Reaction: Catching Hell/Steve Bartman

If you missed ESPN’s excellent Steve Bartman documentary, Catching Hell, this past week, you really missed out. This was originally going to be a part of their 30 for 30 series last fall, but they decided to give director Alex Gibney more time to finish it instead of rushing it to air. Whoa, giving the director more time in order to make a film better? This is a thing unheard of. It was certainly one of the films I was most looking forward to when they first started airing the trailers for the series. Anyway, it was well worth the wait. I’d have paid money to see this in the theater.

Gibney, a well-known documentary filmmaker, previously directed, among other things, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side (for which he won an Oscar), and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. He grew up a Boston sports fan, and chose to view this subject through a larger scope as a classic case of sports scapegoating. I wanna say the first 20% of the movie is about the other biggest example of sports scapegoating, Bill Buckner‘s error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The film shows what reasonable people already knew, that the Red Sox sure as hell didn’t lose that World Series because of the Buckner play alone, yet that one moment stood as a symbol of Red Sox futility for nearly 20 years until October 27, 2004.

I’ve always been fascinated by the whole “Steve Bartman Incident“, not necessarily for what actually happened that night, but because of what has happened (or better put, what hasn’t happened) since. I’ve also always been fascinated by well-known recluses, and Bartman certainly qualifies as that.

I don’t need to rehash what happened. If you’re a sports fan, especially a baseball fan, you know the details. Wrigley Field, 2003 NLCS Game 6, Cubs/Marlins, 8th inning, foul ball, Moises Alou, Steve Bartman, Cubs fans, media. That about sums it up. The Cubs led 3-0 going into the 8th inning. The Bartman Incident happened, and when the 8th inning was finally over, the Marlins had put up 8 runs and snuffed the life out of Chicago. And somehow Steve Bartman becomes the symbol of that massive collapse.

Oh fine. In case you’re one of the 18 people in America who have no idea what I’m talking about:

What Catching Hell does is show us a lot of never-before-seen footage from the stands around Bartman. And what we see isn’t pretty. Seeing this stuff puts the whole thing in much better perspective. It’s obvious now why Bartman was such a perfect scapegoat. It seems if it had been any other fan in that area doing the exact same thing, we wouldn’t still be talking about this 8 years later. If this had been some drunk asshole who was being loud and obnoxious, I don’t think we look at it the same way as we do know. Anyone else in that section would’ve done an interview by now and grabbed their 15 minutes. He even has the perfect name for a nerdy looking scapegoat: Steve Bartman. That sounds like a guy you can pick on without facing serious repercussions. This wouldn’t happen to a Vinny DiMaccio.

It’s odd watching Bartman’s reaction, in that he almost has none. He just sits there, staring forward, not even removing his headphones, as the crowd around him slowly reaches a boiling point and focuses its rage in his direction. How many of us would have immediately gotten up and left once we realized what was happening? Was he in shock? Was he afraid to leave by himself? Was he still listening to the radio call of the game on his headphones and couldn’t hear what was going on around him? I find that hard to believe. It’s also strange that the two people to his right were supposedly there withhim (his friend and the friend’s girlfriend), but at no point do they say anything to him or he to them. It seems more like Bartman gave his other two tickets to two random people on the street before the game. The film shows him at one point turning to a woman behind him (whom he didn’t know), and she’s in the film being interviewed claiming he asked her if he’d done anything wrong. Then, even as almost the entire crowd is chanting “Ass-hole” at him, he still doesn’t move. Security has to actually come and escort him out. I want to know from Bartman what he was thinking that entire time.

It’s strange that Bartman didn’t even catch the ball that made him famous. Some other guy caught it, proudly showed it off when he did (yet oddly took no heat from the enraged crowd), and even profited greatly when he sold the ball after the fact. The film shows the play from several previously unseen viewpoints, and even uses some cool visual effects to show just how many other people were going for that same ball, and shows that yes, Alou probably would have caught the ball if not for Bartman’s hands. But does that alone mean the game could not have been won regardless? Of course not. The Cubs fucked that up all by themselves on the field. Alou could have caught the ball, but it WAS outside the field of play, meaning it was all of those fans’ right within the rules of the game to try and catch it themselves. And try they did, but because it touched Bartman and not Alou’s glove, he gets to take the blame. It wasn’t Bartman’s fault the Cubs lost Game 6, and he sure as hell wasn’t around for Game 7, which the Cubs lost all by their lonesome at home in Wrigley, officially ending their best chance in 50 years to win the World Series.

