The Catch That Never Was

English: Steve Bartman seat, aisle 4, row 4, s...

Steve Bartman seat, aisle 4, row 8, seat 113. Fans continue to flock to see and photograph this famous location. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ten years ago today, the world met Steve Bartman.  Ten years ago tomorrow, Steve Bartman disappeared forever.

On October 14, 2003, Bartman was a 26-year-old Chicago Cubs fan who went to Wrigley Field to sit in Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113, hoping to the Cubs clinch their first National League title since 1945.  By October 15, 2003, he was a scapegoat all across the north side of Chicago, and throughout America, for what is really one of the saddest and most bizarre occurrences in American sports.

It was Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, with the Cubs leading the series against the Florida Marlins, 3 games to 2, and leading the game 3-0 in the top of the 8th.  After Cubs pitcher Mark Prior got Marlins shortstop Mike Mordecai to fly out to left, there was 1 out, and the Cubs were 5 outs away from the World Series.  Prior was, to that point, pitching a 3-hit shutout, and the rookie looked destined to be the man to get those final outs to end nearly 60 years of frustration.

After Marlins leadoff hitter Juan Pierre doubled, Luis Castillo stepped to the plate.  After working into a full count against Prior, the infamous play happened.

Castillo hit a high fly ball down the left-field line, and it began drifting foul.  Cubs LF Moises Alou got a good jump on the ball, and as he ran over towards the wall he felt he still had a good chance to catch the ball, even if it was around the wall and, yes, the fans.  Steve Bartman was seated up against that same wall, and according to a statement he released the next day, saw the trajectory of the ball the entire way, and never thought to look if Alou was coming his way to attempt to make an out. As Alou raised his glove above his head to make the catch, Bartman got a hand on the ball, trying to make the catch himself, and deflected it away from them both.  After the deflection, the ball landed a few feet back and a Chicago lawyer got it.  He eventually sold the ball for $113,824.16 at auction.  Alou was clearly frustrated with a fan, although at first it was unclear which one, and FOX broadcaster Thom Brennaman said he was “livid” with a fan.  As for the moments afterward, the incident was over.

But the inning wasn’t over.  On the next pitch, Castillo walked, and Pierre advanced on a wild pitch, putting runners at 1st and 3rd with 1 out, and bringing the tying run to the plate.  Ivan Rodriguez singled, driving in Pierre and moving Castillo to second.  The next play, which occurred during Miguel Cabrera’s at-bat, may have turned the inning as much as the Bartman play.

Cabrera hit a ground ball towards shortstop Alex S. Gonzalez (who played from 1994-2006 with the Blue Jays, Cubs, Expos, Padres, Devil Rays, and Phillies, not to be confused with Alex Gonzalez, who debuted in 1998 and is still active, having played for the Marlins, Red Sox, Reds, Blue Jays, Braves, and Brewers, and who started this game at SS for the Marlins), and it looked like a potential double-play ball, or at least a ball that Gonzalez could record one out on.  The ball, however, took an odd hop, and Gonzalez bobbled it, moving Castillo to 3rd, Rodriguez to 2nd, and allowing Cabrera to reach 1st.  The bases were now loaded in a 3-1 game with 1 out instead of the Cubs being out of the inning had Gonzalez been able to turn a double play, or even record just one out if Alou had caught the ball down the line.

Instead, Derrek Lee doubled into left field, scoring both Castillo and Rodriguez to tie the game, and moving Cabrera to 3rd.  That was the last pitch Prior would throw in the game, as Kyle Farnsworth came in to relieve him.  Farnsworth intentionally walked Mike Lowell, loading the bases for Jeff Conine.  Conine hit a fly ball to right, which would have been the third out had either Alou or Gonzalez gotten an out on their plays.  Instead, it was the second out, and Cabrera tagged up from 3rd to score, giving the Marlins a 4-3 lead, and a throwing error moved Lee to 3rd and Lowell to 2nd.

After another intentional walk to pinch-hitter Todd Hollandsworth, Mike Mordecai came back to the plate.  Remember, Mordecai had flied out to left to start this inning.  This time around, he hit a line-drive into left, which cleared the bases and scored 3 more Marlins runs, making the score 7-3 Marlins.  After Mike Remlinger replaced Farnsworth, Juan Pierre singled in Mordecai, making the score 8-3, before Luis Castillo, the Marlins hitter who hit the fly ball that became the Bartman play, popped out to end a miserable half-inning for the Cubs.

As the inning had continued, and had snowballed into the nightmare it was for the Cubs, FOX continued to show replays of Alou and Bartman both going for the ball, and showed live shots of Bartman sitting quietly in the stands as he watched the inning unfold with a look of disbelief on his face.  He was eventually escorted out of Wrigley Field (he wasn’t ejected; he was simply removed for his own protection) and given a disguise by the Chicago police so he could get home safely.

The Cubs had 6 outs to work with to try to rally, but Ugueth Urbina retired the Cubs in order in both the 8th and 9th, and the series was tied.

