Sorry, Steve Bartman, But It’s Impossible To Leave You Alone

As the Chicago Cubs plowed their way to the World Series and a possible end to their 108 year failure to win a World Series, numerous sports writers, including some I thought were smart enough to know better, set out to prove their compassion, sensitivity and gooey caramel centers by arguing that the news media and fans should “leave Steve Bartman alone.” Bartman, for those of you who have lived in a bank vault since 2003, was the hapless young Chicago Cubs fan who unintentionally interfered with a foul ball that might have been catchable by Cubs outfielder Moises Alou in the decisive game of 2003 National League Championship Series. In a perfect display of the dangers of moral luck, Bartman’s mistake—it didn’t help that he was wearing earphones and watching the ball rather than the action on the field—began a chain of random events  that constituted a complete collapse by Chicago in that very same half-inning, sending the Miami Marlins and not the Cubs, who had seemed comfortably ahead, to the Series. Bartman, who issued a sincere and pitiful apology, was widely vilified and literally run out of town. He then became part of Cubs and baseball lore, one more chapter in the sad saga has been called “the Billy Goat Curse,” the uncanny inability of this team to win it all.

Over time, even Bartman’s tormenters came to see that holding him responsible for the team’s failure was cruel consequentialism at its worst. Alou, who had sicced the Furies on Bartman by angrily pointing at him after the incident from the field and later told everyone that with the interference, he would have caught the ball, even came out ten years later–five years!—to say that he wouldn’t have caught the ball, and Bartman wasn’t to blame. (I wrote about that epic example of barn-door locking here.) Now, NBC’s Craig Calcattera and many others are beating a new drum: nobody should write about or talk about Stave any more, because it’s so unfair.

Here’s Craig:

Steve Bartman is a human being. One who was jeered and who had his friends and family attacked. One who, apparently, has felt it necessary to disappear from public view in order to protect his privacy and identity so as to not be scapegoated anew every time the Cubs threaten to do anything in the postseason. In this day and age even the justifiably infamous will make great efforts to capitalize on their infamy. They’ll give interviews or print up t-shirts or write a quickie book or any number of other things to prolong their 15 minutes of fame. Then we, as a society, tend to leave them alone. Bartman has done everything he can to be left alone, but we simply cannot do that, apparently. No one wants to leave him alone, his wishes to be left alone be damned.

We should let it go. Not because it’s not a genuinely interesting bit of baseball history — it is — but because there’s a human being at the center of it who had his life negatively altered as a result. He can’t go to the games of his favorite team anymore. If he still lives in or visits Chicago he likely worries about being recognized. His name is pretty distinct. How many job interviews or customer service telephone calls or exchanges of credit cards and checks at a restaurant have resulted in an awkward conversation in which he is immediately presumed to be infamous? Think of how bad you feel on those rare occasions when someone, rightly or wrongly, assumes the ethical high ground over you. Then realize that every single person with even a moderate knowledge of baseball does that, intentionally or otherwise, with Steve Bartman every time he ventures out into the world. The only way he could avoid that would be to change his name. Imagine if you were forced to change your name because people won’t stop reminding you of your unwarranted infamy…

Let it go, baseball fans. Let it go, baseball media. …[A]t the heart of that narrative, is a man who has done nothing to deserve either the attention or the scorn he has received over the years, pushing it is even less justifiable than it would be if all things were equal. Leave Steve Bartman alone. We’ve put him through enough already.

Craig has revealed himself as a knee-jerk social justice warrior since chucking his legal career to become a full-time baseball blogger for NBC, and I see in this plea—it’s pure moral grandstanding, since Calcattera knows that there isn’t one chance in a million that the sports media will suddenly embargo Steve Bartman references—the creeping, sinister tendency of the Left to regard the airbrushing of history as a legitimate solution to unpleasant memories. This is a new version: let’s change recorded history because the object of that history wished we would, and he didn’t deserve to be in the wrong place in the wrong time.

Monica Lewinsky didn’t deserve what happened to her, either. She was young, and star-struck, and the most powerful man in the world used her for his own gratification and then allowed her to be savaged by his allies and minions. Her name became a synonym for fallecio. Nice. At least Steve Bartman could disappear. Monica Lewinsky had to move out of the country. So far at least, nobody has had the audacity to argue that we should just pretend that she wasn’t at the center of a polarizing scandal, a Presidential impeachment, and the hypocrisy of the current front-runner in the 2016 Presidential race. She is history, and an essential part of a big story, just as Steve Bartman is, like it or not.

Reporters, as they follow the Cubs’ efforts to finally win the World Series, are obligated to include Bartman as they present to baseball newcomer the context of the most recent culmination of the Cubs’ long, star-crossed battle to become champions. (The Cubs lost Game 1 of the 2016 World Series yesterday, 6-0.) As a Red Sox fan, hoping for Boston to finally end its 86 year World Series Championship famine in 2004, I found the endless running of that horrible clip of the groundball going through Bill Buckner’s legs in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, and the nauseating moment when goddamn Bucky Dent hit his pop fly home run in the sudden death play-off with the Yankees in 1978, and the Aaron Boone walk-off home run in the final game of the 2003 ALCS upsetting and relentless. I felt sorry for Buckner, whose error really didn’t lose that Series any more than Bartman’s goof. I felt sorry for Mike Torrez, the pitcher who gave up the infamous homer to Dent. It was just bad luck. I felt sorry for Tim Wakefield, who was set up to fail by his manager and was going to pitch until somebody hit a homer. Still, these events happened, they are part of history, and when it is appropriate context to bring up that history and tell those stories, the misfortunes of Bill, Mike and Tim have to be raised.

