Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Steve Bartman Legend Lives Forever, But No One Should Be Happy

After some channel-surfing Tuesday night, it dawned on me that ESPN's "Catching Hell" documentary was on, and I had really wanted to watch it.

Boy, am I glad I did. It was an incredible two-hour program, directed by Alex Gibney. The show focused on Steve Bartman, the Cubs fan who kept outfielder Moises Alou from catching a foul pop in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. After Alou failed to make the catch, the Cubs melted down, allowing Florida to score eight runs in the inning in an 8-3 win. Florida won Game 7 the next night to keep the Cubs from making their first World Series since the 1940s.

That Bartman became a bit of a celebrity was not a surprise. But anyone who remembers watching that game probably can recall the chilling images broadcast by Fox that night. Images of Bartman sitting in his seat near the friends he brought to the game, but looking like the loneliest guy in the stadium. The images of angry fans throwing beer and food at Bartman ... fans swearing at a guy they had never met and would never meet. Security escorting this then-anonymous Cubs fan from his seat -- not because he had done anything wrong, but for his own damn safety.

Eight years later, Gibney's fantastic documentary brought all those images back to the forefront. For this viewer, it was put together fantastically. I went to bed thinking about the stories that were told, and the pictures we saw. It brought back a lot of memories of sitting in a radio studio and watching the events unfold.

The next day, I did a talk show, and listened as callers -- one by one -- skewered Bartman as if he had actually done something wrong. It could only have been worse for those actually in Chicago. In the end, the majority of fans understood that Bartman only did what they would have done in that same position.

"Everyone else is/was doing it" is rarely an argument that can be used to justify behavior. In this case, it's the only argument you need.

Other fans in attendance were reaching for that ball. The fan who got it was proud of his accomplishment, and he profited about it. Bartman wasn't alone that night. He was simply the one the ball hit.

In the documentary, Gibney talked to many people who were sitting near Bartman. He shows amateur videos taken from inside the stadium, helping virtually confirm that Alou would have caught the ball had it not been touched by a fan. Since the ball was technically in the stands, fan interference was not going to be called, as the ball was fair game. Bartman didn't reach into the field of play, which would have led to an automatic out.

Bartman has lived in seclusion since, turning down multiple big-money offers to appear at events and/or tell his story. Somehow, he has avoided the celebrity that seemed so inevitable on that night, and he still manages to live in Chicago.

At the end of the documentary, the idea was brought up that it's not up to Chicago to forgive Bartman, but the other way around. After all the heat he took, all the abuse he got in the stadium and all the abuse people tried to direct his way in the aftermath, it's Bartman who gets to do the forgiving.

Based on his silence over these eight years, it doesn't seem he's too interested. Maybe he doesn't think it matters. But he doesn't seem interested.


It's a sad commentary on our society when it comes to our sports. People blame Bartman for what happened, easily forgetting Alex Gonzalez booting an easy double-play grounder, Mark Prior melting down as his pitch count rose, Dusty Baker leaving Prior in way too long, the Cubs bullpen failing to get anyone out, and the Cubs getting an awful performance from their pitchers in losing Game 7 the next night.

Why is it Steve Bartman's fault, when all he did was something most everyone around him was doing? If he hadn't hit that ball, someone else would have. And Moises Alou still would have been pissed.

The fan behavior was appalling. The only even remotely-related incident I can think of is how Aaron Rodgers was treated in Green Bay after taking over for Brett Favre. It wasn't Rodgers' call to make Favre retire and anoint Rodgers as the starter. Favre made himself retire, and the Packers' brass decided to move on. Rodgers was simply the guy who benefited, yet people acted as if he should have begged out of the job.

Unlike Bartman, Rodgers worked to win the fans over, and he did so very quickly. By the time Favre made his return to Lambeau Field as a member of the Vikings, Rodgers had the full support of nearly everyone in Green Bay. Yes, there were some who stuck by Favre, but it wasn't the majority, like it was at times in August 2008.

Bartman may never experience what Rodgers did in Green Bay, no matter the similarities -- passion, loyalty, tradition -- that exist with the franchises and fanbases. Part of it is that Bartman doesn't ever have to insert himself into the spotlight. The comparisons to Bill Buckner on Tuesday's documentary made that clear. Buckner was a public figure in 1986, and he continued to be a public figure. When he returned to Fenway Park after Boston's 2007 title, he was warmly received by fans who would have jeered him 20 years prior.

Even if the Cubs win a World Series, why would Bartman come out of hiding? What would he get out of it? Forgiveness he has never sought?

Bartman is a sympathetic figure because of how he was treated, and he remains one today because he has stayed away from his beloved Cubs. No one in Chicago that night should be proud of how that was handled, and his story remains a cautionary tale on the price of unwanted fame.

Gibney and ESPN should be saluted for the work done on this show. If you didn't see it, do what you can to watch or record a repeat. It's worth the two hours you will spend watching it.

1 comment:

Donald Dunlop said...

Alex Gibney is without a doubt one of the premiere documentary filmmakers. You can't go wrong watching any of his films. This is one I haven't seen but will because of your post.

Thnx Bruce.

Gibney's IMDb entry