Steve Bartman–Whose Scapegoat?


As the 2011 World Series draws near to its first game on October 19, I’m watching a Documentary on ESPN, entitled “Catching Hell.” It’s the story of a young man, named Steve Bartman who unknowingly interfered with the possible catch of the Cubs outfielder, Moisés Alou, in the sixth game of the National League pennant series against the Florida Marlins in October of 2003.

The story is fascinating. The way the crowd reacts in the stadium amazes me. It’s a real study in mob mentality and scapegoating. The anger and the frenzy, fed by the media, is really remarkable too–like kids standing around a boy being bullied and prodding the bully to “kill him.”

A fan-hunt followed. The media, like sharks, continued to draw attention to him. The then presiding Governor of the state of Illinois, Milorad “Rod” R. Blagojevich , said that if Bartman ever was incarcerated in his state, he’d never receive this Governor’s pardon. Blagojevich also said of him that he should enroll in the witness protection program (Ironic given the corruption and ousting of “American’s Least Popular Governor” a mere five years later)

Death threats to Bartman multiplied. The police surrounded his house to protect him and keep him safe. The news media camped in his neighborhood. To protect his family and neighbors, he immediately left home and avoided his workplace. Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, offered him asylum. And a generous donor offered him money to leave Illinois. He didn’t accept either offer.

He was 26 years old. A quiet man who coached little league and loved the Chicago Cubs. He was a diehard Cubs fan himself and had given tickets to three of his friends who attended the 8PM game with him. Interestingly, they did not stand with him against the crowd’s accusations. They disappeared into the cool night, as far as we know, without a word.

The fans ended up projecting all their frustration and angst onto their scapegoat– Steve Bartman–dubbed “the man alone.” Many aimed their cups of beer, slices of pizza , and popcorn at Section 4, row 8, seat  113 and the *x*x** with the blue wind breaker, green turtleneck, and now famous headset on over his Cubs cap. Many in the crowd tried to find and beat him following the game, but security wisely whisked him away. They disguised him and took him out of the park through a back gate. Everyone talked about his role for months. They blamed him for the Cubs losing the series, despite the many other errors made throughout the game that night and the next.

A dartboard was created with his likeness on it. Another picture had him, not Saddam Hussein, coming out of that hole in Iraq at the feet of U.S. troops. Some talk-shows ultimately tried to defuse the anger. Others intentionally fanned the flames.

Not everyone stood against him. A female security guard went to great lengths to protect him and help him get home that fateful evening. Others on the security team helped as well. Many fans would not take part in the hazing and haranguing. Some standing nearby assured him that they too had tried to catch that ball. His family, friends, little league team and their parents, as well as a large number of Cubs fans later stood in support of him outside the family home where he lived.

Once Bartman realized what had really happened that evening, he grieved deeply.  He hadn’t really understood what went down until everyone in the stadium shouted him down and he heard the time-lapsed broadcast in his headset. Then he realized the awful implications of his interference. He later issued a public statement and apology. The remorse in his voice was overwhelming. What he said was:

I am “truly sorry from the bottom of this Cubs fan’s broken heart. . . . 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.”

–from <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-1510515.html>

The Cubs played outstanding ball their seventh game of the playoffs. But their rally couldn’t carry them to the pennant title and on to the World Series. The loss cemented in the minds of the disappointed fans “the Steve Bartman incident.” They went berserk. To bring reason and restore sanity, the Cubs ball club issued the following statement:

The Chicago Cubs would like to thank our fans for their tremendous outpouring of support this year. We are very grateful. 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. This was an exciting season and we’re looking forward to working towards an extended run of October baseball at Wrigley Field. [emphasis mine]

–from  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Bartman_incident#Defense_of_Bartman>

The shame is that the ball club even had to make such an obvious statement in order to defuse the many irrational fans.

