Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Steve Bartman, 10 Years Later (On "Goats" and "Chokes")

Apologies for the quiet over here. My other obligations have been keeping me busy but my mind is still racing with ideas to write about. This week has given me the chance to finally get something off my mind.

10 years ago Monday was the Steve Bartman game. Game 6 of the NLCS. I remembered it vividly because I was out on campus at school and came back to hearing folks go crazy in my dorm. Five outs from the World Series, the Cubs blew a lead and instantly all the blame went to one fan who interfered with Moises Alou.

The 2nd thing I remember is posting something on my AIM profile saying Cubs fans shouldn't blame Bartman because a bigger goat was Alex Gonzalez who promptly bobbled a routine ball that should've been a double play. Last I checked, no matter how if Bartman should've left it alone, Gonzalez' play was far more egregious. Plus, one play doesn't blow a 3-0 lead.

If anything, maybe it exposed me to how hardcore fan bases are firsthand instead of just reading about it. I always grew up a rational sports fan but seeing the irrationality of hate directed towards Bartman was terrible. Few people talked about how a Gold Glove caliber shortstop made a crucial mistake or how the Cubs lost Game 7 despite Kerry Wood on the mound or how Josh Beckett was nails in Game 5 (and in relief in Game 7) to save the Marlins from being eliminated.

It's funny who ends up getting the blame in sports. Bartman was an easy target similar to Bill Buckner. Peyton Manning's an easy target for choking the same way folks used to chide LeBron James and not his teammates. Yet unlike those athletes, Bartman was a regular guy who's life was ruined and the team he loved.

Also, those guys labeled as goats, chokers, objects of blame are rarely the only ones at fault. Peyton's had some bad postseason games but some people forget how awful the Colts' defense typically was. LeBron struggled to win in the playoffs because an "All-Star" like Mo Williams shriveled up in 2009 and 2010. Bill Buckner was far from the biggest blunder in Game 6 as the Red Sox pitching staff imploded with a two-run lead.

It's easy to blame one person* but the fact is losses rarely happen because of one thing. It's lazy and convenient to blame guys like Bartman, Buckner, Donnie Moore and others. The irony is that in baseball, those goat moments usually are followed by more games. Can blunders have a mental effect on a team? Sure. They're like lead boots in quicksand but often, we forget how 1) they got in quicksand in the first place, 2) what else kept them there.

It's the same with guys who are labeled clutch and postseason heroes. How much of it is their effort or the effort of others as well? How much of it is circumstantial? Everything gets fit into a neat narrative and as we print and run with the legend, sometimes crucial facts get left behind or shouted down.
I still get sad seeing this cover.
The sad thing about the Bartman game was that 2003 NLCS was memorable for a few reasons. It was the last time the Cubs have been close to the World Series. It solidified Dusty Baker as a great manager (one of my personal faves for the record) who has questionable decision making on his resume. It was the end of the meteoric rise of Mark Prior who had so much promise but would be out of the majors in three years**

I thought for sure Prior and Kerry Wood, two of the best young arms I've ever seen, would run the National League for years. At least Wood got to retire with some type of dignity after finding new life as a closer. The Cubs haven't won a postseason game since, including when my Dodgers got them in the 2008 NLDS to exercise their own postseason demons since 1988.

10 years later, I hope Bartman is at peace. I hope Cubs fans continue to ease in how they treat him. It's a reminder that even though narratives and labeling has gotten worse in sports, we shouldn't forget there's always more to the story.

*Much as I want to blame Don Mattingly's managing decisions in the NLCS, the fact is the Dodgers haven't been hitting and they're down 3-1 because of that.
**My freshman dorm room chaplain often told us stories in 2002-03 about seeing Prior and Barry Zito pitch at the feeder HS school across from our alma mater. It's a big reason why I hope Stephen Strasburg does well as a former San Diego phenom.

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