Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ticket to the Dark Side: Catching Hell

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

Published in 1888, Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” is designed as a portrait of utter baseball catastrophe. As the poem opens, failure is imminent. The home team is down two runs and facing its last out. But then two men get on base and the club’s power hitter comes to the plate, and suddenly hope swells again. Mighty Casey watches one strike go by. Then he watches another. And then he swings … and misses, and the game ends, and the poem ends, and we’re left with the aching feeling of what might have been. For 115 years, this is what baseball heartbreak looked like – victory within reach, fans daring to believe, and the hero in the uniform failing to hit it out of the ballpark. On October 14, 2003, baseball heartbreak got a new face. This time around there was a foul ball within reach. The time fans dared to turn on one of their own. This time a Little League coach in a turtleneck and a Walkman had to be escorted from the ballpark for his safety. This was the night that mighty Casey’s place in baseball infamy was surpassed by a quiet, unassuming fan named Steve Bartman.

If you’re a baseball fan you know this story, which is the subject of Alex Gibney’s Catching Hell. Or do you? Gibney’s film is about the events of October 14, 2003, but just as much it’s about our selective memory of that night. So before you watch the film, which premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, ask yourself: What do you remember? You remember the play, certainly: A foul ball slicing down the left field sideline at Wrigley Field; the crowd standing up and reaching to catch it; Chicago Cubs left fielder Moises Alou leaping up along the railing, trying to catch it, too; and the ball bouncing off Steve Bartman’s hands in the front row, preventing Alou from making the play. You also remember the aftermath: Alou throwing a temper tantrum that Lou Piniella would have found excessive and Bartman sitting motionless in his seat as Chicago’s finest screamed at him, and worse. You probably also remember the stakes: the Cubs were trying to get to their first World Series since 1945 in hope of winning it for the first time since 1908. You might even remember how many outs stood between the Cubs and the Series at that point, Cubs fans certainly do: five. But do you remember anything else? Do you remember the score at the time or by the end of that inning? Do you remember the other muffed catch that followed Bartman’s? Heck, do you even remember the Cubs’ opponent that night? Chances are good you don’t. In memory, the event is distilled into three images so tight in their geography that it’s easy to forget there were eight other Cubs on the field at the time. Flash! We see the hands of fans reaching. Flash! We see Alou screaming. Flash! We see Bartman dejected and stunned still, the loneliest man on the planet. It’s that last image that really lingers, like the last five words of Thayer’s poem.

It’s the indelibility of that Bartman image that fascinates Gibney. In a game that the Cubs wound up losing by 5 runs, how did Bartman get singled out? In a postseason series with yet another game to play – a home game at that – how did Bartman get the brunt of the blame for the Cubs’ failure to make the World Series? A lot of reasons, it turns out. Chief among them, 1) Alou’s explosive reaction, which caused all eyes at Wrigley Field and on sofas and barstools across the country to focus on Bartman, 2) Alex Gonzalez’s oft forgotten error, which rather than shifting the focus from Bartman managed to leave it on him at precisely the point FOX broadcasters zeroed in on their target, 3) the Florida Marlins’ relentless offensive explosion, which buried the Cubs with 8 small-ball runs over the course of that inning while poor Bartman roasted under the spotlight and, not to be discounted, 4) the Cubs’ culture of losing that had fans expecting doom from the start. But those are only half of it. And by the end of his examination Gibney wonders if Bartman got pinned with the blame simply because he was a natural scapegoat: an innocent who had the burdens of others thrust upon him.

Catching Hell was originally slated to be part of ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series (you might remember the clip of Bartman reaching for the ball from the television ads) and indeed the documentary has a personal perspective that fits the series’ modus operandi. Gibney provides the film with traditional narration (some of it entirely unnecessary) and also splices in clips from a radio interview in which he describes his memories of the incident and his intent. Gibney comes to the project as a Red Sox fan who lived through one of baseball’s other most famous gaffes, the “Bill Buckner play” from the 1986 World Series, and wonders if the two are connected. They are. In both cases a series of familiar mistakes are forgotten in the shadow of a memorably unusual one – a ball going through a player’s legs in one case, a player and a fan fighting for the same ball in another. Gibney doesn’t get an interview with Bartman in Catching Hell (Bartman has refused interviews or other publicity since becoming suddenly famous), but in a way he doesn’t need to. He finds a voice for Bartman through Buckner, who lived for decades with the unfairness of the media’s and a community’s oversized obsession with an uncharacteristic mistake and the villainy that was ascribed to him as a result. Buckner tells Gibney he’s at peace with what happened, but his interviews are so emotionally precise that it’s obvious the pain of his experiences is never too far away. If this is what being the scapegoat must mean to a former major leaguer – a guy who was paid to make plays – imagine what it must have felt like for Bartman – a guy who paid money to be close to the game.

