The Wild Card Race, Steve Bartman, and the Terrors of Sports

On last night’s historic baseball action, “Catching Hell,” the 2003 NLCS, pitch counts, mob mentalities, and the wonders and terrors of sports.

Wrigley Field

 

And Rick Sutcliffe shouted something on ESPN about how you could see it in Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon’s eyes — there was no way he was blowing this game. In the eyes. As soon as Sutcliffe said it, I knew what was going to happen. I knew that Papelbon was going to blow the game. —Joe Posnanski

 

Premonition happens in sports. It’s one of the things I love about it, not least because it’s rare. It happened twice last night, for some people at least, as the Braves and Red Sox finished their mutual collapses in what Posnanski describes as “the craziest, most absurd, most wonderful (and horrible) baseball night I can remember.” It’s an eerie, even chilling feeling, like having a foreshadowing of your own death. It’s what I imagine things are like for the characters in Final Destination. And the pleasures and pains of it are actually a bit like a horror movie, only more so: sports are games played by real people, pitched between fantasy and reality. The elemental thrills of it, both wonderful (and horrible), are a bit more real than fiction while remaining safely in the realm of abstraction.

I’ve felt that sort of premontion a couple times. Once was during the great Super Bowl between the Patriots juggernaut and the underdog Giants. When the Patriots’ Asante Samuel missed a difficult interception of a pass thrown by the Giants’ inconsistent Eli Manning, I thought: He actually overthrew the inevitable game-killing interception. They’re going to win.

The other time came flooding back to me with Alex Gibney’s ESPN documentary Catching Hell in the news: Game Six of the 2003 NLCS. And it wasn’t when the ball crossed into the stands and pulled Steve Bartman into the game. The intersection of Moises Alou, Bartman, and other fans was, is, and should be just one of those weird things—Alou might have made what would have been a great catch, though it was a low-percentage catch to begin with. For a long time, I thought the premonition came after Alex Gonzalez bobbled Miguel Cabrera’s slow grounder (though in necessary revisionist history, it likely wouldn’t have been a double play).

Or maybe it was when Mark Prior went 2-2 on Luis Castillo with one out in the eighth, having already given up a double to Juan Pierre, and Tom Brennaman portentiously noted “not even a whiff of activity in that Chicago Cubs bullpen.” Prior was having an excellent game up to that point, but he was at or around 100 pitches with the tying run on deck and one out. As Phil Rogers pointed out in the wake of the loss, Prior had averaged the most pitches per game in the majors that year, and would have thrown the most over the course of the season had he not missed 3 1/2 weeks of the season (that honor went to teammate Kerry Wood; Prior still finished third). Prior left the game having thrown 119 pitches in 7.1 innings. He’d thrown 116 in Game 2, and 133 in Game 3 of the NLDS.

In fairness to Baker—let me get pedantic for a minute, it’s important to me and basically a professional hazard for reasons I’ll explain—pitch counts are still a controversial metric; the later struggles of Wood and Prior have often been laid at the feet of Dusty Baker, but the science and sabermetrics are still out on it. And a compelling case has been made that Prior, whose mechanics were legendary in the sort of circles where such a thing is possible, actually had a significant flaw in his rotation, one shared by the Nationals’ (fortunately still-promising) Stephen Strasburg, who lost a year of his young career to injuries. White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, one of the best in the game, noted that Strasburg and Prior both used a particular sort of arm action—an inverted W between their elbows and shoulders—that had previously been voiced about Prior.

Nonetheless, anyone familiar with Baker’s approach to pitchers, seeing that Prior was pitching late in a tight game without a warm arm ready to replace him, five outs from a World Series, had to have felt his or her heart sink looking at the Cubs’ relievers lined up in jackets in the bullpen.

But today I went back and watched a condensed version of the inning, and what stunned me was how quickly the Cubs’ crowd turned on Bartman—before the Marlins scored a single run, much less before the Cubs blew the game.

I think that’s actually was when I knew it was over, not just the game but the Cubs’ season. The crowd turned so vicious so fast it was like watching a dog going crazy just before an earthquake strikes. It felt like the premonition of a collapse, like all of Wrigley Field was lashing out for two losses that hadn’t happened yet. As Will Leitch wrote:

The boos began immediately. Steve Lyons on FOX, didn’t help matters. When Brennaman pointed out that “that was a Cubs fan who tried to make that catch,” Lyons screamed “Why? I’m surprised someone hasn’t thrown that fan onto the field.” In Wrigley, the Dread had taken over. After Prior threw a wild fastball for ball four, the crowd began chanting “Asshole! Asshole!”

