Remembering Cubs Fan Steve Bartman's Infamous Gaffe, 10 Years Later
In 105 years since, there's been nothing. Heck, the Cubs haven't even been to the World Series since 1945. No other sports franchise has come to be defined by failure like the poor Cubbies.
Hence the reason today's other important anniversary is the one on people's minds.
It was 10 years ago that Game 6 of the National League Championship Series between the Cubs and Florida Marlins was played at Wrigley Field, the very game in which a random guy wearing a green turtleneck, glasses, a Cubs hat and headphones unwittingly became a part of baseball lore.
His name was—and presumably still is—Steve Bartman. But we didn't know that at the time, of course. After Bartman deflected a foul ball that might have gone into Cubs left fielder Moises Alou's glove, he was just a guy caught up in a moment that was cruel for some and surreal for all.
If there was any justice in this world, the Bartman play would have been forgotten years ago. Yet it hasn't been, because...Well, let's just say for now that it's because we just can't forget it.
Especially not on a day like today. So what the heck. While we're remembering the Bartman play, we might as well do so properly.
The 2003 NLCS didn't have to go to a sixth game. It could have ended in five games.
After winning Games 2, 3 and 4, all the Cubs had to do to punch their ticket to the World Series was beat Josh Beckett in Game 5 at Pro Player Stadium. That didn't seem to be too tall of a task given that the young right-hander had been rocked to the tune of six earned runs in Game 1. If the Cubs could do that to Beckett once, they could surely do so again.
Instead, Game 5 ended up being Josh Beckett's coming-out party.
Beckett was masterful, throwing a complete game that saw him strike out 11 and allow only two hits and a walk. It was the first shutout of his career, much less his first complete game of any kind.
It was on that note—a note of domination in favor of the Marlins—that the series shifted back to Wrigley Field for Game 6.
The good news for the Cubs was that they were going to have their ace on the mound in Game 6. Dusty Baker was putting his trust in 23-year-old flamethrower Mark Prior, who had posted a 2.43 ERA in the regular season.
And for a while there, it looked like Prior was going to make it easy.
He was in complete command of the Marlins through seven innings, giving up three hits and no runs. The Cubs offense provided Prior a trio of runs earned via a first-inning RBI double by Sammy Sosa, a run-scoring wild pitch in the sixth and a seventh-inning RBI single by Mark Grudzielanek.
The Cubs might have gotten more in the seventh inning had Moises Alou been able to come through with a two-out base hit with Grudzielanek standing on third base after a single by Sosa. But Alou flew out to right field, a play that Will Leitch recalled as a not-insignificant moment in his book Are We Winning? Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball.
Plucked from an excerpt posted on Deadspin in 2010:
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...
In the top of the eighth inning, Prior was back on the mound. The first out came easily enough, as he got Mike Mordecai to pop a can of corn to left field that landed in Alou's glove. When he squeezed it, the Cubs were five outs away from their first trip to the World Series in six decades.
As we all know, that's when things unraveled.
With one out, Prior served up a double down the left-field line to Marlins speedster Juan Pierre. That brought slap-hitting second baseman Luis Castillo to the plate, and he proceeded to give Prior a battle.
Castillo saw pitch after pitch, eventually working the count full and pushing Prior's pitch count well over 100 with foul balls. On the eighth pitch of that at-bat, Castillo once again seemed to spoil a good pitch by Prior.
Except this one wasn't going to land in the seats so easily. Here's what happened:
The man in center field when Castillo skied that ball down the left field line was Kenny Lofton. In a phone interview with Bleacher Report, he recalled seeing nothing out of the ordinary.
“When that play happened, I really didn’t think too much of it,” said Lofton. “It was just another play with a fan that reached out and hit the ball. I’d seen that happen plenty of times.”
But while Lofton may have been cool and collected in center field, the guy who actually went for the catch certainly wasn't. And naturally, he's the guy everyone had their eyes on.
Alou's reaction to the ball being deflected by the fan wearing the green turtleneck, glasses, hat and headphones was anything but level-headed. He flailed his arms. He shouted four-letter words. He took one glaring look at the fan whose hands had gotten in the way of the ball's descent and then another as he was walking back to his position in left field.
The message he was sending: I got robbed! No, we got robbed!