Ironically, Bartman never benefited from his attempts to catch the ball that night. Someone near him actually retrieved the ball which Bartman had tried to catch. That man sold it to a local attorney for $113,824.16. Ultimately, the ball was taken to a popular restaurant and with great fanfare was destroyed–detonated by a special effects expert. The fans felt that the destruction of the ball might break the “curse of the Billy goat”‘ they believed was on the Cubs.  Chefs boiled and steamed the remnants of the exploded ball and the distilled water formed one of the ingredients of a special spaghetti sauce. Weird.

What a strange slice of sports history. What a typical slice of human history.

But what I wonder is, whatever became of Steve Bartman? I hope he realizes that the few seconds during which he reached out to catch that ball, in no way defines him as a man. I also hope he realizes that he is not the only man to ever be falsely accused, demonized or vilified.

Some, who know, say that the fielder was not that good a player. Would he really have ever made the play? Does Steve know that many others around him all went for the ball too? At least five hands and arms reached out with his. His just happened to be the one that first touched the ball.

I hope that the Chicago fans who acted so immaturely, so appallingly toward a fellow fan, have either grown up or come to their senses.

Steve Bartman laid low for many years. Rumors flew regarding his whereabouts. Some thought he had to leave Chicago. Others said he was hiding out. My sense is that he was hurt and disappointed in himself. He was demeaned and vilified by his fellow Cubs fans. Yet he remained humble and remorseful, eschewing any offers to profit from his mistake and the following media frenzy. He not only turned down an opportunity to later be a VIP at Wrigley Field, but turned down a $25,000. offer to autograph a photo of his attempted catch and a six figure offer to do a SuperBowl commercial.

The people who shouted obscenities and jeered at him were far more guilty than he of being less than human. The mob reminded me of what if must have been like in the Roman Coliseum of the fist and second centuries. There they watched and encouraged men to brutalize and kill one another as a SPORT–a GAME. They cheered killing and murder and demonstrated just how decadent human beings can be once restraints are lifted. We are not naturally good. We’re naturally fallen–depraved and deceived. Ask any parent who has watched in awe as his/her child threw a fit in a store because she couldn’t have her way. Who taught the child to act that way? No one! It comes naturally. Adults in the stadium that night had still not outgrown the same behavior. Human beings have the potential for good. But we are what comes out of us in situations like these. If you were a Cub fan that night, viewing that game, what came out of you?

Some Cubs fans did not participate in the mocking and shameful display toward Bartman. Some empathized with him. Some even stood by him publicly at various times.

Assuming he may yet be, Bartman should not live in shame. Instead, until they repent, many of the guilty Cubs fans should live in shame. No one wins in this disgraceful response to an innocent mistake. Chicago fandom owes it to Bartman to honor him. Not honor him for his mistake, but honor him for how he navigated the unmitigated cruelty of fellow fans. He suffered all this for an unguarded moment in a GAME . . . A GAME.

One windy-city pastor, saw the relationship between Bartman and the ancient Hebrew practice of the” Day of Atonement,” and the cursing of the scapegoat. She drew the parallel between the innocent goat, sacrificed for the sins of the people with Steve Bartman and the fans who reviled him. The analogy was insightful.

Abandoned by his friends, alone hanging over the mob, the greatest scapegoat in history said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  Steve Bartman is not Jesus, but one has to wonder at the way man has not changed much in all these centuries since that crucifixion of an innocent man for the sake of the sins of the many.

Though they do not deserve it, may Steve Bartman one day also see it in his heart to forgive the cruelty of those ignorant fans, for unless they’ve repented or made restitution to the Bartman family for their inexcusable behavior, they truly still do not know what they did. On behalf of those who can’t or won’t. Steve Bartman, please forgive us.

As the World Series of baseball once again approaches, let’s remember that it’s just a game. People are, and always will be, much more important and valuable.

FOR COMMENT: If you could and he was listening (he may be), what would you say to Steve Bartman?

©2011, David C Alves

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