Finally ' Catching Hell'

So after several tries, this week I finally caught “Catching Hell,” the documentary about Steve Bartman and the infamous foul ball that he interfered with during Game 5 of the 2003 National League Championship Series. After missing its original airing in 2011, I’ve recorded it onto our DVR on multiple occasions over the years – only to have it deleted by accident. Finally, I noticed it was airing again a couple weeks ago, set the DVR once more and watched it before it could be deleted again.(And now I find out the whole film is available on YouTube.)

It’s a fascinating and expertly told story by director Alex Gibney, who explains at the outset that it’s really a story about the fans – who went to a dark place in their treatment of Steve Bartman. So dark that the film, at points, made my stomach churn because of how vile some fans had been toward Bartman.

Oh, how well I remember that night and that game. Kates and I were recently married and fresh off our honeymoon. In fact, Kates and I were married the night the Cubs played the Braves in Game 4 of the National League Division Series – a game they lost – and my father-in-law provided updates to me throughout the reception. The Cubs, however, won the series the next night and moved onto face the Florida Marlins in the National League Championship Series.

I’ve been a Cubs fan for a long time, and sure my passion has ebbed and flowed with cross country moves and life changes. But, man, I loved those guys in 2003. Eric Karros, Mark Grudzielanek, Alex Gonzalez, Moises Alou, Sammy Sosa, Carlos Zambrano, Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Joe Borowski. And let’s not forget the midseason trade that brought over Kenny Lofton and an up-and-coming Aramis Ramirez. Dusty Baker at the helm and fans waving “In Dusty we Trusty” banners outside Wrigley. It was a magical time to be around Chicago.

Kates and I watched the first half of that NLCS while on our honeymoon. When Game 6 took place in Chicago that fateful Oct. 14, we were back home in our apartment and watching intently. Everybody thought the Cubs were going to go to the World Series that night. The newsroom at the newspaper for which I was a reporter at the time was buzzing, and we sent a reporter and photographer down to the city that evening to capture excitement – because, heck, the Cubs were ending their World Series drought that night.

The Cubs struck first in that game and seemed to have the game in hand. Then the eighth inning happened. The Cubs needed just five more outs to win the game.

Watching the game at home, I remember the foul ball being hit and thinking Moises Alou had a fair chance at catching it. I also remember watching the ball drop and Alou’s “temper tantrum” and feeling the frustration that most Cubs fans felt – What was that fan thinking!? Moises could have caught that ball! I also remember Steve Lyons saying, “That could be huge.”

It was interesting that Gibney points to Moises Alou’s reaction as the fire starter for the whole thing. Even though I watched the game at home, I was as much a part of the blaming Bartman saga. I, too, shared the internet memes.

Looking back now, the umpires didn’t have the grounds to rule fan interference. And if I was sitting in that area at Wrigley, heck yeah, I would have gone for the ball, too.

As Gibney explains in his film, it unraveled from there. Alex Gonzalez committed an uncharacteristic error that was just as huge – and truthfully, I immediately blamed him just as much as Bartman for the loss. Had Gonzalez fielded that ground ball cleanly and turned the double play, the Cubs, at the least, would have made it out of that eighth inning and all would have been forgiven. Instead, the Marlins tied the game and then, all of a sudden, it was 8-3, in favor of the Marlins.

The atmosphere at Wrigley, the film explains, went from Mardi Gras to funeral. I was so deflated afterward I refused to answer a phone call from my new father-in-law to offer condolences.

The next night’s Game 7 had a cloud over it. Doubt had settled in. I vaguely remember Kerry Wood’s home run to tie the game early, but the Cubs couldn’t finish it. Like Steve Lyons says in the film, I don’t remember a thing about Game 7, I remember Game 6. I had trouble sleeping for a couple nights afterward.

Says one writer in the film, “It seems incomprehensible that these kids (the Marlins) who seemed to have graduated from little league about six minutes before were beating the mighty Cubs.”

And I remember the aftermath. The guy who ended up with the foul ball sold it for $100,000 and did an interview that didn’t show his face. And oh yeah, I watched the live broadcast of the ball being blown up at Harry Carray’s restaurant.

