At the end of the 2011 regular Major League Baseball season, two teams who had been a cinch to make the playoffs at the beginning of September [the Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves] choked miserably and failed to make the playoffs. There are two ways to handle such a collapse. One way is to just own up to your collapse, regroup quietly and wait until next year. The other is to find scapegoats for your team’s collapse and try to ruin that scapegoat’s reputation. Atlanta is following the first route. There’s no bitching, moaning and complaining. They just owned the fact they choked and didn’t get it done. Boston is choosing the latter path. Manager Terry Francona is Boston’s scapegoat. In the eyes of those who run the Boston Red Sox, their September collapse is his fault. The players who did the actual choking aren’t being faulted, with the exception of three Boston pitchers [Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and John Lackey]. The other night I watched one of those “30 for 30” documentaries on ESPN. This documentary was entitled Catching Hell. This is filmmaker Alex Gibney’s look at the Steve Bartman incident. Like what is happening today with Terry Francona, this is a case study in the art of scapegoating.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, this occurred during Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins. They were playing for the right to represent the National League in the 2003 World Series. The venue: the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. The situation: the Cubs had a 3 games to 2 advantage on the Marlins. The Cubs were leading the game 3-0 in the top of the eighth inning. There was one out, Florida had a man on second, Cubs ace Mark Prior was pitching, Luis Castillo was batting for Florida. Chicago was five outs away from advancing to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Castillo hit a pop foul toward the stands on the left side of the field. Left fielder Moises Alou ran over to catch the ball. It was playable, but Alou couldn’t make the catch. A fan interfered with Alou. Alou was furious and shouted at the fans. The Cubs wanted Castillo called out because of the interference. Umpire Mike Everitt said the ball broke the plane of the wall between the stands and the playing field. Since the umpire ruled the ball was in the stands there was no fan interference. Castillo’s at bat continued. This is where the fun REALLY began.
Castillo continued his at-bat and drew a walk. Ball four was a wild pitch, so the man on second [Juan Pierre] advanced to third. Ivan Rodriguez came up next and singled, driving in Pierre to make the score 3-1. Miguel Cabrera was up next, hit a ball to Cub shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Normally a sure-handed infielder, Gonzalez booted the ball. Instead of turning an inning-ending double play, the bases were loaded. Derek Lee was up next, hit a double and tied the game at 3-3. This was Mark Prior’s 119th and final pitch. Cubs manager Dusty Baker left him in the game while he was running out of gas. Kyle Farnsworth relieved Prior. He issued an intentional walk to Mike Lowell, then gave up a sacrifice fly to Jeff Conine, which gave the Marlins a 4-3 lead. Sammy Sosa missed the cutoff man, and Lowell was able to advance to second. Farnsworth issued another intentional walk to Todd Hollandsworth, again loading the bases. Mike Mordecai then hit a double, clearing the bases and breaking the game open 7-3. Juan Pierre came up for the second time in the inning, hit a single and drove in Mordecai with the Marlins’ eighth run. Before the Cubs realized what hit them, it was game over, Florida won 8-3. There was a Game 7 at Wrigley Field the following night. The Cubs had a 5-3 lead in Game 7, but they blew that one too. The Marlins won Game 7, won the National League pennant, and won the 2003 World Series beating the New York Yankees 4 games to 2.
The Cubs’ meltdown in the League Championship Series would be labeled as an “epic failure” today. Any way you look at it, they choked. How did such a team of highly-paid professionals unravel so badly and so quickly after one call that didn’t go their way? Did Cubs fans blame their team for their mental meltdown in Game 6? Did they blame their team for blowing another lead and not winning Game 7? Did they blame their pitchers for not being able to get anybody out? Did they blame Alex Gonzalez for botching a routine ground ball that extended the eighth inning? Did they blame manager Dusty Baker for leaving Mark Prior in the game too long? The answer to all those questions is a resounding “NO.” Instead, they blamed the guy who got in Moises Alou’s way – Steve Bartman.