The story of the 2003 NLCS really starts with Game 5, back in Miami, when the Cubs had a 3-1 series lead, meaning they had 3 chances to clinch their first pennant in 58 years.  This series had been set up by the Cubs beating the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS for their first postseason series win since the 1908 World Series 95 years prior.  In Game 5, Marlins pitcher Josh Beckett threw a 2-hit shutout and the Marlins won 4-0 (this game foreshadowed Game 6 of the World Series, when Beckett threw a 2-hit shutout against the Yankees to clinch the title).  Most Cubs fans probably didn’t worry too much, since Games 6 and 7 would be played at home in Chicago, and Mark Prior and Kerry Wood would be pitching them.  The odds of the Cubs winning either Game 6 or Game 7 seemed very likely with those two pitching at home.

After the Game 6 debacle, the Cubs still had Game 7 at home, and although the Marlins took a 3-0 lead in the top of the 1st on a Miguel Cabrera homer, a Kerry Wood homer tied the game in the 2nd and a Moises Alou homer gave the Cubs a 5-3 lead in the 3rd.  The Marlins, though, scored 6 more runs between the 5th and 7th innings, and eventually won, 9-6, to advance to the World Series.

Let’s go back to that 8th inning of Game 6.  The Bartman play has been argued by some to be fan interference, which would have awarded Alou with the catch, and Castillo would have been out.  Mike Everitt, who was the home plate umpire for tonight’s Game 3 of the NLCS between the Cardinals and Dodgers, was the left field umpire for Game 6 ten years ago.  Alou gave Everitt a look, but Everitt decided that this play did not qualify as fan interference.  If a fan reaches over the wall into the field of play, that would qualify.  If a fielder, in this case Alou, reaches into the stands to make a catch, the ball is “fair game” (as FOX broadcaster Steve Lyons put it during the Game 6 broadcast) for the fans to catch.  On the Bartman play, it is very disputable whether it was Bartman or Alou who reached over the wall.  It appears as if the ball floated directly over the plane of the wall, making the call very difficult for Everitt.  Cubs manager Dusty Baker did not argue the no-call because he did not see the play, due to the curvature of the wall down the left-field line and the position of the Cubs dugout making it impossible for Baker to see that exact location.

What I don’t understand about the blame placed on Bartman is that the error by Alex S. Gonzalez on the groundball by Miguel Cabrera did as much damage, if not more so, to the sequence of the inning.  Had Gonzalez fielded the ball cleanly, it would have led to either 1 or 2 outs on the play.  If the Cubs had recorded 1 out on the play, the Marlins would have still tied the game, but the Conine fly ball would have ended the inning, instead of being a sacrifice fly that gave the Marlins the lead.  If Gonzalez had successfully completed the double play, the inning would have been over with the Cubs leading 3-1.

The most similar incident to the Bartman play that I can think of to happen in baseball is the infamous Bill Buckner “boot” in the 1986 World Series.  But like the Bartman play, the Buckner boot wasn’t the only reason the game was lost.  In 1986, that Game 6 was already tied in the bottom of the 10th before the Buckner error after a Bob Stanley wild pitch had allowed Kevin Mitchell to score.  Buckner’s error did allow Ray Knight to win the game, but there’s obviously no guarantee the Red Sox would have won if Buckner had made the out and the game had continued into the 11th.  The Mets, in fact, had been down 5-3, with 2 outs and nobody on, before mounting one of baseball’s all-time rallies to win the game, 6-5.

Buckner has, for the most part, been forgiven in Boston now that the Red Sox have ended their long drought with World Series titles in 2004 and 2007 (and they could win another this year, too).  Unfortunately for Bartman, it doesn’t look as if a World Series title is in the immediate future for the Cubs, who still haven’t won a championship since 1908.

The curse in Chicago, similar to the “Curse of The Bambino” that has since ended in Boston, is known as the “Curse of the Billy Goat.”  This is after in 1945, Billy Sianis, who owned the Billy Goat Tavern, was asked to leave Wrigley Field during a World Series game, because his pet goat’s odor was bothering others in the stands.  Sianis said in a telegram to the team the next day that they would never win the World Series, in that year or any other, because they had offended his goat.  Ironically enough, 2003 was the Year of the Goat in the Chinese calendar.

In fact, they haven’t won a playoff game since the Bartman incident.  After losing Game 7 to the Marlins, it was 4 years before they made another playoff appearance.  In 2007 and 2008, the Cubs made the playoffs, but in both years they were swept in the first round, and they haven’t even tasted the playoffs since.  Ironically enough, there have been playoff-related celebrations at Wrigley Field since then.  This year, both the Atlanta Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrated in Wrigley’s visitor’s locker room after clinching their playoff berths with wins against the Cubs.

