CHAPTER SIX: STEVE BARTMAN AND THE OUTSIDER
In winning the 2004 World Series, the Boston Red Sox at once ended 86 years of futility and expunged Buckner of his transgressions in 1986. The Chicago Cubs, Buckner’s former team, have not been nearly as lucky. The Loveable Losers have not won a World Series title since 1908 and last won an NL pennant in 1945. Like with the Red Sox, Cubs fans are notorious for believing in curses, a notion that dates back to 1945, when Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis declared,” Them Cubs, they aren’t gonna win no more” after the Wrigley Field staff refused to allow his pet goat into the stadium. Chicago, like Boston, is a town with a history of baseball disappointment, and the pain of losing was presumed personal. But a loaded roster in 2003 promised hope. Dusty Baker had come to the Windy City after leading San Francisco to the World Series the year prior. The lineup included the dynamic pitching duo of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, not to mention an outfield featuring the powerful Sammy Sosa in right and Moises Alou in left, as well a solid defensive middle, anchored by sure-handed shortstop Alex Gonzalez. After beating the Braves in the divisional round, the Cubs entered National League Championship Series against the upstart Florida Marlins. Chicago went up 3-2 in the series, and held a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning of Game 6 at Wrigley Field on Oct. 14, 2003. Only five more outs after Mike Mordecai flew out to left, and the Cubs would go to the World Series. For fans, this would end all of the suffering and the ill will.
Like Red Sox devotees, Chicago fans also look for harbingers of doom. One came in the seventh inning, when comedian Bernie Mac sang “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” Instead of singing, “Let’s root, root, root for the home team,” Mac sang, “Let’s root, root, root, for the champs, champs.” Then in the eighth inning, Luis Castillo curled a foul ball down the left-field line. Alou sprinted towards the stands, and multiple fans leapt to grab a piece of history. “It’s the natural reaction for a fan to want to catch a foul ball,” Gibney says in the documentary. Among those in the stands who reached for the foul ball was Steve Bartman, a youth baseball coach who was wearing a navy sweatshirt, a green turtleneck, a Cubs baseball cap and Sony Walkman headphones. He and others around him in got in Alou’s way, and the ball fell harmlessly into the stands. In response, Alou threw a tantrum on the field, slamming his glove and glaring up at Bartman. “This could be huge,” FOX analyst Steve Lyons said on the broadcast.
Indeed, it proved a turning point in the game, but even more so for Steve Bartman. A wild pitch advanced Juan Pierre, who was on second base when the incident happened, to third. Ivan Rodriguez singled to left, scoring Pierre and cutting the lead down to 3-1. Miguel Cabrera then hit a ground ball to the normally sure-handed Alex Gonzalez, who misplayed a surefire double play. All runners were safe and the bases were loaded. Derrek Lee then doubled, chasing Prior from the game, and Florida went up 4-3 when Jeff Conine hit a sacrifice fly. On that play, Sosa missed the cutoff man, allowing Mike Lowell, who was intentionally walked, to move up to second base. A bases-clearing double from Mordecai gave the Marlins a 7-3 lead, a margin which was upped to 8-3 when Pierre singled.
The Man With The Headphones
As AP sports columnist Jim Litke said, “When Alou goes, ‘I could have had it, I could have had it,’ everybody in the ballpark went, ‘Yeah, we could have had it.’” First baseman Eric Karros described the Wrigley Field atmosphere as deflated following Alou’s missed opportunity. But the blame fell squarely on Bartman, even though, like with Buckner, there was another game to be played in the series. The next night at Wrigley Field, Florida overcame a 5-3 deficit to capture the pennant, 9-6, and went on to win the World Series over the New York Yankees. Cub fans were left to wallow in self-pity yet again, and looked for someone to blame for the newest bout of sorrow. There were so many other things that went wrong, especially Gonzalez’s boot at shortstop, but few can recall the events after Bartman interfered with Alou. Were the players choking, or did Bartman invoke the Cubs’ curse?
Rather than blame their beloved players, fans seemed content with showering hatred onto the defenseless man sitting in the front row, on the innocent soul who simply wanted what every other fan arrives at the ballpark hoping for: a foul ball. As a television producer said, “The human element took over.” Indeed, the human tendency to scapegoat took center stage in the Wrigley Field stands; fans seemed to forget that there was a game going on, directing the innate desire for violence described by Girard onto Bartman. Even though there was no JumboTron or instant replay inside the archaic Friendly Confines, fans positioned outside the stadium were listening to radios. One was even standing with a television on his head; fans could thus see replays of the Bartman incident, which incited a chant of, “A—hole. A—hole” that spread like wildfire into the bleachers. The anger, along with the chant, built. People started pointing at him and made Bartman the scapegoat. It got to, as Gibney described, “a fever pitch.” Home videos taken during the game show fans screaming things like, “Rot in Hell,” “We’re going to kill you” and “Everyone in Chicago hates you.” One young adult was getting bombarded by an entire city.
