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Reviewing ESPN's Catching Hell

With my move to the new Fish Stripes, there was one thing that I wanted to do for our history section that I had yet to get a chance to do. I watched ESPN 30 for 30's documentary entitled "Catching Hell," a piece that was about the infamous Steve Bartman and the events that occurred during Game Six of the 2003 National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins. Since I watched it, I have wanted to review it, but I have waited since the move to Fish Stripes to do it. No better time like the present.


Catching Hell was the 32nd piece in ESPN's 30 for 30 series. As mentioned, it was about the situation with Bartman and the attempted Moises Alou catch on a foul ball to left field. In case any of you Marlins fans forgot it, here it is in all of its glory:

Catching Hell did an excellent job of portraying the human aspect of the play rather than discussing strictly the baseball aspect. There was a lot of discussion as to why Bartman became the scapegoat for the entire disastrous inning for the Cubs (or triumphant inning for the Marlins, on our side of the story) rather than some of the other parties that were eventually involved in that inning. But eventually they delve more into the human story of what happened to Bartman after the fateful event and how Chicago quickly turned on him that evening. The game's results became an afterthought in the quest to reason out why Bartman was identified as the man behind the collapse and what the different parties involved felt about the incident and aftermath.

For the record, I felt like this was an excellent approach. From a baseball prospective, it is clear that Bartman was partially, but not entirely responsible for the problems that plagued the Cubs that inning. But to explore the emotions of those who walked Bartman out of the stadium and to a protected area to shield him from the fan rage gave us a glimpse at an otherwise enigmatic figure. Listening to the thoughts of Moises Alou, who appeared briefly in the documentary, gave us the other side of the story years after the fact, which was also quite interesting.

The Bill Buckner Corollary

The opening parts of the documentary begin with a discussion on Bill Buckner, the first baseman for the Boston Red Sox during their 1986 World Series against the New York Mets. In a lot of ways, the Bartman and Buckner situations were very similar. Both involved teams with "curses" that have tortured their fanbases for years. Both involved a Game Six that would have clinched a championship for them (in Buckner's case, the Red Sox would have clinched a World Series win). Both teams had a game following their stunning loss, and in the case of the Cubs, the Game Seven was actually a pretty close one.

Another interesting parallel between the two situations is how interesting it was to make either man the scapegoat. For Buckner's case, as the documentary implies, it was interesting because so many things happened before his error to add to that situation. After all, Red Sox pitcher Calvin Schiraldi had allowed three hits and a run and put the tying run on third base before the Mookie Wilson plate appearance that changed the Red Sox and Mets' fates. In addition, Bob Stanley, the replacement pitcher for the Sox, threw a wild pitch that allowed the tying run to cross the plate. The director of the documentary, Alex Gibney, wonders why none of these players received the fate that Buckner received for allowing the winning run to cross.

For Bartman, it was a different tale. The Marlins had a runner on second when his situation had happened, but the team had yet to score a run on Mark Prior and the Cubs. In fact, the Cubs still had a 92.3 percent chance of winning that game after Pierre's double according to the win probability chart on FanGraphs.

Source: FanGraphs

So it is interesting that, while Buckner's error was immortalized for ending the game, Bartman's mishap was immortalized for "starting" a rally, or at least assisting in continuing what became an eight-run rally by the Marlins. After Bartman, at least one major mishap occurred for the Cubs, and yet that play is a mere afterthought in this game.

The Fan's Perspective

The documentary switches from a Buckner discussion to that of the Cubs of 2003 after doling out a brief history on the "Lovable Losers" and their billy goat curse. The documentary moves right to Game Six with a quick recap of how we arrived at the faithful eighth inning. What was most interesting about this part was the perspective of multiple fans who eventually were involved in discussing the Bartman incident. The excitement in the Cubs' fans was palpable, and with Mark Prior on the mound, they had to be excited. On the Marlins side, it did seem rather hopeless, at least for me personally; after all, the Fish were going up against the two aces of the Cubs' staff at Wrigley Field.

As the documentary begins to discuss the play, they ask different fan perspectives at the point of the Bartman play. Gibney interviews three fans who were within single-digit seats from Bartman's seat. Each of the fans, along with other interviewees such as former Fox Sports baseball color commentator Steve Lyons, said that the instinctual aspect of catching a foul ball is almost undoubtedly going to trump any instinct to step out of the way for a playable ball. In addition, many of the fans said that their initial judgment of the ball was that it was not a playable ball and that many fans were reaching out to grab it.

Of course, it turns out that the ball was close enough to the wall that Alou could have had a play on it and could have caught it for an out, though the latter half of that was no guarantee. Alou did not help the matter by throwing a tantrum on the field, and it seemed that the reaction by Alou really fueled the fans' emotions at the time. By their accounts, not only were they initially frustrated and fearful as all fans are of a bounce that doesn't go their way, but they were also turned to anger at Bartman.

