball was fun, it was an excuse to go out, but that's what it is to them. Not Steve. Not Bartman. Not him.
He's serious about this.
He is exactly the type of person who deserves seats in the second row just off the left field foul line, and exactly the type of person who rarely gets them anymore. No one knows how he procured the tickets, if he saved up a bunch of cash for the opportunity to watch the Cubs clinch a trip to the World Series. He wouldn't have been able to afford them, not at his salary, not at his job. He must have waited a long time. He must have felt that this was the year, and stowed away a little money this week, a little more that week, hoping this moment would come, preparing. My, how lucky he is! He has front row seats—well, second row—to the most important moment in Cubs baseball in 60 years. He has earned this. He's at the game by himself, for cripe's sake. Only diehards go to baseball games by themselves. Only the ones who truly, deeply care. Only people who think the other 21 hours of the day are just the time in between the first pitch and the last pitch. People like me. People like Bartman.
How excited he must be.
* * *
At this point, Mark Prior has just thrown his 100th pitch. Manager Dusty Baker isn't worried, though: Young Prior has been throwing tons of pitches all season. In his last start of the regular season, he threw 133 in a 4-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was his 18th victory of the season. Mark Prior is terrifying. He is the Perfect Pitcher. His delivery is smooth, structured and infinitely repeatable. There is no reason to worry about him. There are only five outs to go.
On a 2-1 count, Juan Pierre, just trying to avoid a strikeout, slaps a curveball foul into the left field stands. It's about eight rows up, but it's around the general vicinity of where Bartman is sitting. I wonder if he stood. I wonder if he thought he had a chance at it. Oh, just a little high. Damn. It would be pretty cool to grab a ball tonight, of all nights. That would be something to tell my kids about. "That ball up there over the fireplace? That's a ball I caught the night the Cubs clinched a trip to the World Series. It has to be in his mind. It would be in mine.
Good Lord is it ever loud at Wrigley Field. When people think about Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, they imagine everything being perfect and wonderful and glorious and then all of a sudden One Thing Happened and everything collapsed. Going back to watch the game again: Nope. After reaching for his put-em-away pitch on Pierre, Prior tries to waste a fastball away but touches too much of the plate, and Pierre slaps it down the left field line –- left again! –- for a double. Analyst Al Leiter says, "Prior is strong enough to make sure the exterior distractions don't get in his task and focus," which probably makes sense, somewhere. The tying run is on deck.
You have to think there was some apprehension, right? Sure, the Marlins needed to put another runner on base to have a chance, but come on, it's the Cubs! Surely the Cubs must have sensed something.
I bet the Dread is in Bartman's gut right now. He's come too far, and been through too much, for it not to be.
The center field camera pans again, this time over Waveland Avenue outside the left field fence. It's packed with people who just want to be close. They're here to see history. And they will.
On a 1-1 count to Luis Castillo, Prior is handed an awfully friendly strike call on a pitch that looked a few inches off the plate. It's 1-2. It's all locking into place. Dusty Baker is confident; there's no one up in the bullpen. Prior is throwing his 110th pitch. There is nothing to be concerned about. It's ball three. The count is full. Another foul ball. Another foul ball. Baker has a twinge, a pang, and Kyle Farnsworth stands up in the bullpen. Bartman must see him. He's walking to the bullpen mound right in front of him. It's the first tangible sign that he's not the only one worried anymore.
Bartman stands, listening to Santo. Everyone's standing now. I bet Bartman doesn't want to stand. I bet this is all becoming a bit much for him. It's not feeling like history right now, a culmination, the Cubs' coronation after years of misery. Not to Bartman. It feels like the Cubs need five more outs. And that feels like a lot of outs. It always does.
On a 3-2 pitch, in the eighth pitch of that at-bat, Castillo hits a fly ball down the left field line. The ball stays in the air for precisely four seconds.
* * *
"There are few words to describe how awful I feel and what I have experienced within these last twenty-four hours. I am so truly sorry from the bottom of this Cubs fan's broken heart. I ask that Cub fans everywhere redirect the negative energy that has been vented towards my family, my friends and myself into the usual positive support for our beloved team on their way to being National League champs."
—Steve Bartman, hours after the foul ball that would make him famous, and the last public statement he ever made.
* * *
Three people went for that ball. Nobody remembers that, but there were three. One is wearing a gray long-sleeved T-shirt with blue stripes on the arms. One is wearing a blue pullover sweatshirt. And one is Steve Bartman. The ball was closest to him. But it could have been any of the three.
