Saturday could be a historic night in Chicago – to put it mildly. Last night the Chicago Cubs defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 8-4 to take a 3-2 lead in the best of seven National League Championship Series. The series moves to Wrigley Field on Saturday with the Cubs needing one win to do the unthinkable – reach the World Series for the first time since 1945 (the franchise has not won the World Series since 1908 – which must be a world record barren spell never mind a record in US sport.) The atmosphere at Wrigley will be incredible the tension unbelievable. But the Cubs and their fans will know that recent history is against them…
October 2003 was a strange time. Italian Serie A men’s team Perugia were trying to sign a woman (no seriously), WWE chairman Mr McMahon fought his own daughter Stephanie in a father v daughter “I Quit” match (no seriously), and UK Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith was overthrown by his party before he could lead it in a General Election (a first in post war UK politics). The Cubs meanwhile were 3-2 up in the 2003 National League Championship Series against the Florida – now Miami – Marlins needing one win to get to the World Series – the same position as they are in right now. What happened next has gone into infamy.
For seven innings all went well. The Cubs were 2-0 up in the middle of the seventh with Mark Prior showing why he had been the Cubs best pitcher all year. During the seventh-inning stretch Chicago celebrity – and ironically a Chicago White Sox fan – Bernie Mac sung “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” but instead of singing “Let’s Root for the Cubbies” he sung “Let’s Root for the Champs”. Some Cubs fans feared that he was tempting fate but an insurance run in the bottom of the seventh and an out at the start of the eighth left the Cubs five outs away from the World Series. Juan Pierre then hit a double for the Marlins but still no trouble right…
There wasn’t no trouble. In fact there was a lot of trouble. And it started with one of the most infamous plays in baseball. Batter Luis Castillo hit a foul ball to the left field wall. Cubs fielder Moises Alou went for the ball…but unfortunately Cubs fan Steve Bartman stuck out his hand and deflected the ball away from Alou. This meant it counted as a foul not an out and Castillo continued his at bat. Still no problem. Well they wouldn’t have been if Alou didn’t show his frustration at not getting the catch.
And after that play came one of the most spectacular implosions in all of sport never mind baseball. Prior’s next pitch to Castillo was a wild pitch that walked Castillo and let Pierre go to third. Ivan Rodriguez then hit an RBI single to put the Marlins first run on the board. Still no problem. Future MVP Miguel Cabrera then ground the ball to short stop Alex Gonzalez which shouldould have produced at least one out and probably an inning ending double play. Instead he fumbled it and everyone was safe leaving the bases loaded.
Now the wheels really came off. Here is how the rest of the horror show of an inning unfolded:
Derrek Lee hit a two RBI double tying the game and chasing Prior from the mound.
New pitcher Kyle Farnsworth issues an intentional walk.
A sacrifice fly that gave the Marlins the lead and put Prior in line for the loss.
Another intentional walk which loaded the bases yet again.
A three RBI double from Mike Mordecai that cleared the bases and blew the game open putting the Marlins 7-3 up and ending Farnsworth’s night.
Pierre gets his second hit of the inning off new pitcher Mike Remlinger to score Mordecai and make it 8-3.
And finally Castillo who could have been the second out of the inning in his first at bat pops out to end the inning from hell. The score went from 3-0 Cubs to 8-3 Marlins.
And the series was to all practical purposes over. The shell shocked Cubs still had six outs left but couldn’t score. The series was tied 3-3 and there was a seventh game at Wrigley with Cubs second best pitcher Kerry Wood pitching but I never thought the Cubs would win. And although they went 5-3 up after being 0-3 down – including a two run homer from pitcher Wood – they still lost not to my surprise 9-6. The dream was over. Again.
Obviously the press and fans in Chicago were not happy. So who do you blame? The logical thing would be to blame the whole team since they were 3-1 up but collapsed. You could blame Prior for the wild pitch, Gonzalez for the error, Farnsworth for not getting any outs apart from the sac fly that was a still a RBI. The whole team lost their bottle.
Of course they blamed none of those. They blamed Bartman. Even though the ESPN programme “Catching Hell”showed plenty of other fans were sticking their hands out too. Even though the Cubs subsequently had chances to get out of the inning poor Bartman copped the flack. Once the fans found out who had caught the ball – he was lucky Wrigley did not have a Jumbotron otherwise it would have happened much quicker than it did – the fans at Wrigley chanted “Asshole” at him and pointed him out. He had to be escorted from the park along with his two friends and he was pelted with debris and had beer over him. It was ugly and it was shameful. Florida Governer Jeb Bush – brother of future US President George W Bush – offered him asylum while Illinois Governer Rob Blagojevic said if Barman ever committed a crime he would not get a pardon from this Governer (ironically Blagojevic was inpeached on corruption charges and forced to resign – poetic justice). It was not good. The only people who defended Bartman were the 13-14 year old boys in the Little League team the Renegades that he coached.
Apart from the Renegades the only man who came out of this mess with any credit was Bartman himself. He declined interviews rewards from Marlins fans and offers of $25000 for an autograph and $100000 to appear in a Super Bowl commercial. He apologised (though he shouldn’t have) didn’t make any money out of his “error” and conducted himself with dignity. Sadly but understandably he has never been to Wrigley Field since. But he responded far more better than the fans who should have blamed the players since it was their job to win the game and it was them who lost their bottle so spectacularly.
So can the 2016 Cubs succeed where the 2003 team failed? It’s likely but not a certainty. The two Dodger starting pitchers that they will face – the world’s best pitcher Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill – both helped to shut out the Cubs in Games two and three. And then they have the curse of 1908 to deal with. But this is a far better team than 2003.They had the best record in the Majors this year. I suspect they will hold their nerve but it will be fun to find out (unless you’re a Cubs fan).
I have one wish. If the Cubs beat the Dodgers then go on to beat the Cleveland Indians – who themselves have not won the World Series since 1948 – to win the World Series I hope Steve Bartman will turn up at Wrigley at the start of next year just like the Red Sox 1986 scapegoat Bill Buckner turned up at Fenway Park at the start of the 2008 season. The Cubs 2003 collapse was not Steve Bartman’s fault. He does not owe Chicago anything. Instead Chicago owes him. Maybe if the Cubs succeed where they failed in 2003 – or even better win the World Series – the rapprochement between Bartman and the city of Chicago can begin. I certainly hope so.