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Steve Bartman and the Mob

The Chicago Cubs’ long-deferred trip to the World Series has brought joy to millions, but for one fan, baseball and joy can never again be so innocently mixed.

Many of us have woken up the way Steve Bartman did on the morning of October 14, 2003, knowing that we would attend a baseball game later in the day—in his case, Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, in which the Cubs, holding a 3-2 lead, needed one more win to advance to the World Series. None of us has returned home the way Bartman did that night: with a police escort to protect the most hated man in a city of nearly 3 million people. He had police protection the next day and for a time afterward. He essentially went into hiding. He was excoriated by sports talk-show hosts and legions of fans. He received death threats and still gets some today. The game he attended that night became known as the Bartman Game; the seat he sat in, the Bartman Seat.

What on earth did he do? In the eighth inning, with the Cubs leading, 3-0, he reached for a foul ball, possibly preventing Cubs left fielder Moises Alou from catching it. Then the Cubs’ shortstop kicked a routine groundball, the manager left the exhausted starting pitcher in the game, and the relief pitcher, when he did arrive, offered little relief. The Cubs’ self-fulfilling “curse” had gotten in players’ and fans’ heads once again. The team blew a game it was five outs from winning, and then blew Game 7 the next day, too, squandering yet another chance to get to the World Series. Ignoring this large cast of culprits, many fans pinned the blame on one man: Bartman.

The Bartman story is a darkly representative one for our time. He could have been any of us. Jon Ronson’s bestselling So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed [1] examines the burgeoning culture of ridicule on social media and in today’s “sharing” universe, but Bartman’s ordeal took place before social media. He was victimized by older forces, among them the madness of crowds, scapegoating, and media manipulation—videos of the missed foul ball were replayed repeatedly, as if it were the Zapruder film. His fate is a reminder of how sports, when they aren’t ennobling us, make too many of us nasty and cowardly and small. It was bad enough that Bartman had to be escorted out of Wrigley Field that night for his own protection. It was worse that the next day, adults—grown men and presumably sober, in the light of day—were still condemning and threatening him.

The only heroic figure in the saga is Bartman himself. The day after the game, he issued a public statement expressing sorrow “from the bottom of this Cubs fan’s broken heart” and asking angry fans to redirect their energies to rooting for the team again. In the 13 years since, he has given no interviews, written no books, started no blogs or Twitter feeds, posted no selfies. He has attempted neither to exonerate nor to exhibit himself, though if he were the kind of person we tend to admire these days—one who has evolved beyond personal shame—he could have made lots of money. It must have been a terrible realization, as it gradually dawned on him, that his notoriety was not temporary but permanent; that he, a mere fan, would share the fate of some star-crossed ballplayers of the past (like Fred Merkle), to live forever under the cloud of a single moment. How quaint and noble that, as this unearned infamy settled upon him, he resolved only to live as he had lived before. In doing so, he demonstrated what too many people never learn: the mob can stampede you underfoot, but the mob can’t have your soul unless you give it to them.

Bartman’s name is in the news again as the Cubs play in their first Fall Classic since 1945. Some have suggested that the team invite him to throw out the first pitch when the series moves to Wrigley Field; others, revisiting the events of 2003, have stressed that the Cubs’ collapse that year wasn’t really his fault. No doubt these sentiments are well-meaning, but they miss the point. It matters not a whit whether it was Bartman’s “fault” or not. Parsing his culpability implies that, in some future scenario, it might be justified to treat some other innocent person this way. But what was done to Bartman was abominable and has no justification in any case.

The calls for Bartman to return to Wrigley Field, supposedly to show that he is forgiven, obscure the fact that the need for forgiveness runs the other way—it is the fans who need absolution, and only Bartman could bestow it. (Isn’t it striking how, in a chatterbox culture, the man who does not chatter attains moral power?) But Bartman, true to form, doesn’t seem interested in making any appearances. And there the matter should be left to rest. Bartman has been man enough not to pursue a grudge; let the mob be manful enough not to insist on his blessing. That is more than fair and better than any mob deserves. Contrary to the spirit of our age, there really are situations for which the only proper response is silence.

Paul Beston is managing editor of City Journal.

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10 Comments To "Steve Bartman and the Mob"

#1 Comment By Kurt Gayle On October 28, 2016 @ 1:53 pm

After the game the Cubs issued a press release that said this about the Bartman incident:

“We would also like to remind everyone that games are decided by what happens on the playing field—not in the stands. It is inaccurate and unfair to suggest that an individual fan is responsible for the events that transpired in Game 6. He did what every fan who comes to the ballpark tries to do—catch a foul ball in the stands. That’s one of the things that makes baseball the special sport that it is.”

