Caught out: how one false move turned a baseball fan into public enemy No 1

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The Independent US

Late on the evening of Tuesday 14 October in this the 95th year of the suffering of the Chicago Cubs, Steve Bartman did what any baseball fan does when the ball comes his way during the game.

He tried to catch it. By doing so, he has turned himself, in the Cub part of the Windy City at least, into a villain beside whom even the likes of Saddam Hussein pale.

Mr Bartman has not invaded other countries or murdered anyone, but, for fellow Cubs, devotees his crime is infinitely more serious.

By raising his hand when he did, he possibly cost their beloved but benighted team the chance of winning its first World Series since 1908.

It all happened when the Cubs were leading the Florida Marlins 3-0 at their home stadium of Wrigley Field, seemingly cruising to a victory that would have won the National League championship, and ensured a place in the Series against the champions of the rival American League.

In a clip replayed on Wednesday at least 100 times on every cable channel, a Marlins batter sent the ball out of play, arching into the first row of seats just above the left field line.

Just as a Chicago outfielder leapt to catch it, Mr Bartman did so too, deflecting it from his glove. Instead of being out, the batter was given a life, and the Cubs thereupon disintegrated, conceding no less than eight runs in what remained of that innings. As certain triumph turned into total and unimagined failure, fans sitting near by booed and threw beer at Mr Bartman.

For his own safety, he was led from his seat by security men and escorted from the stadium, with a jacket hiding his face from the television cameras as if he were a criminal being led into court. The next day, after his name had been "outed" by the Chicago media, a mortified Mr Bartman issued a statement of apology.

He had never even seen Moises Alou, the fielder, as he approached beneath his seat.

"I am so truly sorry from the bottom of this Cubs fan's broken heart," the statement went on, begging that "the negative energy that has been vented towards my family, my friends and myself ... be directed into positive support for our team on their way to being National League champs."

But it was not. As bleak fatalism descended on the city, Mr Bartman was forced to skip work and disconnect his phone.

His present whereabouts are even more a mystery than those of Vice-President Dick Cheney in his famous "secure and undisclosed location". A Chicago Tribune columnist even declared the wretched man "will almost certainly have to leave town and start again elsewhere if he wants some semblance of a normal life".

Alou, visibly furious when the incident happened, may have forgiven Mr Bartman. But even lynch mobs pale beside Cubs fans confronted with their demons. For in baseball lore, the Cubs are a team accursed. Back in 1945, it is said, a tavern-owner named "Billy Goat" Sianis arrived at Wrigley for the fourth game of the World Series with the Detroit Tigers, with two tickets and his goat, Murphy.

When the creature was barred entry, Mr Sianis laid a curse on the Cubs a sporting equivalent of the curse laid by the Grand Master of the Templars as he was burnt at the stake in Paris in 1314, cursing the kings of France "until the 13th generation".

Never again, vowed Mr Sianis, would there be another Series game at the stadium again. More than two generations on, there has not been.

But if ever it would be, 2003 was looking like the year. These "Cubbies" were not a lovable bunch of bumbling losers ("Anyone can have a bad century," one of their long-suffering managers once philosophically observed); they were a lean and mean outfit, under a new out-of-town manager, Dusty Baker, who had no time for jinxes and similar nonsense.

Thanks to the Affair of the Bartman Foul Ball, he knows better now. This is no ordinary baseball team, but the Chicago Cubs. No Cubs fan worth his salt does not honestly believe that this week God in his Heaven took time from the troubles of Iraq and the ailments of the Pope to glance down on Wrigley Field: "Cubs? World Series? No way." Steven Bartman was merely the instrument the Almighty chose to achieve his will. "CURSED" blared the headline in the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday. Poor Mr Bartman. It is all so unfair. He was not to blame for how Chicago's star pitcher, almost perfect up to that point, went off the rails immediately after the foul-ball incident.

It was not his fault that the Cubs short-stop made a disastrous fielding error a few moments later.

And it was not his fault that the following night, when the team had yet another chance of clinching the series, the Cubs' other supposedly invincible pitcher was shelled all over the ballpark.

No, this was a sporting choke for the ages: comparable to an England Test side set 50 runs to win, being bowled out for 35; or a Wimbledon semi-finalist leading two sets to love and 5-1, and yet contriving to lose. But Cubs fans do not see it like that. Goats? Right now a scapegoat is what is they need, and Mr Bartman fits the bill perfectly. One possible bolt-hole is Florida, where Governor Jeb Bush promised him sanctuary, and a beach resort is offering a three-month free stay. Even more wounding, he has been offered asylum on Chicago's South Side, home turf of the Cub's hated cross-town rivals the White Sox. But Mr Bartman's own internal grief is surely most painful of all. He is a young man of 26, a thoroughly likeable fellow by all accounts, a lifelong lover of baseball who coaches a Little League team.

And now he is undergoing the supreme torture of humankind, of he who knows that - however unintentionally - he may have destroyed that which he most loves.

Twenty-four hours later, the malediction was fulfilled as the Cubs blew their best chance of appearing in the Series for the first time since Mr Sianis's fateful words.

Afterwards, Wrigley Field felt like a morgue. The fans tramped home in silence, like shell-shocked refugees fleeing before an advancing army which has sacked their homeland, and they seemed unable quite to grasp what has happened, powerless against the hand of fate.

"The bleat goes on," read the headline on the front page of the Chicago Tribune yesterday, evoking anew the Curse of the Goat. Steve Bartman is the latest entry in the book of superstitions of North Side Chicago, a new ingredient in the witches' brew of misery that makes supporting the Chicago Cubs an act of masochism unparalleled on this earth. And worst of all, next year it may happen all over again.