Chicago is a place that realizes it is irrelevant, in relation to New York and Los Angeles, but refuses to acknowledge as much. Thus, the city has a warped relationship with sports, deriving identity and self-esteem from the performance of its teams and, in effect, sharing similar issues with Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Cleveland and other culturally lopsided, inferiority addled metropolises in the Midwest and East. Fortunately for America’s mental health, most towns recognize sports as entertainment that never should stick in one’s craw for lengthy periods.
In the tragicomic case of Steve Bartman, Cubs fans have allowed the freak convergence of a foul ball, an elusive World Series championship and a fellow fan wearing a team cap, turtleneck and headphones to linger for 10 years. On the night of Oct. 14, 2003, with the Cubs five outs from a World Series that they hadn’t reached in 58 years or won in 95 years, Bartman was sitting behind a brick wall down the left-field line at Wrigley Field when a foul ball drifted his way. Watching all of this unravel from the press box and having lived through Cubdom’s woe during a 17-year media career in that city, I assumed any fan suffering through the 1908-and-running drought would have enough common sense to avoid the ball and let the Cubs’ left fielder, Moises Alou, drift over and make the catch.
Bartman chose to make a play for the ball. He interfered just enough that Alou could not make the catch, and when the veteran outfielder proceeded to throw a mini-fit, well, hell thundered through the outfield ivy and invaded the old ballpark. This was not supposed to be happening to begin with, the karma-crossed Cubs drawing so close to the impossible. So when the suburban nerd in the stands sabotaged the dream, it was the beginning of a perfect storm.
Mark Prior disintegrated on the pitcher’s mound. Alex Gonzalez commited a killer error at shortstop. The Florida Marlins scored eight runs to win Game 6, then came back the next night, with Cubdom already convinced of its fate, and won the National League championship series. From there, Bartman’s life turned dark and ugly, the angry mobs of this psychotheater blaming him for it all. He was hidden away by police that night, and for several years, he lived on the lam in the city, avoiding hundreds of media requests — including all the major network TV shows — and changing his look so he wouldn’t be recognized.
I was among the media members who tried to talk to him, sometimes waiting outside his workplace in the northern suburbs. As I did, I felt ashamed of myself and bad for him. A family friend went on the record with me and explained Bartman remained a Cubs fan and even might have attended a game or two at Wrigley, though not in the same blue cap, headphones and turtleneck. And, yes, he still lived in the area, despite rumors he’d fled for asylum in London. But he refused every overture to go public, not wanting to become a bigger freak show than all of us already had made him — including the day I went on ESPN’s “Around The Horn” dressed as Bartman for a Halloween show, something I refused to do when the network asked me to reprise the act for another show.
By now, I’d have thought Chicago had forgiven Bartman and moved on to more important adult concerns, such as the staggering murder rate in the city. That is not the case among some Cubs fans I know, and certainly among media members who spoke to a New York Times reporter posing a question: Should the Cubs, now owned by the Ricketts family and run by Boston Red Sox curse graduates Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, make amends with Bartman at a public ceremony?
“They’d rip him apart,” said Rick Telander, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist. “He can’t just waltz in when the Cubs are still losers and expect to be cheered.”
Telander is a grown man, I believe, in his mid-60s. When he makes such a comment, he comes off as unstable as the fans themselves, not in tune with bigger life realities. That is a problem with the Chicago sports media as a whole — unsophisticated and, in some ways, as wacky and out of touch as the fans. Said veteran radio and TV sports host David Kaplan, per the Times, “(Bartman) was done in by the machine, by the media … The more we talk about him, the more forgiving he has to do.”
I once was part of that silly machine, fortunately getting out on my own terms and handing back a lot of contract money because the media scene was disgustingly unprofessional and hometownish. In the early stages of post-Bartman rage, I contributed my own diatribes — for one, he should have known better to prioritize a foul ball over a National League pennant, a symptom of a bigger Cubbie fan disease. But eventually, as I separated myself from the children and went national, I realized, as Kaplan said, that we’d been part of the problem because we fed the monster. In a town with no Hollywood, no Broadway and nothing but inclement weather eight months a year, Chicago turned sports into a sick obsession. I’m glad to see the masses have been soothed by the Blackhawks, who’ve won two Stanley Cups as the Cubs and White Sox and Bears continue to flub up.
Still, the place has a screw loose. Los Angeles, where I live now, has its share of wayward souls, sure. But no one is so disturbed to spend 10 years channeling his sorry-ass woe onto a fan who happened to reach out for a foul ball during a baseball game. When the Dodgers or Lakers lose, the locals complain for a few minutes, then head to the beach.
It’s called perspective.
It’s called a better way of life.
Earlier this year, I joined a buddy in Anaheim for a White Sox-Angels game. Not long after entering the ballpark, I was confronted by three oversized Chicago guys in Sox jerseys, all of whom began chirping at me about long-departed manager Ozzie Guillen, loony-tune team broadcaster Hawk Harrelson and other affiliated nonsense. A security guard came by and shooed them away.
“Sorry,” the cop said. “Chicago’s in town this weekend.”