These three points sum up the Bartman incident:

(1) A Cubs’ fan had made a mistake – a simple, unwitting error that a lot of fans would make in the excitement of the moment.

(2) Cubs fans overreacted – wildly overreacted.

(3) Cubs fans have a lot to live down. Paul Beston is right: “It is the fans who need absolution.”

#2 Comment By Charlie On October 28, 2016 @ 3:07 pm

As a fan of the team, the idea of inviting him back to throw out the first pitch bothered me for the same reason (fortunately the team itself never brought it up or took it seriously). He clearly has no interest in being part of a PR circus, and the idea that he needs to be “forgiven” for anything is absurd. It would just be a stunt designed to provide certain fans with a catharsis they don’t deserve, and that really has nothing to do with Bartman. Even an abject apology, at this point, would be too late. “Now that we’re in the World Series I realize that I behaved badly, so sorry” is not any kind of genuine apology. It makes it about the outcome of the games, when the actual issue is the off-field behavior of certain fans and certain people in the media.

#3 Comment By DG On October 28, 2016 @ 3:52 pm

A very beautifully written essay. I watched that game in 2003 and I remember the look on Mr. Bartman’s face as he sat there mortified while other Cubs fans were yelling at him, showering him with beer and who knows, maybe even spitting on him. And my heart broke for him. May the so-called “Curse” of the Billy Goat be always upon you, Chicago; you deserve it, even if Bartman doesn’t. I’ve been rooting for the Indians since they took out the hated Red Sox and it continues for the WS.

#4 Comment By Lefty On October 28, 2016 @ 5:23 pm

Thoughtful essay. Well done.

#5 Comment By H On October 28, 2016 @ 5:34 pm

This would be awesome if he threw the first pitch. Better than anyone else for the show.

#6 Comment By Andrew On October 28, 2016 @ 6:37 pm

The blame for the whole incident lies where it almost always does, with the press. Wrigley didn’t even have a Jumbotron video screen instant replay, but the TV feed kept replaying the play over and over and over again, and while ignoring the other five people who reached for it, incessantly babbled on, focusing on the nerdy guy in the headphones and the green turtleneck, who, was recognizable forever by the time the dopey and slow to react Wrigley security realized they had better get him the hell out of there and away from TV cameras. By then, he was already known and would be shown a million more times over the next 24 hours. Sports press, political press, they’re all the same idiots, people, always asking for undeserved empathy because of their supposedly “vital importance to the Constitution”.

#7 Comment By Mac61 On October 28, 2016 @ 7:44 pm

The Cubs and their fans have never, for one moment, apologized enough or in any way for the ugliness that was visited upon this man’s life. Moises Alou said in 2011 documentary that he “100 percent” had that ball if not for Bartman. A shameful episode in Chicago and Cubs’ history for which far too little was done by this organization, then and now. Bartman is the only one with grace, humility and charity in this situation.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 29, 2016 @ 8:24 pm

If it is accurate that the team says it’s a nonissue, they it would seemed to have been a nonissue.

I played short-stop in little league, so I never contended with the risks of having to get a ball near along the infield fence line, outfield wall or the dugout. But there re times in sports when you get into a rhythm — the zone. It is almost an out of body experience. That within your field of play — it will work to the players advantage – even errors work to the advantage.

But this business of spectators reaching into the infield can certainly disrupt a game and even the rhythm of the play and mindset. I am not a fan of the public – even less the mob mentality that comes with it. Individuals are fine for the most part, but public is fickle and tend to an unreasoned disposition. One look no further that above reference team statement. If accurate it indicates just how unreasonable the public can be.

Probably a good idea to stay out of the field even to retrieve that delectable foul ball.

#9 Comment By Bruce B On October 30, 2016 @ 12:14 pm

Steve Bartman’s life was destroyed by one foul ball. Why on Earth would he want to go back to Wrigley Field to be surrounded by the people who did the destroying?

The writer is correct: It’s Cubs fans who need absolution, not Bartman. I’ve been a baseball nut for nearly five decades, but it’s still A GAME.

#10 Comment By Lynn On October 30, 2016 @ 3:13 pm

Thanks for this wonderfully written and informative article. While disputing a bit with my baseball historian brother,that Steve Bartman actually CAUSED the Cubs to lose, he told me to just google Bartman to see what came up. “Bartman and the Mob” was the first thing. MY brother said, “Well, there was a lot of money riding on the game.” Of course, the “mob” was the fans. It seems excessive in retrospect, but I live in LA where a Giants fan was beaten nearly to death in the Dodger stadium parking lot. Paul Beston’s writing is a treasure and I’m grateful that this article led me to read the ones about Walter Payton and Jim Morrison. Sometimes the internet can be so awesome.