Was Bartman to blame that night? Gibney settles that once and for all by scrutinizing the Bartman play with the intensity of Jim Garrison deconstructing JFK’s assassination. Through various replays, some of them computer enhanced, it’s clear that Bartman does prevent Alou from making the catch, but whether he deserves blame is another matter. Gibney’s frequent replays make it clear that 1) Bartman was one of many people reaching for the ball that night, 2) he couldn’t see the oncoming Alou, who was approaching from back and to the left – back and to the left – of the forward-facing Bartman and 3) the radio play-by-play pumping through Bartman’s headphones was of no help whatsoever. Regardless, even if Bartman had been worthy of blame, he didn’t deserve the abuse that followed. Catching Hell provides a sobering glimpse of the mob mentality as an overflow crowd chants “Asshole!” in Bartman’s direction. It’s a sickening display made all the more depressing because of the willingness with which Bartman accepts the abuse. One wonders, in the moment might Bartman have feared that his abusers were in the right?

I hope not. For me, the Steve Bartman story is the most tragic event in baseball history not tied to racism or physical injury. By reaching for the foul ball, Bartman was doing what any of us would have done, and yet by suffering unforgivable abuse, apologizing to the franchise and its fans and never pointing a finger at anyone but himself, Bartman displayed a fortitude and class beyond almost all of us. Watching Catching Hell isn’t unlike experiencing any other documentary about social injustice. It isn’t a baseball movie so much as a story about humanity. The "30 for 30" series is populated by numerous powerful films that give precise detail to their subjects, but I’m not sure any of them actually give something to sports like Catching Hell does. Gibney’s film is an attempt to correct our mental history books so that we might remember the Bartman game in a different light and, hopefully, avoid a repeat of it in the future. Baseball is better for it being made, and we’re better for experiencing it. I hope that the people who booed and blamed Bartman watch this and feel ashamed. I hope the normally astute Mike Wilbon sees this and stops using “Bartman” like a four-letter word. I hope Bartman sees this and sits firmly in the knowledge that he didn’t fail baseball that night. Baseball failed him.


Kevin J. Olson said...

Yeah, this whole thing always bothered me. For one, I have never had much patience for the "woe is me" fan...whether they be from Boston or Chicago (Boston especially...get over it, you're bigger than New York now when it comes to winning titles in recent sports history). Two, I'm glad you mentioned Wilbon. I like him; or, at least I try to tolerate him on Pardon the Interruption. His writing is usually better, but I remember always being annoyed with him as he seemed to be the leader of the We Hate Bartman fanclub. Everyday on his show he would -- as you say -- use Bartman as a four letter word. I hated him for that.

Here's the thing: I genuinely feel bad for Bartman because he was just doing what any baseball fan is trained to do from the day they were a little kid and their dad told them to bring their mitt to the ballpark. I sports hate Cubs fans (like forever...I really could care less if they even sniff the NLCS again...and their recent woes are just wonderful examples of schadenfreude) because any one of them would have done the same thing had a ball been that close to them.

Alou is just as much to blame, too, and yet, in a rare example of sports figure in a sport-obsessed city, he has essentially been let off of the hook for his temper tantrum.

Finally, I'm glad you mention the game itself, something Cubs fans have remained blissfully ignorant about all these years. It's why I feel no sympathy for Cubs fans. They always want to point to something causing their team to suck rather than looking and saying, "hey, we just weren't that good." Point to yourself and to your team, not to some ridiculous mythical curse -- or a scapegoat like Bartman as the avatar for that mythical curse.

But, I may be in the minority on that one because I never much got into Boston's quest to erase the curse back '04 (or was it '05 when they won? I can't remember).

Who was announcing the game? I'm assuming it was Buck and McCarver? If so, I'm not surprised by their hounding of Bartman, too. They are two of the worst announcers in sports, and they strike me as the type that love it when the producers let 'em loose to focus on stuff like Bartman. But I can't remember if they were the ones announcing the game or not. I know I have more to say about that (about sports commentary during games and by people like Wilbon), but I'll leave it for now.

I'm looking forward to watching this one. It might be awhile since I've dumped cable, but I'll find a way to watch it. Great, great stuff Jason. I loved your final paragraph. Some of the best writing you've done for this 30 for 30 series.

Sheila O'Malley said...

God, that was powerful. Thanks for your review, Jason - it was good to come here and read it following the doc. The Buckner thing is part of my history as a Red Sox fan, and his interviews were painful to watch, he seemed so - honest, so haunted. "We Forgive Bill Buckner"?? I remember that banner. I find that kind of thing despicable. Stupid. Unfair, too: it's a complex game, so many factors go into winning/losing. I could have done without the minister - although her explanation of "scapegoat" actually did help focus what was ACTUALLY going on in that stadium. Watching Bartman's fortitude under the abuse ... I felt nothing but pride for him as a human being. Took real guts. And how about the security guard breaking into tears years later, remembering his humility and kindness? That was a fine documentary. Thanks for the reminder to tune in.

Clarence Ewing said...

Great essay, Jason. I saw the doc last night. My biggest criticism is that there was way to much focus on the Red Sox for a doc that's supposed to be about the Cubs. I know Gibney is from Beantown, but the Buckner story's been told already ad nauseum. They must have wanted some reason to squeeze in Bob Costas, who is now to sports documentaries what Frank Vincent is to Mafia films.

