Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bartman, Buckner and Merkle: Scapegoats "Catching Hell "

It’s the eighth inning of game six of the 2003 National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins. The game is being played at Wrigley Field. The Cubs are ahead 3 games to 2. Cub fans are more than hopeful, they are optimistic. Moises Alou chases down a foul ball hit by Louis Castillo popped up along the left foul line wall. As the ball drops, fans lean towards the ball and it glances off a life-long Cubs fan, Steve Bartman. Alou is unable to make the catch. He looks back at the fans in the stands and does a dance in frustration.

The game continues. Castillo returns to the plate and takes a walk. A series of hits, walks and Cub miscues blooms into an 8-run Marlin rally and win. As the game ends, fans turn on Bartman who needs to be escorted out of the park. Garbage and curses fly at Bartman as the cameras roll.

The Cubs are demoralized. In the final game of the series, the Cubs lose 9-6 with Kerry Wood at the mound. The Bartman game and incident lives on and on. Bartman plays the scapegoat for the Cubs collapse. As Cubs fan always do, the Bartman game is added to the dozens of key Cubs historical incidents that are hotly debated. Another Cubs incident lives out in the collective consciousness of Cubs fans never to be resolved one way or another. Bartman is scarred and shies away from any publicity.

Catching Hell

The Bartman game is relived anew these days with the release of Catching Hell a film offered up this week in ESPN’s 30 For 30 Series. Catching Hell is directed by Alex Gibney. Gibney knows baseball fan pain as a long suffering Boston Red Sox fan. (In addition to Boston's almost Cub-like history, this year the Red Sox came into September with a 9-game lead in the wild card hunt. The Sox were shut out of the playoffs with a horrific month-long nose dive that culminated in a ninth inning loss on September 28.)

In Catching Hell, Gibney examines sports curses and scapegoats in baseball taking a close look at the Bartman game and its aftermath—and examining the Bill Buckner incident. ESPN’s web page for Catching Hell.

For Chicago Cub fans, the film has opened up an old wound and has also shown the dark side of the “Friendly Confines.” Perhaps Wrigley Field will never be looked at the same way, at least by those outside of Chicago who can now witness the shameful reactions to Bartman’s attempt to catch what he and others around him thought was simply an out of play foul ball.


At Sporting Chance Press, we like to champion Scapegoats. After all, a scapegoat is simply someone who takes the fall for others. There were a number of well-paid Cubs involved in the 8-run rally and subsequent loss the following day that took out the Cubs in 2003. For fans, it just seems more appropriate to try to place the blame elsewhere, thus we have Bartman as scapegoat.

It's important to remember that a scapegoat is someone who takes the punishment for others. In this sense Bartman continues a long tradition that is as old as the Old Testament; some suggest that it's even older than that. When you see the Castillo popup on film and you see other people leaning over to do the same thing that Bartman did, it doesn't take a genius to know that the rules of baseball etiquette are a little murky at best for the average fan. There's a also the fact that Catillo's ball was very close to being unplayable altogether. Perhaps a lot more Wrigley fans hesitate when a ball comes their way today.

Many say Bartman should have known better. That may be true. But, let's not forget that when you chase a ball in a ballpark, typically it's more of responsive action than a thinking one. Who can forget that one young father fell to his death this year leaning over to get a ball for his son. Bartman did what came natural to baseball fans and sometimes the consequences are rotten and ill-deserved--and tragic. In his case, my thinking is more along the lines of "but for he grace of God" I'd be right there with him as opposed to calling him a fool.

Fred Merkle Our Favorite Scapegoat

Many fans know the biggest scapegoat in all sports was not Barman nor Bill Buckner, but Fred Merkle. Fred Merkle remains the most famous scapegoat in sports history although the Merkle game was over a hundred years ago. The Merkle game took place on September 23, 1908, and barely a day goes by when a blogger or someone in the media does not recount the story or make a reference to “Bonehead” Merkle. Our book, Public Bonehead, Private Hero, recounts the Merkle game and its aftermath. It’s a must-read for both sports and history fans.

History keeps repeating and you have to wonder if we ever get any smarter. It’s likely that Bartman is aware of what Fred Merkle suffered at the hands of media and fans because Bartman has suffered a similar fate essentially for doing what most everyone else in his circumstance would have done. Merkle's lesson for Bartman however, is rock-solid. You get up, dust off your shoes and get on with life. Merkle lived through World War I, lost his savings in the Great Depression and struggled to make a living through World War II. As if that wasn't enough, there was always some knucklehead around who wanted to call him Bonehead. My hope and prayer for Steve Bartman is that there are a lot less knuckleheads around who want to call his number after viewing "Catching Hell."
Copyright 2011, Sporting Chance Press

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