I started playing baseball around 1986 as a young teen. The problem with playing baseball in Holland was the extremely limited access to events in the Major League here in the U.S. There was no internet and hardly any baseball game was broadcast over there. Unless maybe it was a World Series, then it would get a spot in one of the major sports programs on TV. I’m telling you this, because I have been watching the 30 for 30 series from ESPN. I am only a few episodes into it, but already I love it. I am learning stuff about sports events I never even knew about. Events that are still very much in the mind of the American sports fan.
One of these events is the Steve Bartman incident that occurred on October 14, 2003. During Game 6 of the National League Championship Series the Chicago Cubs were on the verge of reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945. The fans were ecstatic, but then a fly ball went into foul territory over in leftfield. Outfielder Moisés Alou ran over to snag the ball, but a fan by the name of Steve Bartman reached out for it and deflected it just before it reached Alou’s glove. This fateful moment sealed the Cubs’ fate and the Florida Marlins went on to score eight runs and ultimately the National League championship. While there were other errors made that facilitated the loss the fans united in chastising Steve Bartman for his collision with fate.
Since 1945 the Cubs have been playing under the weight of what they call the Billy Goat Curse and lifting the curse has been on every Cubs fan’s mind ever since. Steve Bartman was at the wrong place at the wrong time and caught hell for something any fan would have done, because catching an official Major League baseball is a dream of any baseball fan. But I also understand that in the heat of the moment people wanted to lynch Bartman. The tensions ran so incredibly high, that any incident would have sparked some kind of controversy. Having somebody within reach to blame the loss on was a gift from the baseball gods for the people who were there. Blaming a loss on a player remains something remote. They are on the field and disappear into the catacombs after the game. Bartman didn’t have that option. He couldn’t jump onto the field to flee from the irate fans around him. I don’t know if I would have acted any different from the way that entire ballpark was acting. Gibney makes the argument that he was doing something anybody would have done, and that is true, but he was still the one who did it. People who still carry a grudge against Bartman after all these years should, however, rethink their priorities.
Gibney doesn’t just focus on the Steve Bartman incident. He also goes back to 1986 to investigate another baseball incident: an infamous error made by first baseman Bill Buckner. The situation was very much like the one with the Chicago Cubs. The Boston Red Sox were also on the verge of clinching a championship and with that eliminating their own curse they had been carrying with them since Babe Ruth moved to the New York Yankees in 1920. So the expectations were high when the Red Sox were in the lead in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. However, the Red Sox botched their lead by making some crucial errors during that fateful last inning. The last of which was a slow roller that inexplicably went through the legs of Bill Buckner. Because he made the last error everybody focused their rage on him and subsequently made his life a living hell. It took years before the Red Sox finally won the World Series and then they started thinking about forgiving Buckner.
While Gidney is certainly interested in telling Buckner and Bartman’s stories, the main focus of Catching Hell is the scapegoating of a single person to get rid of this unending frustration about a losing team. Why were these two people singled out and blamed for the losses and why were the other players that also made mistakes conveniently forgotten? It is a question that lingers all through the movie and to be honest, nobody really knows an answer. Gibney gives the people involved ample time to explain what happened back then at both incidents and that sheds a light on some of the events, but he never really answers his own thesis in a satisfying manner. But, then again, do we want him to. I think not, a lot that goes into sports is the rabid fandom of people and the strange workings that can entail. It’s a mysterious pastime that unites people in ways they probably couldn’t even explain to themselves. I am not one to start shouting at someone in my every day life, but when I am at a ballgame I let myself go regularly. Sometimes out of frustration, sometimes out of happiness. There is so much drama to get caught up in.
At the very end of Catching Hell Gibney does go into a bit of a preachy mode by letting people tell the viewer that what happened was wrong, that they feel sorry for Bartman, that everybody should look at what happened at that game back in 2003 and make sure it never happens again. While some of this might be true it also comes across as wiping your own nose clean after committing exactly the things they are riling against. Hindsight tends to always be 20/20, so let’s not kid ourselves: if something like this were to happen again in the future people will not react any differently than before. It is human nature and in the heat of the moment anything can happen.
It is also human nature to forgive someone for their mistakes. Gibney shows us that Buckner actually was officially forgiven by the fans of the Boston Red Sox. Eventually he went back to Fenway Park and walked onto the field to throw the first pitch at the Opening Day game in 2008. He got through this ordeal of being scapegoated and can now move forward. The same thing can still not be said of Bartman. He is still living with the burden of being the guy who botched the Cubs’ chances to win a championship and he wasn’t even a player. I am not a Cubs fan, so I can’t speak for those fans, but let’s give this guy a break and focus on the stupid errors the players made during that game. I hope one day this guy gets to walk onto the turf at Wrigley Field to receive some kind of apology from the fans. I really do.
Although it seems like Alex Gibney’s 2011 documentary Catching Hell is a part of the ESPN 30 for 30 series, and therefore shouldn’t be included in this blog, it actually isn’t. It is part of a spin-off documentary series called ESPN Films Presents. It is also longer than a regular episode at 1 hour and 42 minutes and it is listed on the IMDb as a stand-alone documentary.