So does Steve Bartman. If and when the Cubs finally win a World Series, his story will retreat into footnotes and trivia, just as there are far fewer references in Boston to Harry Frazee, the Red Sox owner who sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, since “The Curse of the Bambino” was lifted. Until then, however, Steve Bartman can’t be “left alone,” and shouldn’t be. Just as Woodrow Wilson’s name belongs on Princeton walls, and Bill Cosby belongs in the TV Hall of Fame, and Joe Paterno’s statue should be taken out of mothballs at Penn State, Steve Bartman’s cautionary tale needs to be told and remembered, not airbrushed away like a purged Soviet leader.

Home team fans really should pay attention to the game, you know.


12 thoughts on “Sorry, Steve Bartman, But It’s Impossible To Leave You Alone

  1. Jack, is your proofreader on a break? It’s f-e-l-l-a-t-i-o – at least, in most spellings of it I have seen for the past 5 decades. I probably wouldn’t have brought it up, if you hadn’t Italicized it – or if you weren’t making a point about “keeping one’s eye on the ball.”

  2. I would draw one distinction here. Of all the Red Sox references you made, they had to do with players, public figures, people with stats, and who were out there trying to win the game.

    You could just as easily get by with saying, “Fan interference of a foul ball that might have been caught by Moises Alou led to an implosion of the Cubs’ play in the decisive game of the 2003 NLCS.” I would not call that airbrushing history. His name is not important (though his action was); on the other hand, Alou’s is fair game.

    I would argue differently for Lewinsky or for other individuals of historical merit. Baseball is just not that important. Bartman should already be a footnote to a footnote.


    • I read this this morning and it was bothering me all day.

      It’s not important to YOU. That’s irrelevant. As Bill James points out, millions of people spend far more time thinking about, reading about and caring about baseball that curing cancer, lowering the debt and fixing the schools. It is, in fact, a higher priority for them. You can criticize their priorities, but you can say it isn’t important. Winning a pennant or the world Series has an impact on a city’s economy and self-esteem. When the Red Sox had their shock AL championship in 1967, it brought the city together as never before, and was attributed with keeping Boston from having the race riots that were occurring around the country that summer. Baseball contributes billions to the economy. It has has major historical and social significance, as in its effect on integration. I have listened to, watched or attended about 150 games a year since I was 12, That’s 450 hours a year, plus the time I spent reading, talking and researching aspect of the game. Add another 150. 600 hours a year. For 30 years, that’s at least 562 days in that time, well over a year. On baseball, Nothing else. And you know what? It was time well spent.

      It’s very important.

  3. I agree that he is going to be part of the narrative until the Cubs win. To not mention him would be irresponsible

    Alou has changed his story so many times I stopped listening to him.

    The Cubs fans showed themselves to be real scum by the way they treated Bartman. It was after this that I started to see that a lot of them were loud mouth jerks.

    The only person who as acted with any class during and after this is Bartman.

  4. What about the consequences to his family? He’s not the only principal here.

    ” Trying to maintain a low profile, Bartman declined interviews, endorsement deals, and requests for public appearances, and his family changed their phone number to avoid harassing phone calls ”
    _ Greenfield, Jimmy; Masterson, Kathryn (February 26, 2004). “Bartman today; four months later, Cubs fan trying to lead a normal life”. RedEye. p. 6.

    At some point in time, you have to say that the sentence against his family is enough. I feel 13 years is way past that point.

    From wiki:

    He requested that any gifts sent to him by Florida Marlins fans be donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.[13] In July 2008, Bartman was offered $25,000 to autograph a picture of himself at National Sports Collectors Convention in Rosemont, Illinois, but he refused the offer.[14] He declined to appear as a VIP at Wrigley Field. In 2011, eight years after the incident, he declined to appear in an ESPN documentary, and he declined a six-figure offer to appear in a Super Bowl commercial.[15]

    Those gifts from Florida fans amounted to over $100,000.

    Am I right in thinking that he should have taken the money? After all, you’re showing him no more mercy than if he had. To my mind, after making a mistake 13 years ago in the heat of excitement during a game of rounders – or baseball as you call it – he has acted entirely ethically.

    Jack, I hold you to high standards. Not as high as you hold yourself to perhaps, but high enough. I think you’re wrong here.

    • Since when does history worry about or care about the impact of fame or infamy on the family? And it shouldn’t care. Europe to the contrary, there is no right to be forgotten, nor ought there to be. All of the Booths were ruined by John Wilkes…should his name have been censored to protect the innocent? The incident happened, and he was the one it happened to,l because of and around. Same with Buckner (who children were harassed), Monica and Bartman. Censoring and distorting the past because of misplaced compassion makes no sense. We don’t forgive historical villains, patsies, and goofuses and agree to forget them, leaving a hole in memories and records. History is about the event and its authors. The human beings are secondary concerns. This is knowledge. This is culture.

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