"I timed it perfectly, I jumped perfectly," Alou said after the game, via the Associated Press. "I'm almost 100 percent that I had a clean shot to catch the ball. All of a sudden, there's a hand on my glove."
Alou didn't actually have to catch the ball for Castillo to be declared out. Mike Everitt was the umpire manning the left field line, and it was up to him whether the play qualified as fan interference. Had he seen things a certain way, the fan who touched the ball could have been let off the hook.
But as Everitt saw it, there was no doubt what the right call was.
"The ball was in the stands. It was clear," Everitt said, via the AP. "I just zeroed in on the ball, and it was an easy call."
With Everitt's decision made, Castillo stepped back into the box against Prior. The at-bat ended up lasting one more pitch, as Prior uncorked a wild fastball to the backstop that put Castillo on base via a walk and moved Pierre over to third base.
It was at this moment, according to Leitch's telling of the tale, that the crowd started up the "A--hole! A--hole!" chant, and there was no mystery as to where it was being directed: the fan with the turtleneck, glasses, cap and headphones who had the nerve to stick his hands out for a foul ball.
With the atmosphere in Friendly Confines getting more tense by the second, Prior quickly went up 0-2 on the next hitter, former AL MVP Ivan Rodriguez. But then Prior hung a curveball over the middle of the plate that Pudge slammed it into left field for an RBI single. The Marlins, at long last, were on the board.
“If anything haunts me about that game,” Prior recently said to the San Diego Union-Tribune, “it’s my 0-2 breaking ball over the plate to Pudge Rodriguez.”
That 0-2 hanger could have been the last pitch thrown by Prior. His pitch count was way over 100, and there was blood in the water. With flame-throwing reliever Kyle Farnsworth warming in the Cubs bullpen, Baker could have gotten Prior out of there.
Instead, Baker left Prior in, and a budding disaster bloomed into a full one.
The next pitch Prior threw was a breaking ball to a 20-year-old wunderkind named Miguel Cabrera. It did what it was designed to do, getting Cabrera out on his front foot where all he could do was punch a slow chopper in the direction of shortstop Alex Gonzalez.
But Gonzalez, normally one of the surest-handed shortstops in the game, booted it.
"For whatever reason, I didn't catch the ball," Gonzalez said, via the AP. "It seemed like the spin on the ball ate me up. I didn't think it would get to me that fast."
Said Lofton: "I've always said that if Gonzalez would have fielded that ground ball, that easy double-play ball, we would have been out of the inning and we wouldn’t be talking about it."
It being the other play, of course.
Gonzalez's error loaded the bases for Derrek Lee, and he rocketed the first pitch he saw into left field for a double that scored two runs. Like that, it was a tie ballgame at 3-3.
That was it for Prior, who was relieved by Farnsworth. The hits, however, kept coming.
Jeff Conine hit a sacrifice fly that gave the Marlins the lead at 4-3. Mordecai doubled to drive in three runs and make it 7-3. Pierre singled him home for good measure, upping the Marlins' lead to a commanding 8-3.
As for the fan who had reached out for Castillo's foul ball, he was gone by the time the Marlins put the finishing touches on their rally. At some point while it was going on and the crowd was growing more and more rabid, security came and extracted him from hostile territory.
Dan McGrath was supervising coverage of the game for the Chicago Tribune that evening, and he was there to witness Bartman's escorted escape from the stands. He wrote in The New York Times in 2011:
...I headed downstairs and witnessed a chaotic scene in the tunnel through which a Wrigley Field security detail was removing [the fan] from the park for his own protection — more than a few louts in the crowd were screaming insults and pelting him with beer cups, peanuts and balled-up scorecards. It was vicious, stupid stuff.
In Alex Gibney's 2011 ESPN documentary Catching Hell, it was revealed that the security staff kept the fan out of sight in a dispatch room until the game was over. While waiting, he got to see not only replay after replay of the foul ball that had caromed off his hands but the end of the game as well.
The Cubs mounted no threats in the eighth or ninth, going down in order against Marlins closer Ugueth Urbina. The final score was 8-3, and the series was tied up 3-3 with Game 7 scheduled for the next day.
Game 7, however, wasn't the story. The fan who deflected the ball was. All anybody wanted to talk about was the guy in the turtleneck, glasses, hat and headphones.