I agree with you, Kevin, about Wilbon. He was way to over-the-top about this, even for him. There's being a sports fan and there's being a whiny, immature jackass, and Wilbon pole-vaulted over that line in regards to Bartman.

The doc did a good job of capturing the energy of the neighborhood the night of the game. I remember taking the Red Line train home from school that evening and passing by Wrigley field. I've never seen anything like it. One thing Gibney got wrong, though, was his characterization of "The Friendly Confines" as some kind of serene pasture for watching baseball. Wrigley has always had problems with drunk belligerent fans, especially in the bleachers. It's no worse than any other major city ballpark, but not better either.

All in all, a good film.

Jason Bellamy said...

Kevin: It was a Fox game, and I think it was Buck and Tim Lyons ... definitely Lyons (he's interviewed in the doc).

As for Wilbon (and this is for Clarence, too): I often workout with PTI on in the background, and Wilbon used "Bartman" as a four-letter word as recently as about four weeks ago. I suspect it's his effort to look like a tough ass Chicagoan. But it's sad. Very sad. And to use another expression that Wilbon is fond of, he should "grow up" and move on.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sheila: I could have done without the minister - although her explanation of "scapegoat" actually did help focus what was ACTUALLY going on in that stadium.

The minister seemed really forced early, like some oddity that Gibney couldn't resist throwing in there (she does a sermon on Bartman!). But by the end of it, with her efficient and evocative description of scapegoating tradition, I was glad she was there and thought she fit well.

The security guard is such an interesting "character" in all of this. And I say "character" in part because it feels conjured for a movie. She's not supposed to be on security there but gets called in. She happens to live nearby. She has Bartman over for a while and becomes, in a sense, the last person ever to see him (when he was a notorious outlaw, so to speak). That whole interview was a wonderful discovery.

Jason Bellamy said...

Clarence: My biggest criticism is that there was way to much focus on the Red Sox for a doc that's supposed to be about the Cubs.

Kind of like my comment above to Sheila about the minister, I thought so at first, too. But then by the end of the film, I though its place was deserved. Although certainly if Gibney had only been given an hour, all of the Buckner stuff would have needed to go. As familiar as that play is, though, I still think the vast majority of fans still don't realize what a good player Buckner was (not just fielder but all around player), and that, in and of itself, shows just how crystallizing a moment like that can be.

Wrigley has always had problems with drunk belligerent fans, especially in the bleachers. It's no worse than any other major city ballpark, but not better either.

Yeah, I thought that was puzzling, too. Chicago might not be seen like Philly, but it's not as if Cubs fans have ever been the overly pleasant folks that people think of when they think of Packers fans, for example (to mix sports). I think that was Gibney tweaking reality a bit to enhance his narrative.

Joel Bocko said...

I'm fairly indifferent to baseball, but growing up in New England you kind of soak up the Red Sox lore whether you want to or not. I was thinking Buckner when I read this (not to mention the fiascos the other night) - interesting to see he's actually a major part of the doc as it turns out.

He had a pretty funny cameo on Curb Your Enthusiasm recently where he gets to save a baby tossed out of a burning building. Nice to see he can laugh about it, even amongst all the anxiety. I had a sales job once, and amongst all the somewhat tedious pep talks we had to undergo one that stuck with me was in reference to having a customer yell at you - he asked us to think what sports figures must feel like - kids often, fresh out of college, with entire stadiums, thousands of fans screaming at them (granted, they usually earn a tad more than door-to-door reps, but still...)

And this poor guy wasn't even a player. What an awful moment that must have been. As for Cubs fans scapegoating, didn't they actually have a literal goat that they once blamed for losing? My college roommate was from Chicago and I remember him saying something like that.

Great piece, really engaging & I'm going to try to see this when I get the chance (I usually like baseball docs despite not being a fan of the sport - another good one I saw a few years back was on Luis Tiant of the Red Sox, which might have been an ESPN-related project too though I saw it in theaters; I know they've aired it quite a bit since).

SPEEDbit said...

Great post Jason! It is indeed a great doc. It is amazing how the wrong error at the wrong time can be talked about for decades and cause so much strife among players, fans. We remember Bill Buckner's error against the Mets and it still comes up in conversations. Thanks and keep blogging!

K.Fitz said...

Several things standout for me in this superb documentary

1.) The real goat in the Red Sox game was Bob Stanley who threw the wild pitch that tied the game.Buckners error ended the game but I think the Mets would have won in extra innings as they had new life and the momentum
2.) Alex Gonzalez was the cause of the Cub loss-not Bartman and why he got off the hook is a crime.Double play ball ends inning as opposed to foul ball that may or may not have been caught.
3.)That major league tool Jim Cuthbert who brags about how he went down to Bartmans seat and asked him to go outside to fight.Then brags about it on camera with no remorse.This guy typifies the whole ugly mob mentality that was born that night.Hey tough guy I hope you recognize what an ignorant oaf you are.