At Tribeca: Alex Gibney Talks Catching Hell and the Mystery of Steve Bartman

If you're the type of person who thinks sports don't mean anything, direct your attention to Steve Bartman. On the morning of Oct. 14, 2003, Bartman was an anonymous 26-year-old Chicago Cubs fan; hours later, he would get blamed for costing his beloved team a chance to go to the World Series. Over the weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival, Oscar winner Alex Gibney debuted Catching Hell, his in-depth look at all things Bartman, save one thing: Steve Bartman.

For those who don't know the story of the 2003 Chicago Cubs, here are the CliffsNotes: Following an 88-win regular season and a National League Central title, the Cubs were leading the Florida Marlins 3-2 in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series with a World Series berth on the line. That might not seem like a big deal until you consider that the last time the Cubs went to the World Series, it was 1945... and the last time they won, it was 1908.

Enter Steve Bartman. With the Cubs up by a score of 3-0 with one out in the 8th inning of Game 6, Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo hit a foul pop up along the left field line; Cubs left fielder Moises Alou drifted over to the stands and jumped to make the catch, but met Bartman's hands instead. Castillo received a second life and walked. What happened after could only be described as a meltdown: Following that play, the Marlins would score 8 runs in the inning and go on to win Game 6. And then Game 7. The National League title was theirs.

Bartman, meanwhile, was pelted with beer, cussed out, and basically treated like Josef K. in The Trial -- all for doing the one thing most people would do when a ball is hit in their direction: attempt to make a catch.

Catching Hell, the latest work from Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), opens with the Bartman play -- narrating the film, the director begins by asking rhetorically and ominously, "What are the odds of catching a foul ball?" -- and proceeds to dissect it using interviews with a wide swath of participants from that fateful night. Everyone from Alou (who doesn't show much remorse for throwing a tantrum after the play, which led to much of the vitriol inside the stadium), to the fans surrounding Bartman in the stands at the moment of impact, to the Fox Sports producer who kept showing the replay to millions of viewers, gets his or her say.

Who doesn't get a say is Bartman. The center of the documentary -- and a former Public Enemy of Chicago so reviled that then-governor Rod Blagojevich even joked that he would like to throw him in jail for costing the Cubs the game -- has become something of a myth since Oct. 14, 2003. With the exception of a written statement apologizing for the play in the aftermath of Game 6, and a brief encounter with an ESPN reporter in 2005, Bartman is -- as a local Chicago television reporter called him in the film -- "the J.D. Salinger of Cubs fans." He simply doesn't talk, turning down hundreds of thousands of dollars for appearances and interviews on a regular basis.

Does the absence of Bartman's insight hurt Catching Hell? Surprisingly, not really. Not that Gibney didn't try his hardest to get the mystery fan to make an appearance on camera. Following a screening of Catching Hell on Sunday night, Gibney and ESPN reporter Chris Connelly discussed the film's reclusive centerpiece, sports scapegoating and fans in general. Here are a few highlights:

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  • carg0 says:

    i remember that night crystal clear, as im sure do a lot (if not every) cubs fan. i wasn't there physically but, just watching at home, you could feel the building excitement and apprehension. it was unlike anything i've ever witnessed and it was affecting everyone that night. that's why Alou, the outfielder, exploded with anger when he didn't make the catch.
    what followed afterwards was like something out of the Twilight Zone. the Cubs, who were still up 3-0 and weren't in any danger whatsoever, suddenly couldn't get anyone out and gave up 8 consecutive runs. it was over in the blink of an eye.
    i admire Bartman, though, for refusing to give these people (like Gibney) what they want. these people who act as though they have this god-given right to exploit anyone's personal experiences, whether good or bad, for their own personal gains. i say fuck'em. it's bad enough the Cubs organization did nothing to stick up for Bartman after the incident, to say nothing of the vilification he's received from the fans.
    just leave the man alone.

  • bailey says:

    I saw the film today. You should too before subjecting Gibney to your "these people" bullshit.