Brandon M. Judd
ESPN’s original 30 for 30 certainly had its gems: Once Brothers; June 17, 1994 and No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson stick out in my mind. Now, after repeated delays, Alex Gibney’s Catching Hell was finally released. It was well, and I mean well, worth the wait. It chronicles the infamous Steve Bartman incident in the 2003 NLCS. But it’s quickly clear this is but a launching point.
With one out in the top of the eighth inning in Game 6, Louis Castillo hit a fly ball to left field. As it hooked foul a gaggle of fans, including Bartman, reached at the wall to try and snag a piece of what would inevitably be Cubs history. The ball ricocheted off Bartman’s hands ever so slightly, preventing Cubs outfielder Moises Alou from a shot at the catch, and giving Castillo another pitch at bat. Instead of grabbing a piece of Cubs history, Bartman became one: the Marlins would go on to score eight runs in the game and win the series in seven.
Bartman endured inhuman fallout from what amounts to a trivial reflex action. For anyone to claim that they wouldn’t have been entranced by the shot at a playoff fly ball is either not a baseball fan or is lying. And what’s the big deal anyway? People continue to be blind to the fact that had Alou made the catch—which would’ve verged on miraculous for the mediocre fielder—there were still four more outs in the game. They also conveniently forget this didnt’ occur in game seven. The Cubs failed to win at home the final two games of the series.
This is the team that would’ve won the World Series had Bartman not interfered? Against the Yankees? When they couldn’t even stop Pudge Rodriguez and Jeff Conine?
Gibney’s documentary draws a fantastic roadmap from Bartman back to 1986, when Bill Buckner famously missed a routine ground ball, allowing a Mets win. Catching Hell’s discussion of this incident made me realize just how caught up in the collective—and inaccurate—memory of the event I had become. I’d always thought it was Buckner’s error that had let the Mets tie the game, not win it. Like the Cubs, the ’86 Sox had plenty of chances to close out game 6, and another shot at winning in game 7.
Why is the final blow of a monumental collapse always the focus? This is what Gibney sets out to discover, and it’s a meandering road. The director speaks with a nearby fan who was inches away from being the goat, Wrigley security personnel, sportscasters, Moises Alou, even a priest who used Bartman to explain the history behind scapegoats. But the crown jewel interview is, without doubt, Bill Buckner. He not only gives lucid insight into what being that scapegoat is like, but also acts as the stand-in for Bartman, absent in the movie due to the extreme privacy the incident has forced him into. To see the effect fan hatred had on Buckner and his family made me reconsider the countless barbs I’ve tossed out about ‘chokers’ and other sports pariahs.
Like all good sports documentaries, Catching Hell operates as a microcosm for a larger issue: concentrating collective blame for our problems into on person, event or idea. People seem to need a martyr when they are faced with the stings of defeat associated with the Cubs and the pre-2004 Red Sox. And they are more than willing to disregard the consequences of their actions if it soothes their own pains and woes. This is an absurd and detestable act, but one that we have all likely taken part in.
One thing the film didn’t cover that made me curious is why baseball seems to be the sport most associated with supernatural curses. You don’t hear fans of the Leafs, Bills or Trailblazers fans inventing farfetched stories about Billy Goats or Bambinos. Is it something to do with baseball’s almost mythical cultural importance in the U.S.? Or does it have more to do with Boston and Chicago’s legacies—real or perceived—of being outshone by New York? It’s an intriguing question that I’d like to see covered. But that’s a documentary for another day.
Bartman caught hell for what he did, Buckner for what he didn’t. Why is it we feel this is okay? Watch Catching Hell and decide for yourself.
Brandon is a Staff Writer for the Concordian and livelong Toronto Blue Jays fan.