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Catching Hell All Over Again – A Cubs Fan’s 30 For 30 Reflection

As a Cubs fan, I’ve forgiven Steve Bartman… I haven’t forgotten that October night in 2003, but I have forgiven the man so many have cast as a scapegoat for continuing the Cubs championship curse.  And even though it’s approaching 8 years since the Cubs most infamous loss in the NLCS to the Marlins, there’s never been any real closure to the entire Bartman episode.  Maybe it’s because Bartman has gone into hiding, refusing to further address his part in the Cubs’ Game 6 loss.  Maybe it’s because the Cubs have continued to fail time and again in the postseason in the years following 2003.  Maybe, it’s because so many Cubs fans haven’t forgiven Steve Bartman.

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With ESPN’s latest 30 For 30 offering, “Catching Hell”, a small, perhaps naive part of me was hoping this documentary could provide some closure for Cubs fans.  Unfortunately, after watching for two hours, that wasn’t the case.  The film itself was fantastic in parts and as well-produced as all the 30 For 30 series, except for the director cameos by Alex Gibney as the subject of a radio interview; I think it ranked somewhere between M. Night Shyamalan and Alfred Hitchcock’s self-appearances in terms of subtleness.  Let’s face it though, we’re often critical of parts of ESPN, but the concept and execution of 30 For 30 continues to shine as one of the best things the network has ever done.  But, there was a sense of false advertising after seeing the actual documentary.  As Jim Miller pointed out on Twitter, the film was largely marketed on Bartman alone.  Yet, the first 15 minutes of “Catching Hell” were spent chronicling Bill Buckner and RED SAWX NATION.  

Now, the connection between the two clubs is obvious, especially during the 2003 postseason where both teams fell five outs short of the World Series.  But, as the documentary mentions, the Red Sox went on to break their curse… twice.  The Cubs are still waiting for their championship.  So, the last thing I needed to see as a Cubs fan was having the Red Sox, their failures, and their success shoved down my throat during a documentary that was supposedly about my team and their failures.  As soon as I saw Dennis Leary on my screen in that patronizing Bruins hat, I almost turned off the documentary entirely, especially when I had this in the back of my mind.  

But, I pressed forward, and for that I’m glad, because “Catching Hell’s” finest moments came when it captured the atmosphere of Wrigley Field right after the Bartman incident.  To see the vitriol and anger even to this day towards Bartman from the raw footage in the stadium was eye-opening. And even though it was healthy to see the animals sports fans can unfortunately become in the heat of the moment, at times the film felt like it overvilified Cubs fans just a little bit too much for my liking. Wouldn’t any fan at least be angry at one of their own “costing” their team such a crucial out?  Maybe not to the point of hurling death threats or beer, but can anyone honestly be so pious to say they wouldn’t join in on the chants of “asshole?”  Is it too wild to assume there was a sect of hardcore Sox fans who, until the Sox won the World Series, might have held Bill Buckner in the same disregard as a sect of Cubs fans still hold Steve Bartman…

The other outstanding portion of the documentary was hearing the first-hand accounts from so many periphery players in the Bartman drama.  It was amazing to hear the stories of the securtiy personnel who actually had the job of getting Steve Bartman out of Wrigley Field in one piece.  And while it’s funny now to think of Bartman walking around the streets of Chicago in a disguise, it must have been frightening on that October night.  Hearing from journalists about the hunt to smoke out Bartman was just as revealing as seeing the anger of Cubs fans.  One could argue who was more ruthless, the angry mob in Wrigley or the ambulence chasers of the media who tried in vain to get to Steve Bartman.  

The interview with Moises Alou was also revealing because he is a figure that is often overlooked.  Many have correctly pointed out that Alou’s hissy fit in left field did a lot to unnerve the entire team and stadium.  To hear Alou in his own words talk wistfully of the out that never was may have actually validated the disbelief and anger many Cubs fans still feel today, oddly enough much like his temper tantrum the night of Game 6.  But why not go the extra mile and also interview Alex Gonzalez? Wasn’t his crucial error even more important in determining the events of Game 6?  

Finally, hearing from ESPN.com writer Wayne Drehs throughout the film, especially on his attempt to track down Bartman in a parking garage, only added to the depth of the story and the mystique of Steve Bartman.  His inner conflict as a journalist, a Cubs fan, and a human being was fascinating. Ultimately, that brief conversation in a parking garage was as close as anyone has got to Bartman since 2003.  It’s amazing to think a man could successfully hide out for eight years in this media climate, but Steve Bartman has.  

