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A new ESPN documentary called "Catching Hell" tells the story of how eight years ago the Cubs came close to winning their first championship in more than a century. And how, instead, a fan named Steven(ph) Bartman became a scapegoat.

NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: There's a part of me that didn't even want to do this story. No Cub fan, including me, wants to relive the night of October 14th, 2003. It still hurts. But here goes:

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME)

SCHAPER: The Cubs were leading the Florida Marlins in the National League Championship Series three games to two, and took a 3-to-nothing lead into the eighth inning. The level of anticipation in Wrigley Field that night was incredible.

I was there, covering the game, recording, and the crowd counted down the outs.

With one out and a runner on second, the Marlins' Luis Castillo hit a fly ball in foul territory down the left field line. The Cubs' Moises Alou ran over to the stands and reached up with his glove - just as a bunch of fans reached up, too. And one of them, 26-year-old Steve Bartman, deflected it, preventing Alou from catching the second out of the inning.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD BOOING)

SCHAPER: Alou went ballistic. Fox TV showed replays over and over. Fans turned on Bartman, booing, chanting obscenities and throwing beer at him.

Back on the field, the Cubs came unglued. The Marlins went on to score eight runs - eight. And the Cubs lost the game, and game seven the next night, while the Marlins ultimately won the World Series.

DAVID BEAUDION: I was pretty PO'd, I threw the remote and I turned the TV off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCHAPER: At O'Donavan's, a Chicago bar about a mile and a half west of Wrigley Field, 32-year-old David Beaudoin remembers how Bartman's interference rattled the players.

D. BEAUDION: It threw everybody off of their game, you know, and nobody was prepared for that. You know, I mean, you saw Alou's reaction to the whole play, you know, he was furious.

SCHAPER: The new documentary, "Catching Hell," by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, shows how outfielder Alou's outburst on the field sparked a nasty reaction in the crowd. Bartman became the scapegoat and a target. Wearing headphones over a Cubs cap, glasses and a green turtleneck, Bartman stood out in the crowd. So for his safety, security escorted him from the stadium.

The next day, The Chicago Sun-Times published his name, the suburb he lived in and where he worked. TV crews camped outside of his house. Reporters hunted down his friends, neighbors and even the Little League team he coached. While Bartman and his family got death threats. He's pretty gone underground ever since.

Cubs fan Mary Beaudion says she hasn't seen the documentary yet, but she does look back now on the fans' reaction with a little remorse.

MARY BEAUDION: You know, this poor guy. I mean it was so much hatred toward him and so many mean things that were said, it was like - he could have been suicidal. I know I would have; all of Chicago now hated you and it was your fault. They blamed him, I kinda did. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCHAPER: Husband David Beaudion adds...

D. BEAUDION: He can be forgiven.

SCHAPER: But the film "Catching Hell" doesn't ask Cubs fans if they can forgive Bartman. Rather, it asks if Bartman can ever forgive his fellow fans.

PATRICIA REARDON: I think they reacted very poorly, I really do.

SCHAPER: Lifelong Cubs fan Patricia Reardon, who grew up in the shadows of Wrigley Field and is now in her 70s, seems embarrassed by the scorn her fellow fans directed at one of their own.

P. REARDON: Poor guy. I feel sorry for Bartman, and it was a very sad situation - for Chicago and Bartman.

SCHAPER: Patricia's daughter, 50-year-old Julianne Reardon, agrees. And she blames the media for fueling the fire.

JULIANNE REARDON: They've played that scene, that one play, over and over and over again. And then they gave his name out and then they told what he did. They were, they just gave; they divulged so much information about him.

SCHAPER: In "Catching Hell," documentary writer and director Gibney compares Chicago's scapegoating of Bartman to that of Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, whose error in the 1986 World Series led to his team's collapse, and Red Sox fans to run him out of town.

Buckner was exonerated when the Red Sox won World Series titles in 2004 and '07, and he's now cheered by most Boston fans. Could the same thing happen at Wrigley, now that Theo Epstein, the general manager who assembled those Red Sox championship teams appears headed to Chicago? Again, Julianne Reardon:

J. REARDON: They have to reconstruct the team. You know, they had a horrible year this year. But we still keep going back for more.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

J. REARDON: More grueling punishment.

SCHAPER: Cubs fans - even Steve Bartman, I hope - are nothing, if not eternally optimistic. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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