What interests me about that night is the new footage we’re shown in this film. On one side, there’s Bartman’s odd, deer-in-headlights reaction. On the other side is the disgraceful, despicable way Bartman was treated by that crowd. In fact, the only thing Bartman did do afterwards was write a very heartfelt apology to the Cubs and to Cubs fans, something he certainly didn’t have to do. We hear a bunch of people cursing at him and threatening him as if he’d just killed one of their children. It was a classic case of mob mentality. Those people had found one guy they could focus on after the Cubs gave up all those runs, and that guy wasn’t gonna fight back. This of course brought the pathetic, primitive bullies out in many of those fans. What balls on these assholes who walked up and threw beer at him. How fucking courageous. I don’t think I’d seen that before, and I wanted to punch something after looking at it. What bravado it must take to anonymously yell, “We’re gonna kill you!” at someone you don’t know who did nothing to you. That kind of public group cowardice is rarely on display, and is infuriating to watch when you can’t do anything about it.

The man is absolutely terrified. I feel guilty, and I wasn’t even there! It just goes to show how degenerate we can be in moments like that. If only someone had had the courage to get Bartman’s back in the stands, instead of everyone just standing there, clueless. And what a hero this friend of his was. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Also, it appears the reaction by Wrigley’s security was way too slow. It was simply a perfect storm. The crowd was Katrina, and Steve Bartman played the role of New Orleans.

This whole thing happened right at the dawn of HDTV, and just a couple years before everybody had a phone camera or other handheld video recording device. Would people be so bold in assailing someone like that today, when in the back of their mind they know they’re gonna be caught in a photo and on video? It’s interesting to think about. I think the answer is yes, but to a lesser extent. A drunk asshole is gonna be a drunk asshole whether he’s on camera or not.

I feel bad that this documentary, good and fair as it is, will bring Bartman back into the spotlight, especially in the Chicago area. Maybe he was living a semi-normal life again, not having to worry about keeping an ultra-low profile, and now all those people he works with or people who see him frequently may be reminded that a new photo of him or video of him walking down the street would be worth a good amount of money to the right people in today’s media. I find it somewhat amusing that they couldn’t find out where he lives now. I bet if you turned some of these animals in the Los Angeles paparazzi loose around Chicago, they’d find him in about 30 minutes.

After reading several Where is he now? stories in recent days, it seems the only thing the media knows about Bartman in 2011 is who his lawyer is; a lawyer whose sole job for this particular client is to say “No” to everybody. This lawyer has confirmed that Bartman is doing well, still lives and works in the Chicago area, and is still a devoted Cubs fan…and that’s about all we know about him. I find that incredible, and almost unfathomable. There were rumors that Bartman may have changed his appearance or moved to Florida or London, but his lawyer has denied this, and it was confirmed by the one reporter who was able to find him back in 2005 [read that strange, fascinating story HERE]. Other than that, in 8 years, nobody has spotted him and told the tale, nobody’s taken a picture of him, none of his friends or co-workers have turned on him for money. That seems to me to be an impossible feat in this day and age. He must be one nice guy that NO ONE he works with has gone to some newspaper or TV show or website like Deadspinand offered information for financial reward. If only we all could have friends that loyal. You could even do it anonymously, and still not a peep. How intriguingly odd. I want Bartman to explain how he’s pulled that off.

You really have to admire this guy’s willpower in staying out of the media and not publicly cashing in. Even Moises Alou doesn’t mind revisiting the incident. The film shows that he still signs copies of this famous image:

But what does Alou care in the end? He made more than $80 million in his MLB career, and lives like a king back in the Dominican Republic. Cubs fans certainly didn’t put any blame on him for 2003. Imagine if Bartman bought one of those autographed photos and signed it as well, and had it authenticated by MLB? Just one? What would that be worth to the right person? $50K, minimum, I’d guess. Hell, he could sell the sweatshirt he was wearing that night. The Cubs hat he was wearing. The headphones! That’s probably another $100,000 at least if he sold it to the right wealthy, nutcase Cubs fan. Hell, he could have donated that stuff for free to the Baseball Hall of Fame. As far as we know, he hasn’t done anything of the sort. Nothing at all to bring attention to himself. He’s also turned down probably dozens of opportunities for paid TV interviews. He even reportedly rejected a 6-figure payday to appear in a Super Bowl commercial that would’ve made light of the incident. Wow. How many of us could resist all of that? If he had played it right, the guy could probably have made over a million dollars off this. That’s life-changing money basically for doing nothing.

