'Catching Hell' Director Defends A Baseball Scapegoat In 2003, Steve Bartman played a luckless role in a Cubs' playoff disaster that turned an ugly crowd against him. Many Cubs fans still have not forgiven him. Now a documentary from director Alex Gibney tells Bartman's story.
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'Catching Hell' Director Defends A Baseball Scapegoat

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'Catching Hell' Director Defends A Baseball Scapegoat

'Catching Hell' Director Defends A Baseball Scapegoat

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NEAL CONAN, host: Catching a ball at a Major League game is every baseball fan's dream. To catch a ball at a playoff game is to hold a piece of history. At game six of the National League Championship Series in 2003, one Chicago Cubs fan reached for glory and caught hell. Here's Marv Albert with the call.


MARV ALBERT: Fly ball to the left, towards the line. Alou over. And leaping up, Alou cannot make the play. And Moises is unhappy with the fan, but Moises went in to the seat. He could've had that ball, a fan interfered with him.

CONAN: While half a dozen people reached up for that ball, it glanced off the hands of Steve Bartman, who got the blame when that batter used his new life to spark an eight-run rally and crushed the wild hopes of the Cubs and their fans. Alex Gibney's new documentary tells the story of what happened next. Here's a clip.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN#1: The concourse was jammed with people. We're going through a crowd. And everyone was just yelling.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN# 2: We're going to kill you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN# 3: This was like a lynch mob mentality.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN# 4: Go to prison.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN# 5: And from up the background, people continue to scream at him and throw things at him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN# 6: Like Frankenstein movie with the (unintelligible) are going to want to get him, it's kind of like that. It was pretty crazy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN# 7: Put a 12 gauge in his mouth and pull the trigger.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN# 8: That was the last - we really saw just like a - this big huddle of people going up this ramp with a guy over - with a sweatshirt over his head, and then I never saw him again after that.

CONAN: If you're a Chicago Cubs fan, do you still blame Steve Bartman? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Alex Gibney's many films include the Oscar-winner "Taxi to the Dark Side." He joins us now from our bureau in New York. His new movie, "Catching Hell," is part of our series about the films at the American Film Institute's Silverdocs festival in Silver Spring, Maryland. And thanks very much for being with us today.

ALEX GIBNEY: Great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And the threats, the abuse, we just heard some of it. And that was just some of the stuff we could play on the radio. This was extraordinary.

GIBNEY: Yeah. It was the tip of the iceberg. I mean, really, it is remarkable how one person got picked out, and the entire stadium focused their ire on him and almost tried to kill him. I mean, it was really a shocking thing. I decided to do this film when I took a look at the film and saw just how furious that crowd was and how they're trying to rip him to pieces for really doing the most innocent thing that a fan can do in a baseball game, which is to reach out and try to catch a ball.

CONAN: And as you point out, as the film shows over and over again, he's hardly the only one who reached out for that ball.

GIBNEY: No, at least eight other people reached up. And I think if the wind hadn't been blowing out, a guy named Pat Looney(ph), who's a bar owner we interviewed for the film, would've caught the ball. He pulled his hand back at the last minute, but nobody saw Moises Alou coming. The wall was rather high. I think it was just the natural instinct that took over. You see - saw this high fly ball drifting toward you and you reached up and try to catch it. But unfortunately for Steve Bartman, his hand was just inches above the glove of Moises Alou, who was poised to catch that ball and, I think, would've caught it.

CONAN: And we have to put this into context, as you do in the film, of the incredible frustration of Chicago Cubs fans who've not been to the World Series in a long time and not won one for more than 100 years.

GIBNEY: That's right. And they were so close. The score was 3-0. There was a one out. They had their best pitcher on the mount who was throwing bullets. It - he may have been tiring a bit. I think he obviously was since the floodgates opened after this. But it seemed certain that they were going to win, and then everything collapsed and collapsed so quickly.

And the other thing that's interesting about this and one of the things I wanted to explore was how Steve Bartman came to be the scapegoat, because, yes, he reached out and deflected a foul ball, Moises Alou reached, I think, into the stands to try to get. But just a few pitches later, there was a, you know, lead-pipe cinch double play ball hit to Alex Gonzalez, a sure-handed fielder, and he just booted it. That would've ended the inning. There would've been only one inning left to go. But nobody mentions Alex Gonzalez. It's all about Bartman.

CONAN: All about Bartman because omens and, well, you know, fate seemed to have intervened.

GIBNEY: I think that's right, and I think there's also - there's that superstitious thing that happens. Like, was the touch of the ball - did that open a rent in the cosmic fabric?


