Wrong seat, wrong time for innocent fan Steve Bartman!

JONNY GOULD COLUMN, 24 MARCH

On February 26, 2004 a baseball, purchased for almost $114,000 on behalf of the iconic Harry Caray’s Restaurant Group, was publicly detonated by special effects expert Michael Lantieri in front of a National TV audience. It was another bizarre twist in the life and story of the “Bartman Ball.”

The US is often considered by outsiders to be a country that has about as much culture as a yoghurt. But this is clearly not true of America’s favourite pastime baseball. Iconic stadiums, and a history stretching back over a hundred years, baseball is a sport steeped in character and tradition. The Bartman Ball is just another chapter in this wonderful story.

Rewind to October 14, 2003 for Game 6 of the National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins. The winner would be advancing to the World Series – something the Cubs had not done since 1945, when Billy Goat Tavern owner William Sianis cursed the Cubs, for not allowing him to bring his Goat to the ballgame. It was a curse that was to last 71 years. To make matters worse, the Cubs hadn’t won a World Series since 1908.

The team of 2003 look destined to banish all that to the history books. With the Cubs up 3-2 in the best of 7 games series, and leading Game 6 3-0 in the Top of the 8th inning, even the most cynical and battle-scarred Cubs fans were beginning to believe. And one such fan was sat down the 3rd Base line in Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113. His name was Steve Bartman, and he had no idea that he was about to enter into Cubs’ folklore.

Cubs Ace Mark Prior had given up a double early in the inning, but was pitching a beaut, and was just 5 outs away from taking the Cubs back to the World Series for the first time in 58 years, when Marlin batter Luis Castillo hit a fly-ball into foul territory in left field. Cubs Outfielder Moises Alou chased the ball down and leapt up against the wall in a heroic attempt to make the out (a caught ball in Foul Territory is still an Out).

But at that exact moment Cubs fan Bartman did what any fan would do. He tried to catch a Championship Foul ball, and in doing so dislodged the ball from Alou’s grasp. The Outfielder went ballistic, throwing his glove to the floor in disgust, along with about 41,000 irate Cubs fans. Had Alou made the catch, the Marlins would have been 4 Outs away from elimination. Instead, what happened next committed Bartman to a life of infamy.

Burdened with huge expectation and the spectre of the Curse of the Billy Goat, the Cubs players just imploded. The unhittable Starting Pitcher Mark Prior was suddenly being lit up, and ever-dependable Short Stop Alex Gonzalez failed to turn a double play that would have ended the innings. Instead, it loaded the bases and set up the Marlins 8 run inning that was to change the course of history. The Cubs inevitably never recovered, and eventually lost Game 7 as well at home at Wrigley, falling just one game short from a long overdue return to the World Series.

Meanwhile, Bartman was being pelted with debris and insults by his fellow Cubs fans. For his own safety, and that of his guests, security was forced to escort them all from the ballpark. Astonishingly, minutes after the game, his name and personal information were published on Major League Baseball’s online message boards, necessitating police protection at his home. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich went as far as to suggest that Bartman might want to join a witness protection programme. Somewhat tongue in cheek, Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered Bartman life-long asylum in Florida!

Steve Bartman: No pics after this one.

Steve Bartman: No pics after this one.

Bartman meanwhile, apologised for the incident, and stated his desire to return to his quiet life. But that proved impossible. His Seat became a Tourist attraction for anyone taking the Wrigley Stadium Tour. ESPN produced a documentary about the incident as part of their 30 for 30 Series entitled “Catching Hell”. Whilst the incident was also portrayed in the Family Guy Film – “Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story!” which aired in 2006.

But nothing drew more attention than the blowing up of the ball in 2004. A Chicago lawyer had ended up with the ball after the incident, and sold it to pay for his kid’s education. A representative of the iconic Harry Caray Restaurant Group in Chicago, bought the ball, and publicly detonated it as part of a TV stunt. The remains of the ball were then used by the restaurant in a pasta sauce. What’s left of the Bartman ball is now on display at the Chicago Sports Museum.

To Bartman’s great credit, he never looked to cash in on his notoriety. He declined interviews, endorsement deals, and requests for public appearances. In fact he requested that any gifts sent to him by thankful Florida Marlins fans should 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 – he refused. He declined all offers to appear at Wrigley as a VIP, and in 2011 – 8 years after the incident – he declined to appear in the ESPN documentary about the incident. Perhaps even more amazingly he declined a six-figure offer to appear in a Super Bowl Commercial.

The Cubs finally returned to the World Series in 2016, 13 years after Steve Bartman had inadvertently prevented Moises Alou making that 2nd out. This ended a 108 year wait for the Cubbies World Series success. Despite their best efforts to involve Bartman with the club’s World Series journey, he was equally determined not to take away the focus on the players achievements. And so instead, Club owner Tom Ricketts presented Steve Bartman with a special gift. Bartman received a Championship ring celebrating the club’s 2016 World Series triumph. Needless to say, he was blown away by this gesture of forgiveness and support.

Bartman said: “Although I do not consider myself worthy of such an honour, I am deeply moved and sincerely grateful to receive an official Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series Championship ring. I am relieved and hopeful that the saga of the 2003 foul ball incident surrounding my family and me is finally over.”

For my money that would be no more than Steve Bartman deserves – a loyal fan caught up in a moment of madness. Oh, and in April 2008 Moises Alou was quoted by the Associated Press as saying: “You know what the funny thing is? I wouldn’t have caught it anyway!”

Baseball – it’s a Hardcore thing!

 

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