While I was working out at the gym last night, I watched a riveting documentary, Catching Hell, a detailed account of the 2003, Steve Bartman fiasco at Wrigley Field, Chicago.
As longtime readers of this blog may know, group madness and the psychology of scapegoating are areas of great interest for me. Catching Hell is certainly a story of scapegoating and group madness. First, though, some backstory before getting into the meat of this excellent documentary.
In 2003, the Chicago Cubs (baseball team) were up against the Florida Marlins in game 6 of the National League pennant playoff series. The Cubs were leading 3 games to 2 in a best of 7 series. It was the 8th inning; the Marlins were at bat, down by a score of 3-1. With the Cubs just 5 outs from a victory that would have put the team into the World Series for the first time since 1908, the home crowd at Wrigley Field was going berserk.
If you're not from Chicago, it might be difficult to appreciate the rabid fan devotion to this perennially losing ball club. Games are always sold out, which is otherwise unheard of for a losing team that plays in a very old ballpark that offers none of the amenities of a modern stadium.
Back to the 8th inning. With the Cubs 5 outs away from the World Series, everything turned ugly in an instant. Chicago Cubs left fielder, Moises Alou, leaped for a routine popped foul ball off the bat of Florida Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo. The ball was coming down right over the left field wall. If the ball followed its path unimpeded, it might of landed in the first row of the stands, or it might have bounced off the top of the wall, or it might have hit the inside top of wall. As many times as I've seen the replay since 2003, I can't tell.
As the ball fell, several first row fans reflexively reached out to make the catch. It looked as if the ball bounced off the hands of 26-year-old, lifelong Cubs fan, Steve Bartman. What's clear is that the ball bounced back onto the field, and Alou threw a shit-fit over what he saw as fan interference. My take watching the video repeatedly is that Alou probably wouldn't have made the catch, even if the fans hadn't reached for ball. The wall is pretty high at that point, and I don't think Alou was on target to make the catch. But I could be wrong.
Here's a 30-second clip of the play. See if you can tell.
Whatever the case, a near riot ensued. It appeared that every fan in the stadium was on their feet, screaming at Bartman who remained seated wearing headphones and listening to a radio broadcast describing the melee. Beer, pretzels and trash were hurled at Bartman and fans near Bartman. Because of a 7-second delay in the radio broadcast, Bartman was confused. He didn't realize that the riot being described on the radio was about him. Then he got it; he lowered his head, as all hell rained down on him from above.
After several minutes, the escalating fury had become so dangerous that Bartman had to be sneaked out of the stadium by sympathetic Wrigley Field security, who dressed him in a different jacket and cap, to disguise him during his escape. As Bartman was escorted along an interior walkway of the stadium, a rather large jag-off of a fan went at him. A scuffle broke out, with security subduing the angry man who was behaving like a complete ass.
The Cubs went on to lose the game. As it turned out, even if Alou had caught that ball, the outcome would have been the same. It has always been clear that the defeat of the Cubs was not Bartman's fault. The Cubs lost that game, and the next game, and the pennant race, all on their own, though some contend that the Bartman incident busted the Cubs momentum, leading to their defeat. Anything to blame Bartman, I guess.
After the game, Mr. Bartman was publicly vilified. The story ran on local and national news, over and over and over again. Bartman couldn't go to work. He received numerous death threats and had to go into hiding at his parents' home in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook. To protect Bartman and his parents, several Northbrook police cars were stationed in front the home. Eight years later, Mr. Bartman, now age 33, doesn't use credit cards when making purchases in the Chicago area for fear that he'll be identified and attacked.
The filmmakers presented some remarkable footage that hadn't ever been aired before, carefully tracing every detail of the incident, from the missed catch, through the prolonged furor in the stands to Bartman's escape from the stadium and the awful aftermath for Bartman, who is by all-accounts, a gentle, soft-spoken and unassuming fellow, well-regarded by neighbors in the community where he coached youth baseball. I should aslo mention that the Wrigley Field security people were incredibly decent, even heroic, that day. They deserve special praise for their courage. It was also clear that broadcast media greatly contributed to the ugly escalation, putting Mr. Bartman at serious risk of injury or death.
How crazy did the whole thing get? A Chicago restaurateur paid $113,000 for the missed ball, which was publicly "blown up" by a special effects expert during an event at Harry Caray's restaurant. The remains of the ball were boiled, the steam was captured, and the distilled essence of the Bartman ball was mixed into a pasta sauce to be served at the restaurant. Does that not sound psychotic?
After watching Catching Hell, I find it difficult to see Steve Bartman as anything but the innocent victim in this mess--an ordinary guy, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing what most other ordinary guys would have done on reflex. On the other hand, there are a lot of Cubs fans out there who should be deeply ashamed of themselves. Some of the most aggressive fans were clearly guilty of assault and battery, though as far as I know, no arrests were made. A pity, as far as I'm concerned.
My own thoughts about the scapegoating of Bartman are very much in sync with NPR's Linda Holmes:
Catching Hell is a story about false narratives, the speed with which they develop, and the utter impossibility of turning them around once they've taken hold. That part of the film is what's genuinely frightening. You get a chance to see the replay seemingly 100 times. Each angle provided shows you that more than just one pair of hands were reaching for the ball. Moises Alou, the left fielder trying to make the catch, admitted there were multiple hands impeding his glove.
Even if you aren't a fan of baseball, I would highly recommend that you catch this documentary if it is re-aired. It's less a story about baseball than it is about the madness of groups, the making of stubborn false narratives and the scapegoating of the innocent in a process that is played out again and again in every domain where human beings come together in groups.
Here's an analysis of the ritual destruction and eating of the Bartman ball.