Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 3, 2017

With A Ring, Cubs Move To End Bartman’s Exile

It was a festive night on the north side of Chicago back at the start of the longest season, when the Cubs handed out World Series rings to the players who had ended a 108-year title drought the previous November. As all such championship baubles are, the Cubs’ rings are gaudy and huge. The face of each has 108 tiny diamonds encircling the team’s bulls-eye “C” logo, formed by rubies and sapphires. One shank displays the Wrigley Stadium marquee above the World Series trophy, while the other has a replica of the “W” flag flown above the field after every victory, along with ivy leaves to commemorate the distinctive outfield wall, and in a uniquely personalized touch, each player’s name and uniform number. Etched on the inner band are both the precise moment of Chicago’s victory, 47 minutes after midnight last November 3rd, as well as a goat’s head, symbolizing the laughable curse that supposedly jinxed the team for generations.

On that April evening the Cubs announced that they would distribute 1,908 rings and pins to current and former players, employees, and stadium staff, a number chosen to commemorate the year of the team’s last championship and acknowledge the record-setting wait that fans had to endure. One assumed that all of Chicago’s World Series bling was handed out on or very soon after that April evening. But now we’ve learned that four months later one last World Series ring was presented just this week. On Monday, behind closed doors at Wrigley Field the Cubs gave a championship ring to Steve Bartman, a lifelong fan whose life changed forever – and not in a good way – on a chilly October night fourteen years ago.

The ancient ballpark was the scene for Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, with the Cubs holding a three games to two lead over the visiting Florida Marlins. Mark Prior, Chicago’s hard-throwing young right-hander, had allowed just three hits through 7 1/3 innings. Solo runs in the 1st, 6th and 7th innings had built a 3-0 Cubs lead; the home team was just five outs from returning to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Wearing a dark pullover, a Cubs cap and headphones, Bartman was seated in the front row off the left field foul line. Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113, was destined to become a must-see attraction for future visitors to Wrigley.

With a runner on second and the count full, Luis Castillo of the Marlins lifted a Prior pitch high in the air down the line in left. Cubs’ outfielder Moises Alou raced over even as the fly ball drifted into foul ground toward the seats. Fans in the area, including Bartman, came to their feet. Photos show at least four different fans extending their hands toward the plummeting ball, but it was Bartman who wound up closest, directly over Alou whose glove was now reaching above the wall. Castillo’s foul ball never found its way to that glove, instead deflecting off Bartman’s hands. Alou reacted by slamming his glove against the wall and barking at the fans.

What followed was a nightmare for Cubs fans, and the beginning of something far worse for Bartman. Instead of a runner on second and two outs, Castillo’s at-bat continued. When he walked on a wild pitch from Prior, he became the first of five straight Marlins to reach base safely. Miguel Cabrera, the third on that list, did so on a routine grounder to Alex Gonzalez that looked certain to be the start of an inning-ending double play until the shortstop booted the ball. The procession of Florida batters reaching base was interrupted briefly by a sacrifice fly before three more hitters reached. By the time Castillo came up again and popped out to second to end the inning, the 3-0 Chicago lead had turned into an 8-3 advantage for the Marlins. That was the final score of Game 6, and one night later Florida again rallied from behind to score a 9-6 victory that clinched the National League pennant.

A decade before its recent renovations, Wrigley Field had no Jumbotron in 2003. But the Fox television broadcast showed repeated replays of the foul ball into the seats, and soon cell phones throughout the park were lighting up as fans at home called friends at the game to report what had happened. As the game and Chicago’s season unraveled, Bartman sat stoically in his seat while abuse began to be hurled his way, first by neighboring fans and eventually by the entire stadium, or so it seemed at the time. Eventually he and two friends were led away by security personnel as fans pelted Bartman with debris, beer, and invective.

Had it ended with Bartman’s exit from Wrigley Field the incident would have gone down as an unfortunate happenstance, the kind of thing that can take place when emotions are high and the play on the field gets too close to the fans in the stands. But Bartman’s misery was just beginning. The police were forced to station cars outside the family home to prevent harassment. His phone number was changed, the only way to cut off threatening calls. Officials who should have known better instead piled on. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich suggested Bartman enter witness protection, while Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered him asylum in a joke that surely lacked humor for its target.

Bartman quickly issued a public apology, saying that he had been focused on the flight of Castillo’s fly ball and hadn’t even been aware of Alou’s approach. He steadfastly refused to capitalize on his unwanted moment of fame, denying all requests for interviews and endorsements. The team also issued a statement absolving Bartman of any blame, saying he had done what every fan tries to do, namely catch a foul ball hit in their direction. None of that mattered, as fans continued to rail against him. Nor did those fans stop to consider that it was Cubs players, not a fan in the stands, who had thrown the pitches that Marlins batters hit and committed the costly fielding gaffe. In short order Steve Bartman became the most infamous Cubs fan since Bill Sianis, owner of the aforementioned billy goat.

Now the Cubs have done their best to write a better ending to Bartman’s saga. In a statement accompanying Monday’s ring presentation the team said, “While no gesture can fully lift the public burden he has endured for more than a decade, we felt it was important Steve knows he has been and continues to be fully embraced by this organization.”

For his part Bartman said that he did not consider himself worthy of the honor, adding that he was “deeply moved and sincerely grateful.” He also spoke of the importance of keeping our games in perspective, saying “I humbly receive the ring not only as a symbol of one of the most historic achievements in sports, but as an important reminder for how we should treat each other in today’s society. My hope is that we all can learn from my experience to view sports as entertainment and prevent harsh scapegoating.”

Bartman’s sentiment is noble; sadly, in a global context it’s almost certainly futile. In the years since he instinctively reached for a foul ball and became a pariah to an entire fan base, our public discourse has only grown coarser. Social media applications like Twitter, which didn’t exist in 2003, now allow the most mean-spirited among us to spew their bile behind a cloak of anonymity. But perhaps on a smaller scale we fans can learn from Steve Bartman’s agony and maintain some perspective the next time something happens in our section of the stands. In Chicago, the reaction of the Cubs’ faithful has been strongly supportive of their team’s decision to reward its tortured fan. Of course, that may just prove that winning is the most soothing balm of all.

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