What if Bartman had caught it? What if it would have been smack right into his hand, and it had stayed? It would have been difficult to be mad at that guy, wouldn't it? If he had come away with it clean? Hell, people would have loved that. The Cubs might have gone on to win, and Steve Bartman would have been the awesome dude who made that funny play in the eighth inning. Perhaps more important, it would have stunned Moises Alou. Alou, in an immediate reaction that made matters about 80 million times worse, began waving his arms and leaping around as if someone had inserted a scorpion in his jock strap. He had not calmed down since his frustrated leap after the fly out in the seventh inning—one suspects Moises Alou had been feeling the Dread for a while, even if his manager hadn't been—and he exploded when he didn't catch this ball. If Alou had just calmly walked back to his position, no one would ever know the name Steve Bartman. The whole at-bat would have passed without incident. And the Cubs might have made it to the World Series. Or maybe they wouldn't have. But this wouldn't have mattered. No one would have noticed.
That's not what happened, though. Alou stalked off, cursing and stomping his feet, looking back and glaring at the fan, screaming "motherfucker" and "what the fuck?" The boos began immediately. Steve Lyons on FOX, didn't help matters. When Brennaman pointed out that "that was a Cubs fan who tried to make that catch," Lyons screamed "Why? I'm surprised someone hasn't thrown that fan onto the field." In Wrigley, the Dread had taken over. After Prior threw a wild fastball for ball four, the crowd began chanting "Asshole! Asshole!"
Meanwhile, there sat Bartman.
God, look at him. Within seconds of the walk to Castillo, the FOX cameras found him. You have to weep for him.
He's the only guy sitting down. He still has his headphones on. He is almost certainly listening to WGN Radio broadcasters talking specifically about him. Dread has entered the hearts of everyone in the stadium, people are booing and screaming, Wrigley's freaked out, everything is going wrong. And there he is, sitting back down in his seat, ready to cheer his team back on to victory. His Cubbies are still five outs away from the World Series. That hasn't changed. But the rest of the galaxy has.
He has about four minutes left. In four minutes, the Cubs will have collapsed, and he will be ushered out through the back halls of Wrigley by armed policemen while fans throw beer at him. One fan tries to attack him before being stopped by another Cub fan. They proceed to fight with each other. Bartman, bless his heart, covers his face with his jacket when he notices a camera on him. He wants to put the toothpaste back in the tube. This has all happened so fast. This has happened in four seconds.
For this second, for that moment captured in the screengrab above, Steve Bartman thinks the Cubs can still win the World Series. He doesn't quite realize that his life has forever changed. And if I had to wager a guess, I bet, at that second above, he doesn't actually care. There are runners on first and third, but there's already one out. Ivan Rodriguez hits into double plays all the time. That was quite the little hullabaloo there, hoo boy, but come on, boys, let's get back to business. Just five outs to go. Just five little outs to go.
It breaks your heart. It breaks my heart. Because that was me. That was you. That was all of us. Forget about reaching for the ball: Anyone would have done that. No, Steve Bartman is a man who, within seconds of one of the most famous plays in baseball history, a play that directly involved him, straightened up his headphones, dusted himself off and sat back down in his seat to watch the game. The other guys, the ones there for the party, to scream and boo and drink and pick up girls, they're not concerned with the game anymore. They're focused on him, on noise, on sideshow … they're not focused on the game. Why couldn't have one of them touched the ball? They wouldn't have cared: They'd have loved the publicity, I bet.
Not Bartman. He's here for baseball. If the Cubs had acted like Steve Bartman, had they put it behind them and concentrated on the task at hand, they might have won that World Series. They should have followed Bartman's lead. Everyone should have.
But they didn't. The Cubs, clearly panicked, had a big meeting at the mound, allowing the crowd enough time to focus solely on Bartman and not on what they were there for in the first place. And Prior stayed in the game.
About 45 seconds after the above screengrab, FOX showed a Wrigley security guard walking up to Bartman and positively identifying him. He then takes out his CB radio and tells the other guards to come meet him. From three seats over, the man in the gray long-sleeved T-shirt with blue stripes on the arms rushes over to talk to the guard. We can't see what he's saying. But he doesn't seem angry. He is not strangling Bartman. He looks sad, he looks guilty, he looks like he, more than anyone else in the stadium, in the entire viewing world, understands what's happening. He stands over Bartman, his girth protecting him from the camera, his last line of defense, a last-ditch effort to protect him from what he cannot, from what is coming.
Bartman sits there, still. All he could do is try to look around this wide Good Samaritan. He is trying to see the game. This is the most important moment in Chicago Cubs history. He saved up a ton to get these seats. He's been a Cubs fan his whole life. He just wants to see the Cubs make it to the World Series. It's all he's ever wanted. It's all he has.
On a 1-2 pitch, Ivan Rodriguez smashes a hanging curveball into left field for a base hit. On the next pitch, skinny Miguel Cabrera hits an easy groundball to shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who, distracted by Dread, bobbles it. Everyone's safe. The bases are loaded. The die is cast. History is sweeping over. Everyone sees what's happening now. What is on the field is too gruesome to look at. So they look away. They look to Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113. They look for Bartman.
But he isn't there. He doesn't see any of this. He has been whisked away, gone.
Bless his heart. Bless his Cubs fan's broken heart.
Adapted from Will Leitch's Are We Winning? Fathers and Sons and the New Golden Age of Baseball.