In fairness to the FOX crew, they immediately tried to walk it back, likely sensing how ugly the situation already was. It’s almost poignant to hear them empathize with Bartman, not just out of reason but out of fear. I had the same thought Leitch did: “He listened to the game on the headphones, an old school move, a true fan move. It is almost surprising he doesn’t have a scorebook. God, he is just like me.” Those headphones. This guy cares about baseball, and hurts worse than you do right now.

John Kass was probably the first journalist on the scene:

And after the fans started screaming at Bartman, I ran over to where he was sitting and saw something strange and terrible. It was a man in the center of a maelstrom, trying to shrink himself, trying to become small and disappear, reaching for some refuge inside himself, to hide in front of 40,000 fans who wanted him hurt, or worse.

The fans around us screamed that they wanted to beat him to a pulp, they wanted him dead….

In the Chicago News Cooperative, Dan McGrath—who was at the game that night and on call for the Tribunewrites:

Erika Amundsen, a security guard assigned to the Bartman detail, weeps on camera as she describes the “lynch-mob mentality” that took over the ballpark and left Bartman petrified. “He was so sad. He kept asking me, ‘Did I really ruin the game?’ I tried to tell him he hadn’t done anything wrong.”

He hadn’t, but various media outlets were determined to transform him into an instant celebrity and went into overdrive trying to find him and get his story. The frenzy drove Bartman underground, where he pretty much remains, guarding his privacy and declining all interview requests, including Gibney’s.

Amundsen is not exaggerating. The video of Bartman leaving Wrigley Field is horrifying; without an escort, he almost certainly would have been assaulted.

In retrospect, the Tribune’s then-editor, Ann Marie Lipinski, clearly made the right call in attempting to protect his privacy. McGrath and Lipinski, who were both at the game, understood how quickly the madness of the crowd took over; McGrath calls it “the ugliest night I ever experienced at a ballpark.”

That, I think, has a lot to do with the disconnect, and the problems the media had with the story then and have now—it may have been impossible to understand how quickly a mob mentality developed unless you were at the game. I can sympathize with the instinct to track down Bartman and his friends and family: journalists are trained to believe that telling stories is an unalloyed good, and reading between the lines I can see a desire to place him in his community and his fandom, to humanize the anonymous target of a city’s irrational hate in order to defuse it. McGrath is right that many attempts have been made to exploit Bartman, but in the articles I read in the aftermath there’s much more of a desire to empathize. The Sun-Times story published the day after that named Bartman, like the FOX announcers the night before, goes out of its way to defuse the situation: “diehard Cubs fan”; “a good baseball coach to my son”; “I’m sure nobody feels worse about this than him.”

In Catching Hell, Gibney talks to Dane Placko, who describes the WFLD editorial meeting after the Sun-Times piece ran: “How far do we go in identifying this guy? You have to remember, at the time, there was still a Game 7 to be played that night. There was an expectation, by some, not by me, that the Cubs were still going to win this thing. And so it was felt, it’s a footnote, this is an interesting story, but a footnote, so we can talk about it, give his name, show where he lives.”

That last bit sounds glib, but I believe Placko. Of course it was a footnote. Any reasonable person would think so—Prior’s wild pitch, Gonzalez’s error, and Baker’s excessive faith in Prior were all more costly, and the odds that the Cubs would drop a third straight game were low. Piece after piece that week made that point; I just explained it up there, with numbers and precedent and everything. That’s what journalists do: look at the available information and construct a truthful, explanatory narrative.

Obviously that doesn’t always happen. The Bartman story has nothing on that of Richard Jewell—long reported as the likely suspect in the Atlanta Olympics bombing, he was actually a hero of it—the saddest cautionary tale I’ve ever read. But that’s the training, at least, and even if we don’t always do it well or at all, it does encourage a certain mindset that misguided the Bartman coverage. Look! Here are facts! Let’s reason through them!

What happened during Game Six passed the point of reason even before the FOX announcers started trying to reason with it, much less the next day. It passed through that barrier between the game and real life, and it was terrifying. That barrier is thin, since it’s a construct we’ve fashioned out of the lives of real people, as Steve Rhodes makes clear in a moving essay about Walter Payton and Sweetness. But it’s what makes them so thrilling, particularly to those of us who have developed deep emotional attachments to them from well before the point at which we could reason (I still have a 1983 NCAA Championship towel from when my dad’s alma mater won perhaps the greatest game in college basketball history; I was three).

Sports are a fiction, but also real, and so close you can almost touch it: and in 2003, a young man did, and got pulled into that in-between space. We’ve been trying to drag him back ever since, but he seems to have found his own way out.

 

Photograph: Niklas Hellerstedt (CC by 2.0)

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