The thing is that nobody knew who the fan was. Not at first, anyway. Maybe there's an alternate universe out there in which things stayed that way, and to this day, the guy in the turtleneck, glasses, hat and headphones is referred to simply as "that one fan."
But in this universe, his name soon came out. It was Steve Bartman who had stuck his hands out.
Game 6 of the NLCS happened on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, the mystery fan was given a name thanks to the Chicago Sun-Times.
This according to ESPN.com, which noted that the Sun-Times was the first to publish Bartman's name, not to mention his age, place of residence and what he did for a living. Like that, whatever hope he might have had of remaining anonymous was gone.
Eventually, Bartman chose not to remain silent. He issued an apologetic statement, via the Associated Press:
There are few words to describe how awful I feel and what I have experienced within these last 24 hours.
I've been a Cub fan all my life and fully understand the relationship between my actions and the outcome of the game. I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moises Alou, much less that he may have had a play.
Had I thought for one second that the ball was playable or had I seen Alou approaching I would have done whatever I could to get out of the way and give Alou a chance to make the catch.
To Moises Alou, the Chicago Cubs organization, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, and Cub fans everywhere 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.
There's no question that Bartman's statement was from the heart and more or less what everyone wanted/needed to hear, but it was too late. A mass freak-out was already underway, and a connection between Bartman and the dreaded Curse of the Billy Goat had already been established.
For example, T.J. Quinn, then of the New York Daily News, wrote: "The Cubs have had black cats and goats and Leon Durham's legs. Now they have a cat in black who reached for a foul ball in the eighth inning last night, knocking the ball away from Moises Alou's glove, and became part of the Cubs' inglorious history."
Mind you, it wasn't just those looking to sell papers who saw Bartman as an agent of the curse. The Chicago Tribune caught up with some fans who were feeling the curse and, by extension, were pessimistic about Game 7.
"I think they're done now. It's the curse, no question," said one fan. "They were five outs away."
"They've got no chance after this," said another. "How do you come back after that?"
As it turned out, you don't.
The Cubs had their chances in Game 7, but the outcome seemed set in stone as soon as Cabrera launched a three-run homer in the first inning against Kerry Wood.
It's easy to forget that the Cubs actually battled back to take a 5-3 lead in the third inning, but that's because it's easier to remember how quickly that lead was erased. The Marlins scored six runs of their own between the fifth and seventh to take a 9-5 lead.
The final score ended up being 9-6, and that was it for the Cubs. The drought counter officially moved up to 95 years since the last World Series championship.
Afterward, the focus should have been on how and why the Cubs lost Game 7. Instead, people were still hung up on how and why the Cubs had lost Game 6.
On Thursday [the day after Game 7], Chicagoans continued to debate how this new chapter, the Bartman incident, would fit into the Cubs' tangled history. Mr. Bartman's critics claimed that he had doomed the Cubs' chances, and his defenders -- seemingly a growing bunch -- claimed that Cubs fans were trying to blame the team's athletic failings on an innocent spectator.
If you want to take the Chicago Tribune's word for it, Bartman was absolved by Cubs fans in a matter of months. A poll conducted in January of 2004 found that 58 percent never blamed Bartman in the first place, while only 25 percent were still upset about the foul ball that had glanced off his hands.
But then, actually absolving Bartman of any wrongdoing was sort of beside the point. He was a story all the same, one that had already taken on a life of its own.
First, there was the matter of the ball itself, which had ended up not in Bartman's hands, but in the hands of a guy who was sitting behind him. He might as well have caught a winning lottery ticket.
According to ESPN's Darren Rovell, the Bartman ball was expected to go for around $10,000 at auction. It ended up going for 10 times as much when it was bought by Grant DePorter, managing partner of Harry Caray's Restaurant Group in Chicago, for $106,600.
DePorter's plan for the ball was to display it at the restaurant until fans came up with a good way to destroy it. In early 2004, it was determined that the ball was going to be blown up.
"That ball's gotta go," said DePorter, via the Associated Press. "It's like the ring from 'The Lord of the Rings' and we're kind of like Frodo, trying to get it over with."
Eventually, bits of the exploded ball ended up in spaghetti sauce. One supposes (sarcastically, mind you) that was inevitable.
