Saturday, October 1, 2011

It Wasn't Bartman's Fault

In my own childhood, I suffered from what might be seen as a variant of the Stockholm Syndrome. Though I was awful as sports, I identified myself in terms of them. I spent years foolishly telling myself that if I wanted it badly enough, I could somehow will myself to much greater athleticism than I had it in me to achieve. In so doing, I condemned myself to years of cruel disappointment or even humiliation. I wonder if a person ever completely gets over years of being chosen second- or third-to-last (there was, thank God, always at least one boy even more hopeless than I in my classes) for every team?

At Loyola Village School, teams were never chosen for spelling, reading comprehension, or art.

The remarkable documentary film I watched on ESPN America last night reminded me how sports bring out the worst in people. At a 2003 National League Championship Series game in Chicago, whose Cubs appeared to be about to make it to the World Series for the first time since something like 1831, a Florida Marlins batter hit a fly ball down the left field line. The Cubs left fielder might have caught it, putting his team within only a few outs of victory, had not the bespectacled 26-year-old Steve Bartman tried to catch it himself — as several other fans to either side of him tried to do as well, and as you or I would surely have done in the same circumstances. The Marlins went on to score a great many runs, and to win the game, and then to win the next evening’s too, and with it a trip to the World Series.

Fans outside the stadium watched a replay of the Bartman mishap over and over on a portable TV, and began chanting, “Asshole!” Their counterparts actually inside Wrigley Field took up the chant, and some of them came over to throw beer at Bartman, who had to be rescued by security guards. And there weren’t 10 of them among the 40,000 in attendance who wouldn’t have reacted to the foul ball exactly as he himself had.

A local TV channel thought its ratings might be enhanced by their making known not only Bartman’s identity, but also the location of the home he shared with his parents; it was a wonder one of them wasn’t killed. I suspect there were moments when Steve and his parents almost wished they would be. I’d bet the whole thing haunts him to this day.

The Cubs shortstop, who made a crucial error shortly after the foul ball, and pitcher, who suddenly lost the ability to get a Marlins batter out, weren’t threatened, nor were the Cubs batters who failed to produce sufficient runs to overcome the Marlins’ big inning. But that’s hardly to suggest that the fans always cut athletes all the slack they need. It was over 20 years before the good folks of Boston “forgave” Bill Buckner for the fielding error that contributed to the New York Mets’ winning Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, and then the Series itself the following night.

I had a small dog in that particular fight, as, back in the days when I was a fervent LA Dodgers fan, I saw then-Dodger Buckner make the greatest defensive play I’ve ever seen in person, sprinting from left-center field to make a diving, skidding catch of a fly ball down the left field line.

I’d imagined, given their reputation for orderly queuing and for murmuring, “Sorry,” if you bump into them, that the Brits might be rather less beastly in this regard, but it turns out that they are actually even beastlier — given, for instance, to shouting, “I hope your kids get cancer,” at David Beckham after he failed to lead the England team to victory in an important international game.

I'll confess it anew. I watched sports nowadays mostly in hope that players I know to be narcissistic jerks or worse will suffer painful injuries.


  1. This is funny and touching. I grew up and older in many of the same ways. I didn't know that Buckner had been forgiven. It's good if that's true. Boston is a cruel city. Philadelphia, where I live now and where we hope the Phillies will proceed to this year's World Series, is not as cruel, but it's a city whose weakened pulse casts its natives into deep depressions when their teams fail. I know this well because I live with one of them. She was SO happy to be reunited with them, but it's a two-edged sword. Do you know the song "Football" from the Rutland Weekend Television lp by Neil Innes and Eric Idle (mostly by Neil Innes)? It's a very sharp and funny examination of what you write about in the next-to-last paragraph. Curtis

  2. I agree! You have highly paid mufti-millionaires getting paid a king's ransom to do a job and they didn't do it. Cubs fans simply show how moronic, classless, barbaric, and ignorant they were. The way the Cubs totally came undone after that one mishap on a foul ball play only exempted their level of unprofessionalism. They didn't make it to the World Series because they DIDN'T DESERVE IT neither did their fans.