October 14, 2003, Wrigley Field, Section 113, Row 4, Seat 8. You might not know anything about the game, but you know what happened. A foul ball sliced off of Luis Castillo‘s bat into foul territory in left field. It doesn’t look like very much at all, but it would be a play that would be replayed and talked about until the Chicago Cubs won the World Series on November 2, 2016.
Last night, I hosted a PL+ screening of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. I chose to host this screening because it has been a part of baseball lore and I don’t remember anything about it but “The Bartman Incident”.
There is an excellent documentary, Catching Hell, made by Alex Gibney and ESPN 30 for 30. It outlines the incident and its aftermath. It explores the scapegoat and the ways that sports can assign blame and vilify. I highly recommend seeking it out, because it prompts us to question our actions as fans.
When choosing a feed of the game, I took care to choose one that showed the excitement and fervor that of Cubs fans before the game. We started with some pre-game from the local channel with a clip from the Chicago Police Commissioner who said, “We are looking at it as a festival, a party, and I don’t see that will change tonight or tomorrow leading into the World Series.” The hosts outlined the weather and claimed, “The temperature is dropping. By 10:30 when the champagne is popping, it will be icy.” The excitement was high to the point of hubris.
The Cubs (88-74) had a chance to win the series (and the Pennant), sending Mark Prior to the mound to face the Marlins’ (91-71) Carl Pavano. The Cubs struck first in the first when Kenny Lofton scampered home on a Sammy Sosa double.
The score remained 1-0 until the sixth. Pavano was pulled with two outs in the inning after allowing the first two batters to single. Sammy Sosa moved to third on a double play and Dontrelle Willis came in for relief. The Cubs doubled their lead on a wild pitch that brought Sosa across the plate.
In the bottom of the seventh, a lead-off Paul Bako single came around to score on a Mark Grudzilanek RBI single.
Mark Prior looked great heading into the top of the eighth. He had surrendered just three hits to that point and had struck out six. Still, he was approaching 100 pitches entering the eighth and had taken his at-bat in the bottom of the seventh. He grabbed a quick out on a Mike Mordecai fly ball to start the frame.
With the bullpen quiet, Juan Pierre got out to an early 2-0 count but Prior battled back even it at 2-2. Pierre took an outside fastball and poked it just inside the bag at third and down the left-field line for a double.
What was particularly striking about this game was the Marlins’ aggressive plate approach. I mentioned in the chat how many times their hitters came to the plate swinging at the first pitch. Usually, the at-bat would end in fewer than three pitches with a lot of weak contact. When there was good contact, the October winds of Chicago kept the ball inside the brick walls.
Luis Castillo came to bat in what was the best at-bat of the game. A called first-pitch strike put Castillo behind, but after falling behind 1-2, he would work the count, taking pitches outside-the-zone and hacking away and wasting anything close. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Castillo fouled a ball to left field. As Moises Alou tracked it to the wall, he jumped into a tangle of arms. Fans reached out for the ball and deflected it into the seats.
The hand that deflected that ball belonged to Steve Bartman.
Alou was irate. He swung his glove down, and yelled at the umpire and the fans, but the ball was called foul; no fan interference.
The next pitch was a wild pitch ball four, and Ivan Rodriguez stepped to the plate as the tying run. While the broadcast replayed the foul ball and showed live shots of the despondent fan sitting in his seat, his Cubs hat wrapped with headphones and a green turtleneck protruding from his blue sweatshirt. The commentators poured gasoline onto the fire: “Here at Wrigley, when the opposing team hits a home run, they throw the ball back onto the field. I’m surprised that someone hasn’t thrown that fan onto the field.”
Rodriguez would rip a single to left to knock in the Marlins’ first run and bring Miguel Cabrera to the plate. With runners on first and second, Miggy rolled a two-hopper to shortstop, Alex Gonzalez, who ranged back for an easy force out at second, and possible double-play chance to end the inning. The ball would kick off the heel of his glove for an error to load the bases.
Prior remained in the game to face Derrek Lee who ripped the first pitch into the left-field corner to tie the game and chase the Cubs’ starter after 116 pitches.
That’s when it got ugly. The Marlins would tack 8 runs on the scoreboard in the inning and rip away the win.
As the Cubs collapsed, fans in the stadium looked for someone to blame: Dusty Baker for leaving Prior in too long? Mark Prior for serving up fatigue-induced meatballs? Alex Gonzalez for a key fielding error? An umpire for making a call on a close play?
No, the scapegoat was Steve Bartman.
You have to feel for the guy. Not only is he a fan, but he is also the kind of fan that listens to the radio broadcast of the game on headphones. He is demure. He wears glasses and a turtleneck. He looks all alone in his torture as fans hurl insults and beer at him. As the Marlins piled on runs, more and more security guards were sent down to his seat to protect him from the verbal abuse and potential alcohol-fuelled violence.
He would eventually have to be escorted from his seat. Security would take him to their office until after the game and sneak him to his home where police would protect him from angry fans. Fans who believed that he had spoiled their chance at their first World Series in 58 years.
During the screening, Justin Paradis pointed out:
“Bartman is kind of a GOAT for how he handled this IMO. He requested that any gifts sent to him by Florida Marlins fans be donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. In July 2008, Bartman was offered $25,000 to autograph a picture of himself at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Rosemont, but he refused the offer. He declined to appear as a VIP at Wrigley Field. In 2011, eight years after the incident, he declined to appear in an ESPN documentary, and he declined a six-figure offer to appear in a Super Bowl commercial.”
Bartman was a fan. He was the best kind of fan. He was a devoted fan who loved the game and loved his team. He didn’t want anything other than to see them win, and, in a split second, he reached out and touched a foul ball. It’s what anyone would do in that situation: you try to catch a ball that is coming at you. There were many fans who reached out for that ball, but it was Bartman’s hand that touched it. There was no way for him to know that Alou was in a position to try to catch it. Bartman was watching the ball and doing what we all want to do: catch a foul ball. That fan could have been any of us.
Still, the ire fans and media fell upon turtlenecked Steve Bartman. The media frenzy was fierce after an eight-run implosion.
We forget that this was Game 6 and the loss only tied the series and forced a Game 7. It was a Game 7 at home, with Kerry Wood on the mound.
After losing a rare chance at the NL Pennant, the error was forgotten, the 116 pitches were forgotten, the solid Marlins’ hits were forgotten, the silent bullpen was forgotten, the non-pinch-hit was forgotten. What was remembered was a fan reaching out for a foul ball.
It would take more than 13 years for one of baseball’s most undeserved scapegoats to be forgiven.
Daniel MacDonald will host tonight’s PL+ Game of the Day. Join us on the Pitcher List Discord at 6:00 ET to watch Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS and Bautista’s iconic bat flip.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)