According to, after the Mordecai flyout to start the 8th, the Marlins win probability was just 5%, meaning the Cubs had a 95% chance of winning the game and clinching the pennant.  Even when Castillo came to the plate, after Pierre’s double, that number stood at 8%.  The walk, which was the end result of the Bartman play during Castillo’s at-bat, increased the number to 14%, but those are still really low odds.  Rodriguez’s single made the probability 21%, and it was the error by Gonzalez that made it 32%.  The biggest play of the inning was Lee’s double, which increased the win probability from 32% to 67%.  Later in the inning, Mordecai’s 3-RBI double increased the probability from 76% to 96%, and by the end of the inning, the Marlins win probability was 98%.  Quite a turnaround for one inning.  According to WPA, the new-age stat born from the win probability that measures the impact of each individual play on the game’s overall outcome, the biggest play of the game was Lee’s double, not the error or the Bartman play.

Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood, who pitched Game 7, admits today he was actually thinking about the Yankees hitters he was going to face in the World Series while he sat in the dugout as the 8th inning got underway.  He instead had to pitch Game 7 against the Marlins, and (as previously mentioned) he even homered off of Brad Penny, before giving up the series-winning runs to the Marlins.  After Game 7, the only person Wood blamed was himself, saying simply “I choked.”

As for Prior, he didn’t blame Bartman at all, saying “You can’t blame the entire game on that play…99 percent of the people in that situation would do the same thing.”  It does seem trivial an entire franchise’s struggles are being blamed on a fan doing what all fans do at games, trying to catch a foul ball.

Prior, the rookie sensation of 2003, has battled nagging injuries and hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2006.  Cubs manager Dusty Baker was not retained after the 2006 season, before going to Cincinnati, where he has made 3 playoff appearances without advancing.  Alex S. Gonzalez is an occasional TV analyst and is now certified as a player agent, but is practically all but forgotten, and overshadowed by the other Alex Gonzalez, who is still active.

I mentioned earlier that the ball had been sold.  After the auction, it was blown up at a charity event a the Harry Caray’s restaurant in Chicago on February 26, 2004, just over four months after the Cubs-Marlins NLCS.

As for Bartman, he hasn’t been seen, or heard from, since leaving Wrigley Field, with one exception.  The next day, Bartman’s brother-in-law read this statement to the media gathered outside Bartman’s parents’ house:

“There are few words to describe how awful I feel and what I have experienced within these last 24 hours.  I’ve been a Cub fan all my life and fully understand the relationship between my actions and the outcome of the game. I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moises Alou, much less that he may have had a play.  Had I thought for one second that the ball was playable or had I seen Alou approaching I would have done whatever I could to get out of the way and give Alou a chance to make the catch.  To Moises Alou, the Chicago Cubs organization, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, and Cub fans everywhere 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.”

The statement was released before Game 7, so that ending was focused on the hope the Cubs would win that night’s game.  Had they won, the Bartman play would have surely been forgotten in Chicago, and he wouldn’t have had to live in hiding for the last ten years.

ESPN made a documentary about the incident in 2011, and titled it “Catching Hell.”  Considering what Bartman has been through, I think that title is very appropriate.

Bartman’s lawyer and friend Frank Murtha told the Chicago Tribune in 2011 that Bartman is very happy, and has simply lived a very private life since 2003.  Bartman reportedly still lives in Chicago and is employed by a human resources consulting firm, and remains a loyal Cubs fan, although he has not returned to Wrigley Field since Game 6.  He has turned down multiple commercial opportunities, choosing not to profit on the incident.  These have included offers to sign autographs for money, to appear in a Super Bowl commercial, and to appear in “Catching Hell.”  Murtha says that if Bartman ever chooses to talk about the incident, it will be when and how he wants to do it, not at anyone else’s suggestions.

The following YouTube video shows the Bartman incident as well as the error by Gonzalez and the 3-RBI double by Mordecai that blew the game open.




2003 National League Championship Series

Game 1 (Oct. 7 at Chicago)
Florida 9, Chicago 8 (11 innings)
W: Urbina, L: Guthrie, S: Looper
Florida leads series 1-0

Game 2 (Oct. 8 at Chicago)
Chicago 12, Florida 3
W: Prior, L: Penny
Series tied 1-1

Game 3 (Oct. 10 at Florida)
Chicago 5, Florida 4 (11 innings)
W: Borowski, L: Tejera, S: Remlinger
Chicago leads 2-1

Game 4 (Oct. 11 at Florida)
Chicago 8, Florida 3
W: Clement, L: Willis
Chicago leads 3-1

Game 5 (Oct. 12 at Florida)
Florida 4, Chicago 0
W: Beckett, L: Zambrano
Chicago leads 3-2

Game 6 (Oct. 14 at Chicago)
Florida 8, Chicago 3
W: Fox, L: Prior
Series tied 3-3

Game 7 (Oct. 15 at Chicago)
Florida 9, Chicago 6
W: Penny, L: Wood, S: Urbina
Florida wins series 4-3


2 thoughts on “The Catch That Never Was

  1. Pingback: If Sports Stars Became President | Stiles On Sports

  2. Pingback: Chicago Cubs: 2016 Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year | Stiles On Sports

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