A mob mentality developed, reminiscent of an entire city casting its sins on a helpless goat in Leviticus. As one talking head described, it went from a “Mardi Gras atmosphere to a funeral.” Fans began pelting Bartman with beers, hurling obscenities as he sat stone-faced, only looking ahead at the field. When security finally escorted Bartman and his two friends out of Wrigley Field, people started booing, jumping down from their seats to point and scream at the newfound scapegoat. “I’ve been covering sports for 30-some-odd years, and I’ve been to English football matches, World Cup matches, drunken NFL, final two minutes where guys are really aggravated, and this kid was taking a lot of abuse,” Litke said. Like the goat was ritualistically led out of the city in Biblical times, so too was Bartman literally led out of Wrigley Field, trailed by a crowd exhibiting a “lynch-mob mentality.”
In his postgame press conference, Baker refuted the notion of curses, instead saying that it was “about the fan interference.” Even though he later mentioned Gonzalez’s error, Bartman came first on the manager’s list of goats. Governor Rod Blagojevich said, “If anyone convicts that guy of a crime, he’ll never get a pardon out of this governor.” A lifelong Cubs fan, ESPN writer Wayne Drehs later asked, “What are we going to do, take him out to the center of town and throw snowballs at him? It’s a sickening feeling.” Yet in antiquity, thrown snowballs would likely be the least of the scapegoat’s problems. A postgame radio show on WGN received a call saying that Bartman’s address had been found, and a mob was going to go kill him. In “Catching Hell,” host David Kaplan said, “I was on the air, a) as a therapist, trying to talk people off the ledge, and b) trying to calm people down, saying, ‘It is not Steve Bartman’s fault that this team gave up eight runs.’” No real violence was ever inflicted against Bartman, but his life has clearly changed forever. He not publically surfaced since the incident, refusing requests for autographs and trade show appearances, even when offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to show his face. In a very real way, Steve Bartman was kicked out of the community and had the town gates shut behind him.
A Story About The Fans
Can we pinpoint a reason as to why Bartman was scapegoated and not, for instance, Alex Gonzalez? Bartman’s subservient demeanor and geeky wardrobe may have contributed, but he was fundamentally an outsider from the moment he stepped into that stadium. Steve Bartman was a fan. Ever since Bill Buckner, scapegoating players has faded out of common practice. Managers and, in Bartman’s case, fans, seem more likely to get blamed than the players actually playing the game. But there have been other cases of fan interference, most notably with Jeffrey Maier, when the then-12-year-old deflected a batted ball into the stands during Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS between the Yankees and the Orioles. Maier never received any criticism, and was even hailed as a hero in New York. As stated earlier, scapegoats often arise in major media markets, but the Yankees came out on the winning end of that game, and the game was played in New York. Had the situation been reversed, had Maier interfered with a Yankees right-fielder and cost New York the game, he almost certainly would have been vilified as a scapegoat just like Bartman.
Like with Buckner, partial blame rests with the media. The replay was shown constantly in the hours following the game. The popular ESPN show, “Pardon the Interruption,” had a segment the next day where hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon ranked the people who should receive the blame on a “Food Chain.” People to be ranked included Gonzalez, Prior, Mac, Baker and the Billy Goat. But Wilbon put the “Headset Man” atop his list. Everyone began wondering as to Bartman’s identity, and the truth finally came out for “Chicago’s Most Wanted.” The Chicago Sun-Times eventually broke the news, publishing Bartman’s name, hometown and place of employment. Police surrounded his house to keep him safe and to keep others away. Lyons recognized that the media has to replay the clip over and over again, but must share in the blame. The consensus among those on the television production side interviewed for “Catching Hell” was that they had a job to do, but from a humanist perspective they were unhappy with how everything turned out for Bartman. But as one caller to WGN said, “I think the big factor was the crowd’s reaction. Everyone that was there just was clenching, and I think if the fans had let it go and just continue to be behind the Cubs and support them, I think it would have been a totally different outcome.”
To label Bartman as a scapegoat means that Chicago fans needed him to play a certain role. Reverend Kathleen Rolenz, a Unitarian minister in Rocky River, Ohio, devoted an entire sermon to the Steve Bartman incident. Citing Leviticus as the basis of her sermon, Rolenz said in the documentary, “The goat is innocent. The whole idea of the scapegoat is you take an innocent thing and you put your sins upon it. Scapegoats are solitary and vulnerable, so in that sense, he was the perfect scapegoat.” Bartman appeared about as solitary and vulnerable as a person in his situation could appear. Though he attended the game with two friends, he said only a few words after the incident occurred. His wardrobe caused him to stand out, and he looked a little bit “dorky.” Unlike Merkle, Snodgrass and Buckner, Bartman is a true scapegoat in that he was a true outsider. He had no ties to the Chicago Cubs other than a lifelong love for the organization, so fans found it easy to blame him. After all, they needed someone on whom to cast blame, lest they fault their beloved Cubs, a notion absolutely out of the question.
Also unlike the aforementioned three case studies, Bartman was not a public figure. He did not live a life constantly hounded by the media. Baseball players accept the scrutiny and criticism inherent with their job, especially when associated with mistakes they make in critical situations. Bartman wanted none of that. He was a reclusive soul made a scapegoat by a city desperate to cast blame elsewhere. Shortly after the incident, Bartman asked for forgiveness, issuing a short apology statement. Scapegoats, however, do not get the opportunity to apologize. Their role is simple: to take on the ill will and the sins of a nation and walk silently into the abyss. Still in hiding, Steve Bartman has done just that.