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.