Searching for Steve Bartman

Can you believe that one of the most talked about baseball plays in the last decade wasn’t even a fair ball? In a decade dominated with steroid allegations, ever-increasing contract size, perjury trials, personal triumphs, loads of perfect games and insane wall-leaping catches, one of the most recognizable highlights was that of a simple foul ball.

It happened just over eight years ago. On Oct. 14, 2003, when Steve Bartman reached his hands over the left field wall, disrupted Moises Alou, and turned a stadium full of jubilant Chicagoans into a lynch mob of sorts, he put himself in rare company as a symbol of the Chicago Cubs futility. Days later, the isolation reached new levels. Bartman issued a brief statement and then vanished from public eye completely, leaving so many questions unanswered and creating one of the most interesting storylines in sports to date.

His statement read:

 “There are few words to describe how awful I feel and what I have experienced within these last 24 hours. I’ve been a Cub fan all my life and fully understand the relationship between my actions and the outcome of the game. I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moises Alou, much less that he may have had a play. Had I thought for one second that the ball was playable or had I seen Alou approaching I would have done whatever I could to get out of the way and give Alou a chance to make the catch. To Moises Alou, the Chicago Cubs organization, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, and Cub fans everywhere I am so truly sorry from the bottom of this Cubs fan’s broken heart. I ask that Cub fans everywhere redirect the negative energy that has been vented towards my family, my friends, and myself into the usual positive support for our beloved team on their way to being National League champs”

Then silence.

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As the city began to cope with the 2003 loss, Bartman was nowhere to be seen. Talk to most Cubs fans today and they’ll say they’ll never forget that lost season, the Game 6 collapse, or Steve Bartman, but they no longer hold a grudge. Time has healed the wound of the fans in Chicago.

But for Bartman, we can’t make that same assertion. Bartman’s situation was much more unique, and it was much more personal. Since his initial statement, Bartman has remained steadfast in silence.

And the silence is what truly makes this a memorable story. The silence makes this a story at all because within the silence we learn so much. Bartman had a stadium full of people booing him and screaming obscenities, he had people nearby throwing things at him and trying to land a punch, and he had a city badmouthing his name for days on end. Bartman was in a world that most of us will never understand.

It would take a certain type of person to be able to deal with that. Think about this – if Pat Looney, the bar owner a few seats away, was in Bartman’s seat, we wouldn’t have nearly as interesting a story today. Pat Looney was a man much like the other men in the stadium that night. He was with a few friends, he had a few beers, and he wasn’t listening to the radio broadcast through headphones. He seemed to be an outgoing guy. In an interview with Wayne Drehs of ESPN, Looney discussed the incident and how he would have responded.

“Look, [Bartman] was an easy target, and it’s unfortunate. But these guys walking up throwing a beer, how tough are they? Guys like that, talking all that s—, they’re probably a bunch of p—ies. I wouldn’t have let people throw stuff at me and talk all that s—.”

If Looney’s hands were in Bartman’s place, odds are the story today wouldn’t be about a man, but about a curse in Chicago and the silly things people have done to reinforce it. But Looney wasn’t in section 4, row 8, seat 113, Bartman was, and Bartman’s hands touched that ball. Because of that, the public infatuation with him has grown to epic proportions.

To this day, Bartman remains in hiding, and speculation has run wild. Some say that Bartman fled to England. Some say that he changed his name. Reports surfaced that he’d been offered various gifts, trips and cash of sums upwards of $100,000 for interviews, card shows, commercials, you name it. And each year you can bet that price rises, because now the curiosity with what happened on that night is almost secondary to the question: “where the heck have you been… and why?”

But through his lawyer, Bartman has refused every single offer. In doing so, he has become one of the most captivating, elusive, and indescribable men in sports.

