One hundred and eight years of not winning a World Series leaves behind a lot of errands to run, and it seems like the Chicago Cubs have spent the entire season running them. Every other day, it feels ike, they’re raising a pennant, visiting the White House again, giving out another World Series ring, celebrating anew.
You can’t blame them, of course. We all know how many emails pile up when we’re on vacation for just a week, so 108 years … yes, there are things to do. Still, time does move on, and even the best parties end, and the Cubs themselves are trying to recapture the magic in a year when the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros seem to have all stolen of their good mojo.
So, yes, it did seem a bit wearying that on the day of the trade deadline — a day when the Dodgers got even better — that the Cubs were busy announcing that they had given out another World Series ring.
But this one was different. This one was for Steve Bartman.
I would say that at least once a month for the last 14 years, I have thought about Steve Bartman, which is strange because I am not from Chicago, and certainly did not grow up a Cubs fan. His story haunted me in ways that are hard to describe. Two days after he reached up for a foul ball like anyone would, I wrote one of the angrier columns of my days at The Kansas City Star under the headline: “Cubs fans should be ashamed.”
“You would have reached for the ball.
Oh yeah. You can deny it. You can say that you would have thought quick, moved out of the way, sacrificed your body, whatever. You would have reached for the ball. I would have reached for the ball. Everybody would have reached for the ball. The last couple of days, it seems like the sports world has gone mad. Newspapers, broadcasters, fans, talk-show hosts, politicians, everybody goes after one poor lifetime Cubs fan who made the single mistake of being human and reaching up for a baseball hit at him.
What an American disgrace.”
That was 2003, a long time ago, but that anger I felt then has never quite faded away. It’s difficult to quite recapture the madness of that time. The Cubs were famously five outs away from the World Series when the ball was hit toward Bartman, who was sitting in the left field stands. Chicago’s Moises Alou thought he had a shot at it, he leaped up, Bartman (and, really, everyone sitting around him) reached for the ball. Bartman deflected it. Alou was so furious he threw his glove and screamed.
The Cubs fell apart — errors, intentional walks, terrible pitching, etc.
And everyone blamed Bartman.
Everyone. It was the nastiest reaction imaginable. The television cameras just hovered around Steve Bartman. Hs supposedly had to stay in a Cubs office for his own safety. And then came the reaction, the deranged reaction. Remember Rod Blagojevich? He was governor of Illinois then — this was before he was impeached and disbarred and arrested and sentenced to prison — and he came out with a statement: “Nobody can justify any kind of threat to someone who does something stupid like reach for that ball.”
Cubs manager Dusty Baker seemed to blame Bartman after the game (“I’ve never understood why fans do that, because if you’re a fan of a team you try to get out of the way.”) Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered Bartman asylum in Florida. Jimmy Kimmel sent a pizza to Bartman’s house. A few sports columnists across America called Bartman the idiot Cubs fan, a goof, a nerd, Captain Oblivious, a meddler, a jerk. Fans were even harsher. People dressed up like Steve for Halloween; and some were booed for doing so. Bartman’s address was posted in various places. He and his family were hounded. Threats. Insults. Bartman basically went into hiding.
“I’m heartbroken,” Bartman wrote in a statement. He was a lifelong Cubs fan who had come to the game to see his team finally win, that’s all. But the fury was all-consuming.
The passions we bring to sports, they’re mostly good. These games jolt us out of the dull hum of every day life, they give us a reason beyond — outside of our families, our friends, our jobs, our faith, our neighborhoods — to feel great joy, to connect with the people around us, and, sure, to feel relatively harmless rage. Almost as often as I think about Bartman, I think about that scene in The Simpsons’ “Homer at the Bat” when Bart and Lisa taunt Darryl Strawberry.
“Children,” Marge says, “that’s not very nice.”
“Mom,” Lisa says, “they’re professional athletes. They’re used to this. It rolls right off their backs.”
And then there’s a shot of Darryl Strawberry in the outfield, a single tear rolling down his face.
We enjoy throwing our fury into games because we believe that it is benign, safe, there are no consequences, I don’t really HATE John Elway for tearing up my Cleveland Browns and my childhood, not really, not in the bold and ugly sense of that word. I even invented a different word for it — Clemenate (after the much-reviled Roger Clemens) which is “to hate an athlete in an entirely healthy, fun sports way.”
But the story of Steve Bartman is a reminder that in sports, the rage, the hunger, the hatred isn’t always healthy or fun.
There were occasional efforts after the insanity calmed down to reach out to Steve Bartman, but even these were often clunky. Dusty Baker gave an interview before the 2004 season; Dusty is a good person, and I think he felt badly about what had happened to Bartman. I also think Dusty felt remorse for the small role he had played in it. He wanted to make ammends.
“I’d like to win and put him in the parade with us,” Baker said. “Exonerate him for life.”
I feel sure that Dusty said that out of kindness … but it only made things worse. Exonerate him? For what? For being a Cubs fan? For doing what any fan would do when a baseball is hit at them?
But that indeed was one theme of the Cubs’ halting effort the last 14 years to finally win a World Series. Winning one, we were assured, would silence the ghosts, it would break the curse, it would satisfy the billy goat and, yes, it would exonerate Steve Bartman.
Monday, Steve Bartman was given a Cubs World Series ring. He did not make a public appearance to accept it. He instead released a beautiful and haunting little statement, one that expressed his gratitude … and one that also showed the scars of the last 14 years.
“My family and I will cherish it for generations,” he wrote of the ring. “Most meaningful is the genuine outreach from the Ricketts family, on behalf of the Cubs organization and fans, signifying that I am welcomed back into the Cubs family and have their support going forward. I am relieved and hopeful that the saga of the 2003 foul ball incident surrounding my family and me is finally over.”
That last sentence — “relieved and hopeful that the saga … is finally over” — chill me to the core. You read that statement and you understand just how hard it has been.
You know, in the hours after the Cubs lost that series, Kerry Wood tried to take the blame. He started Game 7 and he didn’t have it. First inning, he gave up a triple, a walk and a homer. The Cubs came back to take a 5-3 lead, but in the fifth he gave up three more runs with a couple of walks and double and a single. In all he gave up seven runs in one of his worst outings of the season.
“I choked,” he told reporters. “That’s the bottom line. I let the team and the organization and the city of Chicago down.”
But for some reason, nobody ever really blamed Kerry Wood, not any more than anyone else. No pizzas were sent to his house, no Governors talked about him, nobody called him an idiot in the papers, no fans mockingly dressed up like him for Halloween.
I guess maybe this gets at why I think about Steve Bartman so often. Heroes … goats … parades … blame … it’s all so capricious. Steve Bartman didn’t ask for any of this. He didn’t want any of this. He didn’t deserve any of this. Sure: He could have cashed in on this moment. He could have written a book or two. He could have made appearances, become a minor celebrity. I think a lot of people would have. But he had no interest in any of that. He just wanted to go on and live a quiet life with his family. And it clearly hasn’t been easy.
All because someone hit a foul ball toward him during a game and, just like I would have, he reached up to catch it.