'Catching Hell' and the Improbable Scapegoating of Steve Bartman

Bartman inspired lots of Halloween costumes in 2003, including mine as a Bartman suicide. Classy.

Last year, ESPN Films aired a documentary called Catching Hell, about the Steve Bartman incident. If you’re unfamiliar with the basic details, read the Wikipedia entry for background on what follows.  

I watched the film on Netflix streaming last night. I saw the game at the time, and I was pretty convinced then that Steve Bartman was blameless, an unlucky scapegoat. Watching the film totally confirmed that, but even so, there was a lot I had forgotten and a lot I never realized. Taken together, they make what happened to Steve Bartman pretty mindblowing:  

Many other people went for the ball, yet only Steve Bartman was eventually scapegoated.

•Moises Alou, the Cub left fielder who went for the ball, immediately reacted like it was the fans’ fault that he missed it. Alou’s reaction would be a factor in the ensuing blowup. But there’s no indication that he was yelling directly at Bartman, only at fans in Bartman’s vicinity.

•Of course, there was no guarantee that Alou, never the greatest fielder, would’ve caught the ball had Bartman and all the other fans not gone for it. 

•A strong case can be made that the umpire would’ve been within the rules to call the batter out for fan interference then and there; had that happened, Bartman may well have ended up a hero, like Jeffery Maier is for Yankees fans. But my guess is that umpires are loath to aid the home team when a home fan interferes.

•The Bartman play happened on a foul ball; pitcher Mark Prior still had a chance to retire the batter. Instead, he went on to walk him, with ball four a wild pitch that let a runner on second advance to third.

•Two batters later, Gold Glove shortstop Alex Gonzalez misplayed an easy ground ball that likely would’ve ended the inning with a double play; instead it left the bases loaded.

•Prior then gave up a game-tying double.

•The Marlins ultimately exploded for 8 runs in the inning, turning an 0-3 deficit into an 8-3 lead. But it was just the 8th inning and the Cubs were at home; they had two more at bats to change the outcome; they did nothing.

•While the Cubs were having an epic meltdown on the field; Fox Sports ran continued replays of the Bartman foul ball; this is undeniably what eventually led to Cubs fans everywhere identifying Bartman as the linchpin of their loss.

•Even if Moises Alou had miraculously caught the ball—and it would’ve seemed like a miracle if he had—the inning still would not have been over, there would have only been two outs. Fox Sports could have chosen to endlessly replay the Gonzalez error, which should’ve been a double play that ended the inning. But they didn’t. Which is weird, because in retrospect, a Gold Glove shortstop missing a routine play is a lot more notable than an anonymous fan doing what any anonymous fan would’ve done. Ask Bill Buckner

•There was no big screen in Wrigley showing the replay of the Bartman foul ball and the next pitch happened seconds later. Most fans inside the stadium weren’t aware there was anything controversial with the play at all; immediately after the Bartman play, they were mostly focussed on the Cubs’ incipient on-field meltdown.

•Video evidence strongly suggests that fans in the stadium only began to scapegoat Bartman because one fan in the crowd massed outside the stadium had a portable TV. Watching endless replays on that TV is what stirred them up, and then they intentionally stirred up the fans inside the stadium. Really.

•Within minutes, the mood in the stadium changed from one of despair over the Cubs implosion, to outrage and anger at Steve Bartman.

•The entire stadium chanted “Asshole!” at this poor lifelong Cubs fan who was unlucky enough to touch a ball that probably a dozen other people had reached for. Can you imagine 45,000 people screaming “Asshole!” at you? 

•The security people originally intended to escort out the guy who was next closest to the ball after Bartman. But that guy, in denying that he was the bad actor, seemed to point them to Bartman—unintentionally, he claims. With the security people milling around confusedly in the area, fan anger escalated to the boiling point, further isolating Bartman as the bad guy.

•But, in a way, no one isolated Bartman more than Bartman. Though he was sitting next to three friends—whom he had purchased tickets for—they never appear to talk to him, and he never appears to talk to them, or anyone, during the incident. In fact, he never takes his radio earphones off. While the controversy is roiling, and everyone in his section is standing around and reacting to it, he sits alone in his seat, as if focussing on the game will make everything go away. No matter the reason, his seeming disconnection from the events swirling around him only served to infuriate the crowd further. It is really weird to watch.

•A guy several seats away from Bartman wound up with the ball after it bounced into the stands.

•Oblivious to the play’s potential impact, that fan immediately raised the ball in triumph.

•Not only did the crowd not get pissed at him, he eventually sold the ball for $100,000.

•The purchasers of the ball destroyed it in a publicity stunt.

•Over the years, Steve Bartman has refused offers worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for interviews and public appearances.

•Even before the game was over, Steve Bartman’s life turned into a living hell. His name and address were everywhere within days. He received numerous death threats. To this day, he takes pains to keep out of the public eye.

•And the most amazing fact? The one that most fans, this one included, forget? The Bartman game was only game 6. Whether or not the Bartman play contributed to the loss of that game, the Cubs were not yet eliminated. There was still a game 7. At home. The Cubs lost it. Steve Bartman wasn’t there.