GIBNEY: I think a lot of people felt that. But also, there's a darker thing that goes on here, which is that, you know, very often we look to find scapegoats and Steve Bartman was a perfect scapegoat. He was a small guy. He was meek. He had these headphones on, which seemingly set him apart from the crowd. And he didn't seem to really react to that moment. He just stood there like a deer in the headlight staring straight ahead, and it's an ugly fact that crowds tend to react rather badly toward that. And people look to find scapegoats who are weak and see Bartman look weak and they rain hell on him.

CONAN: And they rained hell on him, and it is not too strong a word. Steve Bartman's life has been changed forever in ways that we can't even begin to understand.

GIBNEY: I think that's right. I mean, he still lives in the Chicago area. But since an apology that he submitted the very day after through his - through one of his relatives, he hasn't made any kind of public statement. He's remained separated, cut off. He has, interestingly, a group of very close friends and coworkers who stick by him and honor his request not to make any part of his life public anymore. He wants to remain an anonymous citizen and that, I think, is both - it's a double-edged sword, but I think there's an aspect of that in our media-centric society that we have to admire this guy who wants to be left alone. He doesn't want the spotlight, and so he's trying very hard to avoid it.

CONAN: And, as you point out in the film, has turned down repeated offers to cash in on his notoriety. Well, the guy who did get the ball bounced over to him and he sold that for $100,000. It was later blown up. One of the journalists who seemed to feel worse about what happened - John Kass, - a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and here is from an excerpt from "Catching Hell."


JOHN KASS: Of all of us there, including me for teasing him at that time, Bartman had the most honor among all the people there. He made a mistake. He admitted his mistake. He asked forgiveness of the Cubs and of the fans. For all that, there's a lot of regret, I think, in Chicago about how his name was changed into a verb.

CONAN: Changed into a verb, a lot of regret, he says. And at this point, I think another contributor to your film says Chicago owes Steve Bartman an apology.

GIBNEY: Well, I think it's true. I mean, you know, will Chicago ever forgive Steve Bartman is the phrase most often uttered, but I think it should really be reverse, will Steve Bartman ever forgive Chicago? In a funny way, I feel I have mixed feelings about this. I kind of wish Steve Bartman would come forward and there could be a healing moment. He comes out to Wrigley Field and they give him a day, and all is forgiven on both sides.

But in another way, I kind of wish and hope that Steve Bartman never comes back, that he remains a kind of elusive guy that he seems to want to be, and maybe that moment will never come and that will be somehow more profound. The wound will always be there but - and maybe that's a good thing, maybe that's a helpful reminder of what an ugly moment this was.

CONAN: We want to hear from Cubs fans. Do you still blame Steve Bartman? Steve is on the line from Toledo in Ohio.

STEVE: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

STEVE: I'm a big Cubs fan, obviously. I grew up in Chicago, went to school about two blocks from Wrigley Field, and I've been going to Cubs games since '54. I don't blame Bartman. I blame the manager for not pulling Prior out. Prior was shaken by that. He was tiring. They should have put a relief pitcher in and gone from there, but they didn't.

CONAN: Prior, his performance in the remainder of that inning did not inspire great confidence. Mark Prior then, of course, had his own bad luck, a lot of injuries. He never again was as brilliant as he was in that particular season.

STEVE: But I don't blame Bartman at all. I mean, he was doing what everybody does. A foul ball hitting the stands, you go for it, and you don't think about it. And I don't think it's his fault at all.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call. And, Alex Gibney, you said something important earlier that I wanted to follow up on. You said that Moises Alou, the left fielder, reached into the stands. In other words, the fan, Steve Bartman, had every right to that ball. He was not interfering.

GIBNEY: There's no doubt. I mean, if you...


GIBNEY: ...we looked at that play over and over again, and we did show it a number of times in the film. It's right on the edge. I mean, he didn't reach - Moises Alou didn't reach way in to the stands, but it was ambiguous enough so that I think any reasonable umpire couldn't have called fan interference, because it certainly wasn't the case that Steve Bartman reached way out in to the field. You know, I think it's fair to say that Moises, you know, he was reaching up at his own risk.

Now, some people will say - and Scott Turow, the novelist, does say in the film - you know, look, you're a hometown fan. You got to, you know, keep your mind on the score and the moment and all of that if you're sitting in a front row. I think that's true to the extent. And so, if he had been a super and perfect fan, maybe he would have. But the fact was everybody around him was reaching up for that ball too. It's just your natural instinct. The idea that a ball would seek you out at the ballpark, that's magic, and to give that up is pretty hard.

CONAN: Would Jeffrey Maier have stuck his glove out over the right field wall at Yankee Stadium had that not been hit by Derek Jeter but by somebody for the Baltimore Orioles who was playing in that game?

GIBNEY: Well, there is a case where Jeffrey Maier may have had - he may have been more in sync or in tune with what was going in the ballpark in terms of, you know, the strategic outcome. He gave a homerun or tried to give a homerun to Derek Jeter.

