Last night I shared another romantic dinner with YouTube. (Things are going great, thanx.) Over a fine meal of pasta AND vegetables, I pulled up one of my old standbys, a compilation video of Michael Jordan highlights, and let the links whisk me away. Soon I came upon a very promising 10-part video entitled “Catching Hell: The Steve Bartman Story.” When I saw it was an entry in ESPN’s fantastic “30 for 30” film series, there settled any doubt about how the next hour of my life would transpire, barring some kind of vegetable-related catastrophe.
Ten minutes in, director Alex Gibney’s film was doing a superb job of wrenching humanity out of…the Boston Red Sox? Turns out the first segment of the film about Steve Bartman is not actually about Steve Bartman. It’s about the slightly-more famous incident of then-Red Sock Bill Buckner blowing the 1986 World Series. The link between that incident and Bartman formed the bulk of Gibney’s story, but I think there’s another link that needs to be made.
How predictable is it that the increasingly Bostonian Eastern Seaboard Programming Network (ESPN) has managed to make a movie about Chicago baseball and again accomplish the dual goals of not mentioning the White Sox once and somehow making a full third of it about the Boston Red Sox? It’s bad enough that the vast majority of ESPN’s MLB coverage focuses on the Battle of the 1%, the Yankees-Boston rivalry. It’s bad enough that (the delightful) Bill Simmons intensifies this prejudice with his homer charm and names his entire website after Boston shit. It’s bad enough that Boston has been the best sports city of the decade. But now, when Chicago baseball gets its day in the ESPN sun, that sun is once again eclipsed by the TEAM REFERRED TO CONSTANTLY THROUGHOUT THIS DOCUMENTARY AS “THE SOX.” That itself may be the ultimate insult. “Why specify ‘Red Sox,’” Gibney seems to smirk. “We’re on ESPN.” Really? Because I thought that one of the load-bearing themes of your documentary was “the culture of Chicago baseball.” Or that the main character in this story was “the average Chicago baseball fan.” Don’t you put that hope-springs-eternal bullshit on me, Gibney! I am a White Sox fan and I know that hope will never be justified for the Cubs.
In case you haven’t seen it, “Catching Hell” is essentially a defense of Steve Bartman, the poor bastard who did what anyone else would have done and tried to catch a foul ball that to him seemed headed out of bounds. Moises Alou flew into a melodramatic, unnecessary tantrum, and the next thing anyone knew, the Florida Marlins embarked on an eight run rally to come back and win the game. Wrigleygoers, feeling familiarly desperate, needed to lay the blame for their looming hundred-more years of misery onto the nearest, easiest scapegoat. Cubs fans did what they do best: jumped on a bandwagon and solved their problems with beer. Specifically, by showering it over Steve Bartman’s demure, humiliated body, and drinking it to think of more death threats. The film’s case is convincing, but then again, who was ever arguing that Bartman was really guilty? OK, yes, in those—what’s the opposite of ‘heady’?—days after the fact, after the Cubs delivered another reliable collapse, it was fun to be angry. But Gibney misses a crucial part of the story, probably because he is not a Chicagoan: it was fun because Cubs fans don’t want to win.
That, to me, is the lasting legacy of Bartman. If you polled Wrigley Field by secret ballot at any given summer day game on whether or not this year would be the year, any Cubs fan voting yes would be doing so with their head, not their heart. The Cubs portion of the Chicagoan’s soul is a strange mix of melancholy and levity, like the Headless Horseman riding My Little Pony. The Cubs are supposed to suck; we’re supposed to skip work to drink $40 worth of Old Style and like it. I’m sure the frustration is real, and I’m sure there are people hoping that Theo Epstein can transform another team from Lovable Loser to Evil Empire. But until that happens, Cubs fans will know no greater delight than identifying the next incarnation of divine mockery. If “Catching Hell” were made by a Chicagoan, the story would not have used Boston as a fulcrum. It might have instead been the story of how Steve Bartman, by the fact that he went to the Friendly Confines a fan and left traumatized and confused, ripped apart by the team that he loved, may have been the most consummate Cubs fan in history.