The Gonzalez Error

The documentary follows the situation to the immediate events after Luis Castillo walks instead of flying out to Alou in left field. After Ivan Rodriguez scores Pierre on a base hit, another moment (and one that I more closely identify as a problem) in the Cubs' collapse occurs. Alex S. Gonzalez, the shortstop for the Cubs, boots a ground ball by Miguel Cabrera that should have ended the inning on a double play and instead allows the Marlins to load the bases.

At this point, Gibney wonders why Gonzalez was never to blame for the Cubs' problems. If one looks at the chart, one can see that his error cost the Cubs almost 11 percent of their chances to win the game. Had the double play been completed or even if an out had been made, one suspects the Cubs would have climbed back up to maybe a 90 percent or more shot at winning the game. Consider that, according to this win probability matrix by Tom Tango, the home team with runners on first and third and two outs in the bottom of the inning and up by a run has an 88.2 percent chance of winning. With the Cubs up by two runs, that surely would have gone up to at least 90 or 91 percent. The error might have been a 22 percent swing in odds of winning for the Cubs. Compare that to the win effect of the Bartman play; had Alou made the catch, perhaps the Cubs' chances of winning climb up to 95 from 92 percent, making the play a seven or eight percent swing. Yet Gonzalez slips into obscurity despite his mistake and Bartman is still the immortalized one.

I have a theory on why Gonzalez got away so cleanly. Part of it had to do with Alou's exaggerated response. Had he not thrown a fit, perhaps no one would remember Bartman the way they do now. But beyond that, had the spotlight not initially been placed on him by Alou, Gonzalez would have never heard the end of it. Furthermore, it may be in the Cubs fans' nature that blame should be placed on someone outside of the team rather than on the team itself. To blame the team that had carried them on such a whirlwind adventure in 2003 would be to get angry at an entity that brought them great joy throughout the year. On the other hand, to blame a complete outsider, even if he was "one of their own" as a fellow Cubs fan, would spare the team the fault for what was assuredly something the team did wrong. By blaming Bartman, Cubs fans could put their misery in the hands of the Curse, rather than blame the team's inability to perform in that inning.

Stay Classy, Chicago

At this point, with the Marlins piling on runs in what was a magical inning to Fish fans, Chicago fans were struggling to withhold their anger. The documentary takes an look through a fan's camera in the bleachers as the "asshole" chant begins from the street behind Wrigley Field and advances into the stadium. In time, everyone is chanting "asshole" at Bartman, who maintains an empty look as the inning unfolds. It gets uglier as fans begin to throw objects in Bartman's direction, including one fan who infamously walked up to ten seats behind Bartman and threw a beer at him. Security finally had to escort him and the abuse did not stop there. If you watched the documentary, the language thrown his way was beyond harsh and well past the point of understandable fan anger. I won't repeat it here, but some of the stuff that was said was on the disturbing end.

At the time, I was so enthralled by the Marlins' comeback that I had barely noticed the anger of Wrigley Field. Fandom, in its nature, is fanatic; the word "fan" is short for "fanatic," after all. But the documentary highlighted how poorly the Cubs fans reacted to the play and the entire affair and how ugly the situation got, and I myself just could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. To be angry is more than understandable, as I have certainly had my share of angry fan moments. But to take it this far was simply too much. As one of the documentary's interviewees mentioned, the Cubs fans had gone to a "really dark place" for the first time in a while, perhaps ever. It takes an emotionally invested event to accomplish this, but there is never an excuse for the way those fans treated Bartman, no matter how they felt about him at the time.

The Human Element

The rest of the story focuses on the aftermath after leaving the stadium. Bartman was taken to one of the security guards' homes until he could safely make his way back to his house. After that, the media firestorm surrounding him was insane. Chicago media identified him and located him, and the following stakeout near his home seemed completely unfair to a guy who wanted nothing more than to fade out and enjoy being a Cubs fan for Game Seven. There were a few clips of the Little League team that he coached standing outside his home in support of him despite the backlash at him. Game Seven took a backseat to the machinations of Game Six and the Bartman fiasco.

I think it is worth mentioning that the few quotes we got of Bartman were an enjoyable look at a guy who was just a normal fan before all of this. He was clearly hurt that he affected his favorite team's chances, and any one of us would have wanted to be left alone after all of that happened. It is definitely worth a look, but needs no review on my end.

The last bit about approaching Bartman at his workplace to achieve an interview with him years later only adds to the intrigue of how he was able to stay hidden and anonymous throughout these years. Somehow, Bartman remains in the Chicago area, working as he always did as a computer consultant. He rejected all sorts of offers, and I think this is something a lot of fans would probably do when faced with this much scrutiny. Few fans know how much angst Bartman had to bear over these years, and I doubt that he would have wanted to rustle any more feathers by cashing in on the situation. It is truly amazing that he has maintained some semblance of a normal life after all that.

The end of the documentary discusses forgiveness by going back to the Buckner corollary and showing how Red Sox Nation forgave Buckner for his part in their 1986 collapse. Perhaps that was in part because the Red Sox have known success since then. I sincerely hope that the Cubs one day extend the hand of forgiveness to Bartman so that he can return being a Cubs fan not in hiding. Perhaps that is in the cards one day, but I think a World Series victory may have to pass before people can truly look past the situation.