How many people would have done what Bartman has done over the past eight years? What percent of people would continuously refuse large sums of money that most of us won’t see in a year? With an agent, Bartman could have loads of endorsement deals, and he certainly knows this. He could set up shop at card shows right next to Moises Alou and plop his signature on the photo of the would-be-catch. He could join the Winklevoss Twins in making Wonderful Pistachio commercials. As Sports Illustrated writer Phil Taylor pointed out in a recent article, how about a Bud Light or Century 21 commercial? – (“Remember fans, when a popup comes your way, reach for a Bud, not the ball.” Or “Hi, I’m Steve Bartman. Recently, I needed a realtor in a hurry, for obvious reasons…”)

But he’s done none of that, and there’s no indication he’ll do anything in the near future. Maybe he received too many death threats and doesn’t feel safe, maybe he’s still too ashamed and blames himself, but I like to think Bartman simply doesn’t think it’s right to capitalize on such a tragic loss for his city – a loss he played a role in. But we’ll really never know why he hasn’t come out of hiding in eight years.

But now a development in Chicago may change all that – Theo Epstein.

If there is one man that can get Bartman out of hiding, surely it’s Epstein. Theo Epstein did more for Boston than just break the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 and bring millions to their feat in awe; he also brought back Bill Buckner.

After his infamous flub at first base in 1986 and his release in 1987, Buckner felt so vilified by the media that he ultimately decided to leave town for good. He hadn’t been back in Fenway Park since 1997 when he was the batting coach for the White Sox. For years Buckner had refused invitations from the Red Sox organization, but in 2007, after the Red Sox won their second World Series in four years, Buckner finally accepted the Red Sox long-standing offer. Being unfairly criticized by the Boston media for years, Buckner admitted feeling uneasy about the whole ordeal. In an emotional moment in the pre-game press conference, Buckner stated, “I really had to forgive… not the fans of Boston per se, but I would have to say, in my heart, I had to forgive the media…”

As Alex Gibney pointed out in the recent documentary Catching Hell, the situation Bartman finds himself in today is much like the situation Buckner found himself in between 1986 and 2003. Buckner felt his critics went too far – that in a team game, only one man took the brunt of the blame, and there wasn’t a championship yet to heal the wounds. There’s no way of knowing if this is the reason Bartman has shied away from interview requests over the past eight years or not. But, if somehow Theo Epstein can conjure up some magic in Chicago like he did in Boston, break the Curse of the Billy Goat and bring the Cubs their first World Series since 1908, we may finally find out.

Perhaps in time, and under the right circumstances, Epstein will set the stage for Bartman’s return. Maybe Epstein will figure out a way to bring home a title, and he’ll bring Bartman out to toss a ceremonial first pitch the following season. I can see it now – Bartman walks down the aisle right next to his seat in section 4, jumps over the fence, and sprints to the mound. He’s wearing the same Renegades sweatshirt, green turtleneck and Walkman that he had on eight years ago. As he reaches the mound, he rips off the clothes to reveal a Mark Prior jersey. The crowd goes crazy. He looks in and gets the sign from the catcher. Yep, it’s a one. He winds up and throws the pitch. It’s not perfect, but it gets there. The crowd roars. He goes to shake hands with his catcher, and as he reaches him, he removes his mask. It’s Moises Alou. They both share a big hug as the city rejoices. A new memory is made. Theo smiles from his press box. He knows how the history books will look now – Theo Epstein: curse-breaker/scapegoat-freer. Bartman finally takes up all the endorsement offers – all of them. He’s all over the Web and in several competing beer companies’ commercials. Walkman sales are off the charts. Bartman’s a winner. Epstein’s a winner. The city of Chicago is a winner. Win-win-win.

Now wouldn’t that be something.

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Readers Comments (2)

  1. Great piece. Catching Hell had a great perspective on the whole ordeal and apparently Bartman’s still in Chicago. Definitely an interesting watch… But one definitive conclusion was that Bartman will never appear publicly again.

    Also, there was a great episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm this season featuring the redemption of Bill Buckner. More quality viewing.

  2. I remember a few years ago a guy from ESPN’s E-Ticket series (back when ESPN still published long stuff) tracked down Bartman. He was still in Chicago; I’d have long since fled the city. It was a very good read, worth digging around for.

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