The grace of Steve Bartman: Lovable losers, Wrigley Field and one of the Cubs greatest fans

By David E. Prince
Oct 13, 2015

You might not remember the Steve Bartman incident that took place on October 14, 2003, at Wrigley Field as the Chicago Cubs took on the Florida Marlins in the National League Championship Series. If you don't, I envy you. Most of my sports memories are wonderful but not this one. This was sports at its absolute worst. I tried to watch the 2011 30 for 30 documentary film produced by ESPN on the incident, but I could not finish it. I turned it off when I began to feel physically ill.

Mark Prior of the Cubs was pitching a 3-hit shutout in the 8th inning. The Cubs led 3-0 with a series lead of three to two. In other words, the Chicago Cubs were five outs away from reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945. One of sports most beloved franchises has not been a champion since 1908. The Cubs moved into the friendly confines of Wrigley Field in 1916 and have a sub .500 winning percentage since that time. Famous Cubs fan, George Will, in his delightful little book about the Cubs, A Nice Little Place on the North Side sums up the life of a Cubs fan as “a lifelong tutorial in deferred gratification.”

Another lifelong, diehard Cubs fan is a man named Steve Bartman. I can only imagine the excitement he had in securing a great seat in Section 4, Row 8, Seat 113, right next to the field. He was hoping to see his beloved Cubs clinch a birth in the World Series. Bartman was a 26-year-old Little League baseball coach who lived three miles from Wrigley. He is the kind of fan that wears headphones to listen to the Cubs broadcast while at the park. This was not a social event for him; this was baseball, something he lived daily as he followed his beloved Cubs. There is no way Bartman could have known as he took his seat that his dream come true was about to become a nightmare. Many of the 40,000 fans at Wrigley that night would chant a profanity directed at him. He would be pelted with objects and leave Wrigley surrounded by police officers intent on protecting his life. Why?

Bartman was in the front row down the left field line for the NLCS game when he tried unsuccessfully to make a catch on a foul ball hit in the stands. He did not reach over onto the field of play, and two other fans in the area were also attempting to catch the foul ball hit into the stands (Bartman was closest). Moises Alou, Cubs leftfielder, attempted to make a play on the ball and was unable to do so when the ball contacted Bartman’s hand. What did Bartman do? The same thing countless baseball fans do at every game. His father told the Chicago Sun-Times, "He's a huge Cubs fan. I'm sure I taught him well. I taught him to catch foul balls when they come near him." Some Cubs fans have explained their historic futility with ridiculous ideas about ‘the goat curse’ or “the black cat curse.” While those notions are silly, on October 14, 2003, there was a young Cubs fan who became the scapegoat for 95 years of baseball misery.

If Alou would have made the catch, which is questionable, the Cubs would have had two outs in the inning and been four outs away from the World Series. What happened on the field after that foul ball is what actually cost the Cubs the game and a trip to the World Series. The Marlins went on to score eight runs and win the game. Cubs pitcher Prior walked Luis Castillo who had hit the foul ball, Alex Gonzalez misplayed a ground ball, Sammy Sosa missed the cut off man on the throw from the outfield, and the Marlins batted around with Castillo ending the inning on a pop-up to second base. The Marlins tied the series and won the next night to clinch a spot in the World Series, which they won against the Yankees.

There is a lot of blame to go around when evaluating this horrific incident, but none of it belongs to Steve Bartman. It is doubtful the fans would have reacted so violently if Alou had not slammed his glove down in frustration and began cursing Bartman and other fans. Alou and Prior vehemently argued the batter should have been out because of fan interference, but umpire Mike Everitt correctly ruled that it was not fan interference because the ball had not broken the plane of the wall separating the field of play from the stands. Inexplicably, Cubs manager Dusty Baker did nothing to calm his team down and focus their concentration back on the game. Baker blamed Bartman after the game. Fox announcer Steve Lyons irresponsibly said with disdain, “I’m surprised someone hasn’t thrown that fan onto the field.”

How did Steve Bartman respond to his vilification? His initial statement about the incident, provided a few hours after, and the only public statement he has ever made, read:

There are few words to describe how awful I feel and what I have experienced within these last twenty-four hours. I am so truly sorry from the bottom of this Cubs fan's broken heart. I ask that Cub fans everywhere redirect the negative energy that has been vented towards my family, my friends and myself into the usual positive support for our beloved team on their way to being National League champs.

In an age of crass materialism and people who are famous for being famous, Steve Bartman has rejected publicity and has refused to profit from the situation. There has never been a reporter who has tracked down anyone who has known Bartman that has ever said a bad word about him. He could have made a fortune off of his notoriety but he has not done so. He has been offered hundreds of thousands of dollars for appearances, autographs, and commercials, but he has turned down every single dime. The gifts that Bartman did receive he donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in the name of Ron Santo, former Cubs third baseman and announcer who was afflicted with the disease. One reporter, Wayne Drehs, who actually tracked Bartman down (which has proven virtually impossible) was mesmerized by his kindness, grace, and the fact he talked about the Cubs win on the impromptu day of the interview. Evidently, Steve Bartman is still a diehard Cubs fan—bless those who persecute you.

I do not know if Steve Bartman is a Christian and have heard he is Jewish, but I do know that this Christian pastor is inspired by his grace, mercy and kindness. It is inherent in our fallen nature to turn our guilt into cries of guilty toward others. There was a day when a sinless man’s fate was put before a mob of guilty sinners and they yelled, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” They went on to mock him, ridicule him, spit upon him, and they did not simply threaten to kill him; they crucified him (Mark 15:13-27). Jesus, the sinless Son of God, is the ultimate scapegoat (Lev. 16, 2 Cor. 5:21, Heb. 4:14). The 2015 Chicago Cubs recently beat the Pirates in the silly baseball play-in game (that’s another article) and have the opportunity to compete in the NLCS for the first time since the Bartman incident. We are Braves fans (rough year), but my 15-year-old son JP said, “I’m rooting for the Cubs in the postseason so maybe they will leave Bartman alone.” Bartman should be a hero to Cubs fans, not the villain he has sadly become. I am sure it’s no solace to him, but he is a hero to this Braves fan.

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