CONAN: Here's an email from Jeff in Salt Lake City: As a long-suffering Cubs fan, the ineptness after the Bartman foul ball is much more indicative of the cloud over the Cubs for over a hundred years. He didn't cause the eight-run rally. Champions bounce back, lesser beings don't. Leave Bartman alone.

We're talking with Alex Gibney about his new film, "Catching Hell." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Mike, and Mike is on the line from Wichita.

MIKE: Well, I'm also a lifelong suffering Cubs fan. And actually, in my opinion, I don't think he's caught enough hell, to be quite honest. You know, I've - you know, when you haven't won a championship in over a hundred years, everybody got to kind of do their part. I, myself, have even fantasized about being in Bartman's shoes and that's - if that ball comes to me, I got my arms extended. I'm clearing the way for Alou to get that ball. You know, the last thing on my mind was - would be I want a foul ball. I want to end the inning.

And, you know, the point about - our shortstop, you know, fumbling the next play, I can tell you, if Alou caught that ball, that ground ball would have been smothered by the shortstop instead of him trying to turn a quick double play, and we'd be having a different conversation right now. Now I know ESPN did a "You Can't Blame" series, and, of course, Bartman was front and center of that series. And, you know, the general consensus was you can't blame Bartman, but I'll always blame him.

CONAN: I hear your passionate devotion to the Cubs' cause. He should have caught more hell? Death threats aren't enough?


MIKE: Yeah. I might - that might be a little strong. But - well, I forgive the guy. I guess I'll forgive, but I'll never forget, you know, that he just couldn't separate himself from the moment.

CONAN: All right. Mike, thanks very much for the call. And I suspect, yes, like our first caller, a lot of people said Dusty Baker, the manager, should have pulled prior - the shortstop, shouldn't have made the error. And - but I suspect there's more than a few in Chicago who still blame Steve Bartman.

GIBNEY: I think so, as the fan was evidence of. I mean, I think people saw it as a moment. You know, it's one of those things where the game turns there. And after all, he is a Cubs fan. And I think, you know, he was wearing a Cubs cap. And the idea - and Moises Alou really did sell that moment. I mean, when he came down and he didn't catch that ball, he stamped his feet. He looked around. He looked at Bartman. And there was a huge hissy fit he threw out in left field, which gave everybody this very visual moment to focus on, like, oh, my god, it could have been, it could have been, and it wasn't. And what will happen now?

Baseball is a game of anticipation. And I think, at that moment, it's easy to understand how the curse must have taken hold in the minds of fans. And there was a huge roar, I should say - I can't say exactly what they were saying on the air - but there was a huge roar around the stadium. It started actually outside the stadium from people who are watching the replays on a TV that was held on someone's head, and it was, you know, a rather obscene statement directed at this one fan. But - so there seemed no doubt in the stands that day as to who should be blamed.

CONAN: We're talking with Alex Gibney. He directed the documentary "Catching Hell." It's playing this week as part of AFI's Silverdocs festival in the Washington, D.C. area. You can see a clip from the movie at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And let's see if we can get to Jordan. Jordan's with us from Nashville.

JORDAN: Hi. How are you doing?


JORDAN: Well, that day was very, very significant for me because it was the day that I stopped following the Cubs. I sort of realized that I have become so emotionally invested that, you know, crying for an entire day after that loss was not the way to react to sports. But specifically feeling Steve Bartman's pain as a Cubs fan, knowing what he did, you know, he knew what he did and he knew that he ruined the - that everyone perceived that he ruined the season for them, when, in fact, it was really the Cubs doing what they always did, which was lose and choke in the last minute. And I just sort of gave up.

CONAN: Jordan, I don't mean to offer false hope, but there will be a day.


JORDAN: Yeah, I'll keep it in my peripheral vision, but I can't follow it like I used to. I just - I don't have it in me.

CONAN: I understand that, Jordan. Thanks very much for the call.

JORDAN: Oh, you're welcome.

CONAN: Appreciate it. We should say also Alex Gibney, in his film, puts the Steve Bartman moment in sharp contrast to the Bill Buckner moment for Boston Red Sox fans. Like Alex Gibney, that pain lasted bitterly for a while, but was alleviated by eventual success when the Boston Red Sox came back and won the world's championship. And when that day finally comes, maybe Steve Bartman will get to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field like Bill Buckner eventually did at Fenway Park.

GIBNEY: Amen to that.

CONAN: Good luck with the film.

GIBNEY: Thank you so much, Neal.

CONAN: Alex Gibney's new film "Catching Hell" at the Silverdocs festival. The director joined us from our bureau in New York.

Tomorrow, we first measured time by the sun and the stars. Our first clock didn't even have a minute hand. Today, every second counts. We'll talk about how we measure time. Plus, another in our series on the Silverdocs festival, a documentary that investigates the terrible costs of sex trafficking. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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