What makes “Catching Hell” great is the ways Gibney analyzes the foul ball, the circumstances surrounding it and the aftermath in painstaking detail, with diagrams, computer effects and some fascinating interviews – including the media there covering the game and the fans who were sitting around Bartman that night. With everyone removed from the shot, it seems clear that Alou – Gibney interviewed him for the film, too – would have caught the ball.

How the television broadcast played the foul ball and Bartman’s attempt to grab it over and over. And some guy on Waveland had a TV on his head, fueling a chant from the bleachers. And Bartman sat oblivious to it with his headphones. Some fans wore the looks of cold-blood killers on their faces as they eyed up Bartman; they were irrational and took on a lynch mob mentality. Rod Blagojevich told a TV camera he wouldn’t pardon Bartman if he was convicted of a crime. Even Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass approached Bartman and his friends and handed them his card – a gesture for which he has since apologized.

I especially liked hearing Kass’ impression that Bartman was one of the most honorable fans at the game. He made a mistake. He admitted it and asked for forgiveness. … Bob Costas adds, “How mean-spirited and dopey do you have to be to rub it in on the poor guy.”

A security guard who responded to assist Bartman out of the ballpark tells the story of how Wrigley’s security staff disguised him, got him out of the ballpark safely. While they waited for a cab, the security worked invited him into her apartment to hide out. Bartman called his parents and watched the game highlights on TV. He had no clue of what had happened and he was devastated, so the story goes.

Finally, in the search to find Bartman after all these years, we hear from Wayne Drehs, a Chicago Cubs fan and ESPN writer who tried to track down Bartman for a feature story – that he didn’t want to write. Drehs did track him down and had an awkward parking garage encounter with Bartman. … I feel for Drehs. Been there. Done that. And it’s one reason I’m no longer writing for a daily newspaper.

And still another great aspect of “Catching Hell” is that it’s not just a film about the Cubs and their fans. It’s also a story about Bill Buckner, Boston Red Sox fans and their mutual reconciliation after Buckner’s miscue in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Gibney begins “Catching Hell” by laying out Buckner’s story, and the similarities are striking.

Buckner is shown 12 days before the world series, saying “The dreams are that you’re going to have a great series and win, and the nightmares are that you’re going to let the winning run score on a ground ball through your legs.”

From that quote, the omens and signs are all over these two incidents and franchises. The curse of Boston’s Babe Ruth trade and the curse of the Billy Goat in Chicago. The black cat that crossed Ron Santo in 1969. Bill Buckner’s trade from Chicago to Boston in 1984 during the Cubs’ pennant run that year – which ended with the Cubs one game short of the World Series because a ground ball went through the legs of Cubs first baseman and Buckner replacement Leon Durham. And then there was the revelation that Bill Buckner wore a Cubs batting glove during the 1986 World Series. Bernie Mac substituted “Cubbies” with “champs” during “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at the seventh inning stretch of that Game 6 in 2003.

The Mets were down to their last out, up three games to two, on the verge of winning their first World Series since 1918 when Buckner let the ball roll through his legs. The Mets scored the winning run in Game 6 and won the World Series in Game 7. … Bob Costas’ story of him and the television production crew beating it out of the Boston clubhouse with the trophy and celebratory champagne has been told many times, and that few people realize it was only Game 6 and not a Game 7.

Media showed the Buckner play over and over, too, and fans were so quick to blame Buckner for the loss. Reporters asked Buckner, “How are you going to deal with this the rest of your life?”

But there were other mistakes made by Boston players in that game, too. Bob Stanley’s wild pitch that led to the game-tying run. “Four times in the final inning the Mets were down to their last strike,” Gibney says.

As we know now, the Red Sox reversed their curse and won the World Series in 2004has it really been 10 years!? – and the film culminates positively, showing Buckner’s triumphant reconciliation with the Red Sox and giving us a glimmer of what could be in the future for Bartman and the Cubs.

The final shot of the film shows the alternate ending in which Alou catches the foul ball and the Cubs head to the World Series. I got chills.

Good reads ...

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