What happened to Steve Bartman after his collision with destiny? After the game, one could see a sign outside Wrigley Field. "Kill that fan! He lost it for us!" There was an interview clip with Rod Blagojevich – “If someone ever convicts that guy of a crime he'll never get a pardon outta this governor.” [How’s THAT for irony?] Meanwhile, the Wrigley Field security staff had to figure out how to get Bartman home from the “friendly confines”without him getting killed. Gibney interviewed Wrigley Field security guard Erika Amundsen, who gave a compassionate account of how she got Bartman out of the neighborhood. Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser [idiots, both of them] blamed Bartman for the Cubs meltdown on their show ‘Pardon the Interruption.” The Chicago press didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory. They found out who Bartman was, where he worked and where he lived – then told everybody. There was a lynch mob mentality. Dave Kaplan, host of WGN’s “Sports Central,” was much more rational. He was on the air after the Cubs lost the pennant, and one fan called in and said “we know where he lives, we’re gonna kill him.” Kaplan was trying to “talk people away from the edge” and convince his listeners that the Cubs meltdown wasn’t Bartman’s fault. Fox baseball analyst Steve Lyons knew. He played back the Bartman incident, froze the replay and circled six other fans who were trying to do the same thing Steve Bartman did.
Cubs 2003 first baseman Eric Karros had the right idea, He didn’t think about Bartman in the crucial Game 7, just how the Cubs were going to win. Conversely, left fielder Moises Alou says after missing the foul ball, he knew something bad was going to happen — to the extent that he and teammate Aramis Ramirez booked flights home to the Dominican Republic. Why did Alou book a flight home after Game 6? And why did he admit doing it? Alou was a six-time All-Star, won the Silver Slugger award twice, had over 300 career home runs, a lifetime batting average of .303, and won a World Series ring with the Marlins in 1997. He was not a slug – he was a pretty good player. So how come a well-paid professional such as Alou just gives up on Game 7 before it’s even played? The Marlins came back from being down 3 games to 1. The Cubs had a huge series lead, almost insurmountable. All they had to do was win one more game. They didn’t get it done. Cubs fans wanted to blame someone besides their beloved Cubs for not getting it done. Steve Bartman was an easy target for them. Two years later, ESPN.com writer Wayne Drehs had been assigned to interview Steve Bartman. His boss told him his assignment was two words – “find Bartman.” Drehs staked out Bartman’s home and followed him to work. He waited in the parking garage for seven hours. He surprised Bartman when Drehs seemed to appear from nowhere to ask him for an interview. Taken aback, Bartman said ‘thank you, I appreciate it. I’m going to talk to my legal team and we’ll get back to you.”
The thing that most interested me was the interview with Ohio minister Kathleen Rolenz. She worked the Bartman incident into a sermon she delivered to her congregation. She paralleled Bartman as a scapegoat with the Biblical 16th chapter of Leviticus, where a goat carries the sins of the people. The way she described the story of the scapegoat fit exactly they way Bartman was treated as he was leaving Wrigley Field. As people threw trash and other things at the goat as it was leaving the village as depicted in Leviticus, fans threw all kinds of things at Bartman as he was being escorted from Wrigley Field.
Bartman didn’t make a dime off the controversy. He was offered $25,000 to sign autographs. He was given offers to appear in commercials. Bartman refused those offers too. The guy who did get the infamous ‘Bartman ball’ sold it to Harry Carey’s Restaurant for thousands of dollars. The guy who sold the ball was interviewed on camera but his identity concealed. He profited from the ‘Bartman ball,’ yet Bartman, who hasn’t taken a dime from anyone, is the asshole.
Gibney compares the ‘Bartman incident’ to Bill Buckner. When he played first base for the Boston Red Sox, he allowed a routine ground ball go through his legs during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets. Many [not all] in Red Sox Nation blamed Buckner for costing the Red Sox the chance to win their first World Series since 1918. My opinion? Pitcher Calvin Schiraldi is the goat in that series, not Buckner. But Gibney allows Bill Buckner to tell his story and how he wouldn’t go near Fenway Park for many years after his brush with infamy. The Red Sox have won two World Series since Buckner’s error. The Red Sox brought him back to throw out the game ball on Opening Day 2008. The Boston fans greeted Buckner warmly. In a postgame press conference, Buckner said it was most difficult for him to forgive the media “for what they put me and my family through.”
Buckner has forgiven his critics. But will Steve Bartman forgive his?