However, even though many of the details and interviews were spot on in “Catching Hell”, the overarching point of the documentary – the connection between Bartman and Buckner as scapegoats – misses the strike zone.  The story of scapegoating is ubiquitious throughout sports, politics, and life in general.  Bill Buckner, Don Denkinger, Grady Little, Dusty Baker, the list goes on and on in baseball alone.  I much rather would have seen separate hour-long documentaries on Bill Buckner and Steve Bartman than to see an admitted Red Sox fan try to tie the two stories together.  It’s easy to paint RED SAWX NATION as one big happy family now that Boston has won two World Series.  Celebrating the return of Bill Buckner to Boston and the closure therein only serves the notion that winning cures all.  The documentary stretched the narrative too far when Boston’s ability to forgive Buckner (and vice versa) was contrasted with Steve Bartman’s life still in the shadows.  Frankly, it was salt in the wounds of any Cubs fan to be made to feel morally inferior than their Boston counterparts.  

In fact, the real story of Steve Bartman and all that unfolded afterwards is the twisted connection between Cubs fans and their loveable losers, and how that one unfortunate moment brought out the worst in an entire fan base. While the documentary does show the buildup and the effect that Game 6 had on the team and the fan base, it doesn’t go far enough to show the depths of self-loathing that has begun to consume even younger Cubs fans.  Sometimes I think the only thing that would make some Cubs fans happy would be to have a live sacrifice of a billy goat on Opening Day at home plate next season.  

And on some level, I am still that self-loathing Cubs fan.  Watching “Catching Hell”, all the feelings came back that I experienced that night.  The initial anger at Bartman for interfering with his team, our team, only 5 outs away from their first World Series in almost a century.  The numbness as the Marlins tacked on run after run in that 8th inning.  The regret that the Cubs didn’t close the series out in five games after being shutout by Josh Beckett in Florida.  The hopelessness at the thought of winning a Game 7 at Wrigley.  The sad, pitiful defeat after carrying out that self-fufilling prophecy by losing the NLCS.  And finally, the jealousness of watching the Florida Marlins go on to win the World Series over the Yankees.  As a fan it was without a doubt the worst experience involving sports that I’ve ever endured and most likely will ever endure.

But still, I don’t blame Steve Bartman entirely for the Cubs losing that game to the Marlins because there’s plenty to go around.  I could blame Mark Prior for not striking out Luis Castillo.  I could blame Moises Alou for his overreaction to Bartman’s interference that seemed to unnerve the entire team and crowd.  I could blame Dusty Baker for leaving Prior in too long.  I could blame Alex Gonzalez for his costly error that could have ended the Marlins 8-run inning.  I could blame Bernie Mac (RIP) for jinxing the Cubs when singing the 7th inning stretch.  I could blame Kerry Wood and the entire team for not bouncing back and winning Game 7 at Wrigley.  I could blame mythical Billy Goats or overly excited/self-defeating fans or too many day games or a rustic antique of a ball park.   But focusing on that blame forces all Cubs fans to continually live in the past.  And until Cubs fans move forward and start realizing there is no boogie man out to get their team, no curse that is waiting around every dark corner, then perhaps many never will experience closure over what happened in 2003.  And unfortunately, Steve Bartman will continue to have to live in the shadows.

I’m sure a lot of Cubs fans were hoping for more from ESPN’s documentary, but especially after seeing the large role the Red Sox played in the film (didn’t they get their own 30 For 30 already anyways?) and the easy road the story told, I was left a little disappointed.  But in truth, the quality of the documentary was secondary to reliving that moment over and over and over again. Personally, I watched hoping upon hope for that stupid baseball to fall into Moises Alou’s glove just one time, but of course, it never did.  Those final five outs never came to push the Cubs to their first World Series since 1945.  And while it’s easy to make Steve Bartman a scapegoat and claim the ball certainly would have fallen into Moises Alou’s glove, the cold truth is that we’ll never know.  We’ll never know if Alou would have caught the ball.  We’ll never know if the Cubs would have gone on to win Game 6 of the NLCS.  We’ll never know if the Cubs would have gone on to win their first World Series since 1908.  And maybe that fear of not knowing is the real reason why Steve Bartman has to play sacrificial lamb to an entire fan base.  If that’s indeed the truth, then 1000 ESPN documentaries won’t be able to lift the self-imposed curse of the Cubs and their fans or find closure for Steve Bartman.

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