Beyond the ball, there was the matter of Bartman himself. It only took two years for ESPN to dream up a feature on the "most reclusive man in sports," one that sent Wayne Drehs on a mission to track Bartman down in 2005.
Drehs basically had to stalk Bartman in order to meet him face-to-face. And when he did, he found a guy who had no interest in talking.
That's still the case. Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune noted over the weekend that Bartman has basically chosen to become "the J.D. Salinger of sports fans." His first public statement was also his last, and no offers, financial or otherwise, have been able to draw him back into the spotlight.
While Bartman has remained in hiding and time has moved on, various high-profile reminders of the Game 6 incident have popped up here and there.
It was five years after the fact in 2008 that Alou changed the tune he was singing in 2003 by admitting that he wouldn't have caught the ball even if Bartman's hand hadn't gotten in the way.
"Everywhere I play, even now, people still yell, 'Bartman! Bartman!' I feel really bad for the kid," Alou said, via ESPN.com. He added: "You know what the funny thing is? I wouldn't have caught it, anyway."
In 2011, Catching Hell hit the airwaves. The film reconstructed the incident in ways that had never been done before and offered a ponderous comparison of Bartman to Bill Buckner, the goat of the 1986 World Series.
And now here we are on October 14, 2013, 10 years to the day after Bartman extended his hands to try and catch Castillo's foul ball. I suspect those of us who saw it still remember it like it was yesterday.
Certainly one thing the overwhelming majority of us can agree on these many years later is that Bartman did nothing wrong. Other fans around him went reaching for Castillo's foul ball just as he did, and every last one of us would have done the same thing had we been in Bartman's shoes.
Point being: It's not Bartman's fault. This was true 10 years ago. It's still true now.
Yet while we sympathize, we can't move on. A decade later, the curious case of Steve Bartman still strikes a chord.
It's worth it to ask the simple question: Why?
Why Are We Still Talking About Steve Bartman?
Perhaps the simplest answer to this question is the one that was provided in the comparison between Bartman and Buckner in Catching Hell.
The film pointed out how fans of the Boston Red Sox didn't completely get over their bitter feelings for Buckner until after the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. There was no point in feeling bitter about Buckner anymore. His error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series was water under the bridge when the Red Sox finally snapped the Curse of the Bambino.
Given what happened with Buckner, one supposes that poor Bartman's unfortunate gaffe won't be water under the bridge until after the Cubs win the World Series. When that happens, their past futility and heartbreaks will be just part of the story rather than the story.
When I proposed the notion of a Cubs triumph eventually getting Bartman off the hook to Kenny Lofton, he would have none of it.
"It's the media who wants to make Bartman the goat in this whole thing," he said, clearly annoyed. "I can't use him as a reason for anything. Off the hook? There is no off the hook."
OK, so it's the media's fault. And in this case, yeah, I would agree that the media has perpetuated the Bartman story. Part of the reason fans haven't forgotten about it because the media hasn't let them.
It is, however, the media's job to keep tabs on history. It's also the media's job to keep tabs on stories of interest. To that end, the Bartman story is undeniably fascinating.
And one must admit, it's taken on a whole new level of fascination as Bartman has remained silent and out of sight over the years.
Sullivan's comparison of Bartman to J.D. Salinger is too perfect. Salinger's reclusiveness gave birth to a cult fascination that augmented his legacy. In addition to being a great writer, he became a great mystery. And as much as people are fascinated by great writing, they're fascinated by great mysteries even more.
Through his own disappearance, Bartman has also become a great mystery. And the degree to how deep the mystery goes is the really intriguing part.
In terms of words, Bartman's statement and the awkward conversation he had with Drehs in 2005 is all we have. In terms of visuals, that image of Bartman in the green turtleneck, glasses, hat and headphones is the only one we have. As Deadspin pointed out in 2011, Bartman hasn't even surfaced on the Internet in the last decade, an astonishing feat indeed in this day and age.
As much as any of us want to see him as just a random guy who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Bartman is more of a concept now. He can be dressed up as for Halloween, and sitting in his seat at Wrigley Field is the kind of thing worthy of a pilgrimage. People don't do things like these as homages to random guys.
Random guys, after all, are men of flesh and blood who easily fade from memory. Bartman's chosen to be a ghost, and ghosts don't fade from memory so easily.
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