As long as the Chicago Cubs are baseball’s perennial losers, people will remember Steve Bartman and what he did on October 13, 2003. And that picture above is just how they’ll remember him: Cubs hat, black sweatshirt, dorky green turtleneck, even dorkier headphones so he could listen to the game on the radio. How could they remember him any other way? After the fateful night when he got between Cubs left fielder Moises Alou and a catchable foul ball and set off a chain of events that led to the Cubs’ implosion in the National League Championship Series and made him the target of an entire city’s hatred, Bartman dropped off the face of the Earth. A lifelong, die-hard Cubs fan, Bartman issued an apology to Alou, the Cubs, and even old players like Ron Santo and Ernie Banks, then never spoke publicly about the incident again. It’s as if he felt so punished for being in the wrong place at the wrong time that he made a conscious decision to hide away forever to prevent history from repeating itself. Now director Alex Gibney has directed a film about Bartman called “Catching Hell.” Not surprisingly, Bartman declined to participate, which makes one of the most famous spectators in the baseball history a kind of spectator in his own documentary. This time, though, you can’t say he gets in anyone’s way.
Gibney’s documentary was originally intended to air as part of ESPN’s great “30 For 30” documentary series. Its whole modus operandi was to pair great filmmakers with topics from the world of sports they were personally invested in. That approach led to some of “30 For 30″‘s finest episodes — like Steve James’ “No Crossover” about another native of James’ racially stratified hometown, Allen Iverson — but it’s the major flaw in the otherwise engrossing “Catching Hell.” Gibney’s story is about the Chicago Cubs, but Gibney’s not a Cubs fan. Boston is his team, and that’s where Gibney finds a personal connection to Bartman, in the life of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner. Buckner played for a similarly downtrodden team, made a similar blunder in a similar spot in a playoff game, and faced a similar penalty. But that’s basically where the parallels end; as someone even says in the film, Buckner was a famous baseball player. He was a public figure. It was his job to catch that ball. Bartman was just some guy.
The connection between Bartman and Buckner is probably worth a mention in the context of other famous baseball curses and blunders. But Gibney essentially uses Buckner to fill the void left by his absent protagonist. He painstakingly recreates the events of 10/13/03, interviewing the people who sat around Bartman in the Wrigley Field stands, piecing together and comparing home movies and video footage of the game, and speaking with the journalists and broadcasters who covered him. Gibney’s work is very detailed and very rewarding; I love, for example, his version of the Bartman play where everyone but Alou has been digitally scrubbed from the picture. But no Bartman means no hero and no arc, and that’s where Buckner comes in. He doesn’t just give Gibney his own way into the story. By framing Bartman’s tragedy with lengthy bookend segments about Buckner, Gibney gets to show the longview of what that sort of intense media scrutiny does to a man, and how it feels when that man gets his long overdue sense of closure. It also gives viewers some much needed catharsis after an excruciatingly painful story, though it will be small comfort to Cubs fans.
But I’m making the same mistake as Gibney; enough about Buckner. “Catching Hell” doesn’t need him as badly as it thinks because even without his participation, Bartman’s story is such an epic tale of human folly you’d swear Sophocles wrote it. The Bartman incident encapsulates all that we love and hate, all that is good and bad about baseball: its unpredictability, its drama, and above all its symbiotic connection between player and fan. In baseball, the fans in the stands feel like contributors to the success of their team. Or, as in this case, to their failure.
Of all the revelations in “Catching Hell” — and there are quite a few — the most interesting and most disturbing are the ones about the the mood in Wrigley Field before and after Bartman’s blunder. Home movies shot in the Wrigley bleachers capture pins-and-needles giddiness during the first seven innings. In the first moments immediately following the dropped foul ball, no one even realizes what’s happened. But then Alou has a visible tantrum on the field over Bartman’s obstruction. Suddenly the animosity spreads like wildfire. Bartman starts getting pelted with insults and threats and rained with beer. Nevermind that Bartman’s goof didn’t cost the Cubs the game, or the lead, or even put a runner on first base. Nevermind that a few batters later shortstop Alex Gonzalez blew an easy double play that would have ended the ending. In the eyes of livid Cubs fans, it was all Bartman’s fault. Gibney’s film puts his mistake in the proper context. He was far from the only guy to screw up in top of the eighth inning. Bartman did what any of us would have done. Just watch the video: he wasn’t the only one to reach for that foul ball. He was just the unlucky guy who got his hands on it.
Though I’m sure they’d deny it, I wonder if Cubs fans secretly enjoy nights like October 13. Now that the Red Sox, White Sox, and Giants have all won World Series after long droughts, the Cubs’ losing streak makes them a very unique team. Thanks to guys like Bartman, if and when they finally win the Series, it will be the sweetest victory in the history of professional sports. And if and when that day comes, you can be sure Bartman will be watching somewhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was still wearing his headphones either.