Time to give Bartman some space

After almost 14 years of being a scapegoat, Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman might finally have some peace.

Earlier this week, the Cubs reached out to Bartman, who has tried to stay out of the public eye, and gave him a 2016 World Series Championship ring. It was a good public relations move by the team, but more importantly, it was a wonderful gesture to a guy who never deserved the intense hate he’s received over the years.

It’s hard to be a baseball fan, even just a sports fan in general, and not know who Bartman is. For those who aren’t aware of his tragic tale, let me take you back to October 14, 2003. The Cubs were playing in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series and were one win away from their first World Series berth since 1945. I was sitting in my dorm room at college by myself, nervously gritting my teeth every time the Florida (now Miami) Marlins were at the plate. By the time the eighth inning rolled around, Chicago was holding a slim 3-0 lead and was five outs away from the World Series. Based on how Mark Prior was pitching, I started to relax a bit and I became more confident that Chicago was going to finish the job. That was the last time I’ve ever felt that way about the Cubs.

With one out in the frame, Florida’s Luis Castillo lifted a fly ball toward the stands along the third base side. Cubs left fielder Moises Alou was tracking the ball toward the corner and reached out his glove along the foul line. Unfortunately for him, he came up short and the ball ended up landing foul into the stands. This would’ve just been just a typical play if Alou hadn’t reacted the way he did. Instead, he threw a minor tantrum, insisting that a fan had interfered with him and kept him from catching the ball. Instant replays showed that he might’ve had a case as several fans lunged for the ball as it drifted toward the seats. It was at that point that the crowd at Wrigley Field started to get rowdy, but not in a good way.

It was hard to determine which fan could’ve interfered with Alou, but other fans and TV analysts started to point the finger at some guy wearing glasses with headphones in his ears. That guy was Bartman. I’m not sure why they settled on him, but my guess is how he was dressed. On the surface, he looked like some dopey guy who wasn’t paying attention because he was listening to the radio. I hate to say it, but I was flipping out at the guy. After uttering some obscenities at Bartman, I calmed down and told myself that it wasn’t that big of a deal. However from that point on, things got progressively worse as the Cubs mentally fell apart.

Shortstop Alex Gonzalez made a costly error on a ground ball that a first grader could’ve snagged, manager Dusty Baker left Prior in the game far too long and Florida ended up plating eight runs before Chicago got out of the inning. For the rest of the game, all of the frustration and pain of being Cubs fans was unleashed on Bartman. He was booed heavily, pelted with debris and threatened with violence as he tried to quietly get through the rest of the game. Even with his headphones in, he couldn’t tune them out though.

The situation eventually got so bad that he was escorted out of Wrigley and as he was leaving, the booing and threats continued. It got so intense after the game that he went into hiding and issued a statement saying that his eyes were on the ball as it traveled toward him, that he didn’t see Alou approaching him and that he would’ve gotten out of the way if he had. He also said that he was “so truly sorry from the bottom of this Cubs fan’s broken heart.”

When I heard those words, I was brokenhearted as well. Bartman, a youth baseball coach, was just doing what he had probably taught his players to do and that’s keeping their eyes on the ball.

He was trying to snag a memorable souvenir, which was what almost any other fan would do in that situation, especially if they couldn’t see the outfielder coming toward them. Now he was isolated from the outside world and felt the need to apologize for doing something completely normal. I felt guilty for being angry with him, even though it was only for a few minutes, and I know other fans were too.

Bartman also asked that all of the negative actions and feelings directed toward himself and his family be directed toward supporting the Cubs in Game 7. Unfortunately for him, this was back when the Cubs folded under pressure. They were eliminated by the Marlins and extended Bartman’s torment further. He was blasted in the media, blamed almost entirely for the Cubs defeat by thousands of fans and was even criticized by then-Governor, and future convicted criminal, Rod Blagojevich. If that wasn’t enough, actor Kevin James was going to develop and star in a movie based on the incident. Poor Bartman now had to deal with the possibility that the star of “The King of Queens” was going to make fun of his experience. Talk about adding insult to injury.

As the years have passed since his famous moment, Bartman’s whereabouts have remained a mystery. Bartman has hidden himself so well that an ESPN reporter ventured out on a long search for him. Although the reporter tracked Bartman down and briefly talked to him, nothing more came out of it.

He’s gone from being the most famous fan in history to a somewhat regular guy again. Like Red Sox infielder Bill Buckner and his famous error, Bartman’s terrible moment will forever live in baseball lore. However, the good thing is that also like Buckner, once their long-suffering fanbase wins a title, all the hate finally dissipates.

This week, Bartman got to experience that dissipation for the second time in one year. The first was after the Cubs won the title where he said through a spokesperson that he was “overjoyed.” Now, he has a ring with his name emblazoned on it to cherish for years to come. Very few fans would ever have that honor bestowed on them and it’s hard to find one more deserving.

Now that he has it, Bartman sounds like he’s officially moved on and we all should do the same. As great as it would be to have Bartman participate in a lengthy interview, or be honored publicly like Buckner was at Fenway Park, it’s not the time yet and it may not ever be.

Bartman sounds at peace with what happened, so let’s leave him feeling that way. After getting pummeled for so long, he deserves a break.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.