-Check out this interesting article on Deadspin: How has Steve Bartman avoided showing up on the internet after all these years?

Despite his actions, I have to believe Bartman has got to be dying to tell his side of the story, and literally millions of people (including me) want to know what life has been like for this guy for the past 8 years. The longer it gets and the longer he’s able to stay hidden from the limelight, the more interesting I think he becomes. What does he look like almost 10 years later? In our media-crazy society, we’re not used to being denied access to someone we want to see. We can’t have Steve Bartman, and thus grows the fascination.

Has he not cashed in because he doesn’t want to be seen to have profited off the failure of his beloved team? Is he still afraid for his safety? Or has he genuinely moved on, and simply doesn’t want to make it a big deal again? Unfortunately, he may not realize that it’s going to be a big deal until he comes forward. That’s just how our society works. He’s famous, whether he likes it or not, and he’s going to be famous until he allows Cubs fans to put it behind them by telling his story. Of course, that’s not right, but it is the reality of it. He doesn’t owe Cubs fans a damn thing. Quite the opposite. He also doesn’t owe the media a ratings boost by finally granting an interview. They owe it to him to never bother him again. But that won’t happen, because the interest is still there, and it’s going to be there for as long as he stays quiet. It’s sort of a Catch-22 in that sense. I for one would love to see him do a 60 Minutes interview and be done with it. It would be a great interview (I’d have Steve Kroft do it), and I’d love to see them bring Bartman into Wrigley Field, back to his famous seat, with no one else in the ballpark, and do part of the interview there. That would be perfect. But that’s the dramatist in me.

The other obvious question is how does this end? How does this stalemate break? From what I understand, the Cubs have offered to bring him back to Wrigley as some kind of guest of honor, but he has steadfastly refused. I’d even be willing to bet 99% of Cubs fans would welcome him back with a roaring “We’re sorry” ovation. At this point, they all understand he’s been through enough, and that no one should have to go into hiding for doing something anybody else would have done under the same circumstances. Is it that he doesn’t want that attention? He doesn’t want to appear to get special treatment? Partly, I bet. If he wanted attention, he’d have gone down that road years ago. I’m no psychologist, but I believe a big part of it for him is the fear that one person from that one percent of douchebags and crazies might actually be stupid or drunk enough to try and hurt him, most likely outside the park. And you know what? I understand that fear. Even if he’s protected as if he were President Obama inside Wrigley, there’s only so much protection he can receive once he leaves the park. Would someone follow him home? I’m willing to bet it’s that scenario that keeps him away still, and I don’t think it’s at all an unreasonable fear.

I see only one way to lift this cloud. I don’t see this situation changing for Bartman until the Cubs finally win the World Series, and these bad memories and stupid curses no longer matter. As I said earlier, the film makes a great comparison showing how Bill Buckner finally came back to Fenway to a standing ovation on Opening Day in 2008 to throw out the first pitch, only after the Sox had won the World Series for the second time in 4 years, the Curse of the Bambino long since dead and buried. Buckner said it took him that long to come back to Fenway, because it wasn’t so much the fans he had to forgive, but the media. I think it’s almost exactly the same for Bartman. Yes, the fans at Wrigley that night were horrible, but the reason he had to go into hiding was because of quickly and frequently the media exposed him. Most fans now seem have gotten over it. Really though, it doesn’t matter if Chicago can “forgive” Steve Bartman. The question is under what circumstances would Bartman forgive Chicago? It’d be a damn shame if this guy was never again able to step foot into the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field.

Wrigley is one of the sports venues I’m most desperate to see a game at in my lifetime, and when I do go, I want to sit in The Bartman Seat; section 4, row 8, seat 113.

NOTE: Catching Hell should still be replaying on one of the various ESPN networks. If you search YouTube, someone has put it up in 10 different parts, or you can search a torrent site if you’re into that kind of thing. Regardless, it’s required viewing if you’re at all interested in anything I’ve written about in this post.

-ESPN recently did another great piece (by the same writer who found Bartman in 2005) about one of the guys nearby who almost caught the Bartman ball. Check it out: Almost Infamous.

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