Catching hell

It's one hell of a sports curse
Steve Bartman and Matt Liston
Directed by Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney’s riveting documentary “Catching Hell,” part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” film series, centers on the ruthless scapegoating that high-strung, frenzied fans of ill-fated sports teams often resort to. It’s about the ugly side of underdogs, about understandable but misplaced rage at avoidable—yet consistent—failure.

No sports movie will likely achieve the psychological depth that “Catching Hell” does any time soon, or the pathos. The variety of subjects Gibney interviews is staggering—from sportscasters to authors like Scott Turow to former Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs players. And they all share a common, hilarious humility, the instinct for anticipating the death knell that’s been sounded at all too many near-victory playoff and World Series games.

During Game 6 of 2003’s National League Championship Series, Steve Bartman, a meek, turtleneck-wearing Cubs fan, tried to catch a foul ball hit by the Florida Marlins’ Luis Castillo, accidentally blocking Cubs’ outfielder Moisés Alou from retrieving it. There was one out in the top of the 8th inning and the Cubs were up 3-0; Alou’s catch would have left the Cubs—who had not won the World Series since 1908—four outs away from entering the Series.

As noted by Gibney (pictured), several other blunders—a botched double play, a wild pitch—led to the Marlins scoring eight runs that same inning, defeating the Cubs. Yet ultimately, Bartman became the fall guy for keeping this long-doomed team from winning.

Through linking up with filmmaker Matt Liston—who attended the game with a video camera hidden in his crotch—Gibney has obtained illuminating new angles on the incident, revealing the “slow build” of the crowd’s angry reaction. Throughout “Catching Hell,” he employs an Errol Morris-like visual method, replaying the incident several times using different footage as well as re-enactments, to intoxicating effect.

Television replays have cemented certain images in the minds of baseball fans: the headphones-wearing Bartman flailing his arms ungracefully to get the ball; Alou snarling at the dumbstruck Bartman; the umpire pointing menacingly at Bartman; Bartman looking ashen—and all of this is shown. But Liston’s hand-held footage adds little-known phenomena to the proceedings. We see a man in the parking lot lifting a portable TV over his head, broadcasting the replay for throngs of fans, who begin the chant of “Asshole! Asshole!” Before long, fans at the stadium are also screaming at Bartman, throwing beer and food at him, threatening to kill him. His harmless demeanor only seems to incite more violence, and Bartman is finally escorted out of Wrigley Field by security. Bartman—who was so vilified that scores of people dressed like him that Halloween—has remained a recluse to this day; his only public response was the apology issued to the press two days later.

Though Bartman declined to participate in “Catching Hell,” his absence from the movie inevitably gives him more sympathy, shaping his persona as a man practically forced into hiding. Gibney, speaking at a Tribeca Film Festival post-screening discussion last weekend, said he was moved by the “poignancy of a guy, for whom baseball meant so much, to be remembered as a failure.”

A lifelong Red Sox fan, Gibney decided to take a “personal approach” to Bartman’s story by drawing parallels between him and another notorious scapegoat: Bill Buckner. During the 1986 World Series—also Game 6—the Sox first baseman let a slow Mookie Wilson grounder roll under his glove, capping off a miraculous Mets comeback that lived in infamy for Red Sox fans—until their World Series victory in 2004.

There are obvious differences between the two men. Buckner was a professional ball player decidedly making an error; Bartman, a mere fan, was just trying to catch a ball, as were several people sitting next to him (two of whom admit on camera that, in retrospect, they could have easily made the exact same goof). Bartman’s foul-up only cost the Cubs a second out in the eighth inning; Buckner’s error literally gave up the winning run.

But in both cases, sports analysts, broadcasters and fans seem to have overlooked certain other teammates’ clumsy playing in Game 6—as well as in Game 7, when both teams could have overcome humiliation and won their respective series. The Cubs and the Red Sox both have a history of long-standing omens; in 1945, the last year the Cubs made the Series, a bar owner whose goat was banned from Wrigley put the “Billy Goat Curse” on the team, while the Red Sox suffered the “Curse of the Bambino” after Babe Ruth left for the Yankees in 1919. The Red Sox supposedly ended their curse in 2004, but the Cubs still need a culprit to lay their rage and disappointment on when deprived, yet again, of a near-win.

“Catching Hell” is, in the end, a call for calming that rage. The interviewees, many of whom once lashed out at Bartman, are mostly empathetic now. ESPN reporter Wayne Drehs—one of the only journalists to interact with Bartman since his silence—recalls, with trepidation, his assignment to “find Steve Bartman,” his approaching Bartman at his office’s parking lot and scaring the bejesus out of him. The female security guard that protected Bartman tears up when recalling his plight. Several spectators present at the Cubs game who admit they picked on Bartman—including a Chicago Tribune journalist—express regret at causing him harm. (Alou, now retired from pro-baseball, seems less remorseful, dismissing his singling out of Bartman as “an in-the-moment thing.”)

But the most heart-rending scenes in “Catching Hell” are the interviews with Buckner, who is still visibly shaken from his gaffe. It’s hard not to get choked up when the kindly Buckner is invited to throw the first pitch at the Red Sox’s opening day in 2008, finally forgiven for his error. At the Tribeca festival discussion, Gibney predicted that, similarly, Bartman’s day in the sun will come when the Cubs win the Series. This triumphant, funny, painful film will have you hoping along with him.

“Catching Hell” was recently shown at the Tribeca Film Festival.