Column: 20 years later, the scars from the foul ball that changed a Chicago Cubs fan’s life appear to have faded

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The 20th anniversary of the Alex Gonzalez Game is upon us, though few Chicago Cubs fans refer to it as that.

Gonzalez, the former shortstop who booted a potential double-play ball that contributed to an epic Cubs collapse in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, was fortunate enough to find cover under the dropped foul ball by a fan that preceded his error.

Ditto pitcher Mark Prior and the rest of the ‘03 Cubs who helped fritter away a three-run, eighth-inning lead on Oct. 14, 2003, and then failed to get the job done in Game 7. Manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Larry Rothschild dodged most, but not all, of the finger-pointing as well.

Steve Bartman famously took the fall, disappeared for 13 years, returned to accept a World Series ring from the Cubs, then went back into hiding for the last seven years. His face has not been on the internet, to anyone’s knowledge, and he has not profited off his moment of infamy.

While his story has been told in an ESPN documentary, alluded to in a PlayStation ad and rehashed in numerous newspaper articles over the last two decades, including a 10-year anniversary piece I wrote for the Tribune in 2013, Bartman has refused to talk.

Only on occasions such as this does his attorney and family friend, Frank Murtha, spring into action to reiterate that Bartman has nothing to say about that day or his life.

Murtha thought it would be over by now but admits he was wrong. The legend continues. You have to credit Bartman for staying underground after a life-changing event he easily could have cashed in on and for overcoming an ugly reaction from die-hard Cubs fans upset that their team blew a chance at the World Series.

Former Marlins outfielder Juan Pierre, who was on second base at the time, told me 10 years ago that the team thought nothing of the foul ball at the time.

“I saw where someone in the dugout said ‘Hey, let’s make this guy famous,’ ” Pierre said. “But I didn’t hear that. I definitely feel bad for him.”

Bartman did become famous, which might not have happened had the Cubs gotten their act together and held on in Game 6 or won Game 7 to make it a moot point.

But those things didn’t happen, and you can’t change history. Still, you can look back at the facts and change the narrative, which a popular TV show recently did.

So I had to ask Murtha if Bartman had seen a particular episode of “The Bear,” a Hulu show about a Chicago man named Carmy, played by Jeremy Allen White, who took over the family’s restaurant after his older brother committed suicide.

“I don’t know if he does, and I didn’t hear anything about it,” Murtha said. “But it’s not like I have search engines covering everything in the world.”

I have to believe Bartman has at least been informed of a scene that mentions his incident in a profane and hilarious conversation between two of the main characters.

In the episode, a grizzled businessman called Uncle Jimmy (played by Oliver Platt) gives an impassioned speech about the hazards of the industry, using the Bartman episode as a metaphor.

“Do you remember Alex Gonzalez, shortstop for the Cubs?” Uncle Jimmy says.

“Um, no, no, I don’t think so,” Carmy replies.

“Right, and it’s a shame you don’t think so,” Uncle Jimmy says. “But I’m going to explain why you don’t think so.”

Uncle Jimmy goes on to explain the circumstances of the Game 6 loss, calling the grounder to Gonzalez an “easy grab, no (bleeping) brainer kind of thing” that led to the Cubs falling “apart at the seams.”

When Carmy asks himself out loud why he doesn’t remember Gonzalez, Uncle Jimmy delves into the earlier play of the fly ball down the left-field line that a fan dropped as left fielder Moises Alou approached the wall.

Carmy quickly realizes he was referring to Bartman, and he nods knowingly. Uncle Jimmy tells him the reason he couldn’t remember Gonzalez’s name was because “everybody and their mother wants to blame the (bleeping) guy instead of the actual (bleeping, bleeping bleeps) who (bleeped) it up.”

Those bleeping bleeps, of course, were the rest of the Cubs.

The scene was perfectly written and well-acted and might have been the best defense I’ve ever heard of Bartman’s accidental appearance in Cubs lore. Kudos to “The Bear” for giving Bartman’s side after all these years.

Most Cubs fans have come around to Bartman’s side, realizing he was just an unlucky person sitting in the unlucky seat where Luis Castillo’s fly ball would land. But that doesn’t mean his name won’t be remembered long after Gonzalez and the other Cubs who contributed to the loss are forgotten.

The Cubs tried to make amends in 2017 when they gave Bartman a 2016 World Series ring, whether it was done with good intentions or just virtue signaling to show what benevolent guys they are.

Bartman and Murtha drove to Chairman Tom Ricketts’ office to pick up the ring with president of business operations Crane Kenney and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein also in the room.

That was supposed to bring closure to the incident, and to some extent it did.

Bartman issued a statement that day expressing his “heartfelt thanks” to Ricketts, Kenney, Epstein and the entire Cubs organization,” calling the gesture “the start of an important healing and reconciliation process for all involved.” Bartman mentioned his wish was to “prevent harsh scapegoating and to challenge the media and opportunistic profiteers to conduct business ethically by respecting personal privacy rights and not exploit any individual to advance their own self-interest for economic gain.”

The Cubs also invited Bartman to appear in the victory parade, which Bartman politely declined because he didn’t think it was appropriate to take any attention away from the players.

I asked Murtha if Bartman ever wears the ring.

“I kind of doubt that he does,” he replied, adding he never has asked.

The media has mostly ignored Bartman over the last seven years, expect perhaps when other so-called “Cubbie Occurrences” happen, such as Seiya Suzuki’s missed fly ball that helped lose a game in Atlanta last month during the Cubs’ wild-card chase. One reporter stalked Bartman for a story many years ago, but otherwise he has been left alone.

When I reached out to someone who had helped Bartman escape Wrigley that fateful night, the person declined and said “Please leave him alone.”

His name still pops up from time to time, though not as often as the first 10 years after the incident.

A front page of the Tribune with a photo of Bartman’s drop and the headline “The Mitt Hits the Fan” was signed by Alou and framed by a Milwaukee Brewers clubhouse attendant. It resides in his office in the visitor’s clubhouse at American Family Field to this day, viewable to any Cubs player who walks past.

In April the Miami Marlins promoted a “Steve Bartman Appreciation Day” on social media for a series against the Cubs, but the idea was quickly squelched after Kenney contacted the Marlins to voice a complaint. In September a fan wore a Bartman outfit, with the distinctive green turtleneck and old-school headphones, and sat behind the plate during a Cubs-Colorado Rockies series at Coors Field. Hardly anyone seemed to notice, even though he was in almost every TV shot.

But when the subject of the 2003 Cubs comes up, it’s impossible to ignore his name. I recently asked former Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano, who lost Game 5 in Miami that would have clinched the NLCS for the Cubs, if he ever felt sorry for Bartman.

“No,” he said. “It could’ve been Paul Sullivan or Carlos Zambrano, it could’ve been anybody else. His name popped up, and he became famous after the incident.”

Zambrano added that he didn’t think Bartman did anything wrong.

“It was just the natural reaction of the fans,” he said. “You see the ball, you want to grab the ball.”

He stopped for a second and thought about how long ago it was.

“Twenty years ago, wow,” he said. “But we have to turn the page and celebrate ‘16.”

The Cubs got their rings in 2016. Baker earned his first ring last year with the Houston Astros and is working for another. Prior got one in 2020 as pitching coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers and also is back in the postseason.

It sounds as if Bartman has come out OK and moved on as much as possible. Maybe he’ll write a book someday and explain how he felt going through it all.

Or maybe not. The longer time passes, the more people will have forgotten the true story of the foul ball that changed one man’s life and left a scar on Cubs fans.

But scars heal, fortunately, and life goes on.

The worst of times never last forever.


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