Catching Hell (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Catching Hell (2011)

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 I am a Cubs fan. I don’t know why I do it to myself, but the first time I went to Wrigley Field, I fell in love and have been in love ever since.  Like many bad romances, the affair has not been good for me and has left me heartbroken and beaten up many times, yet I can’t seem to give it up.  With all the heartbreak and the wasted seasons, one time stands out during my lifetime as being the most painful and brutal kick to the stomach ever.

That is the 2003 National League Championship Series, otherwise known as the Bartman series.  The Cubs found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in that series.  The streak of no World Series appearances since 1945 was kept intact.  This 7 game series left me a bitter shell for many weeks, and I still get a queasy stomach when I think about how close those Cubbies came.  So, of course, I had to torture myself by watching the ESPN film's documentary about the Bartman game, Catching Hell, because I am apparently some sort of masochist.

Let me get everyone up to speed about the Bartman game.  It is October in Chicago and the Chicago Cubs are playing the Florida Marlins in a rocking and rolling Wrigley Field.  The Cubs are winning 3-0 and Cub ace, Mark Prior, is pitching a gem.  The game is in the top of the 8th with one out on the board.  Five more outs and the Cubs will be going to their first World Series since 1945.

A ball is hit foul into the left field side of the park.  Left fielder and star of the team, Moises Alou, is running towards the ball and is going to make a great catch, until a fan in a turtleneck green sweater, Cubs hat, and earphones snatches the ball away.  Alou goes ballistic, the crowd goes silent and fingers are already starting to point. The next pitch after this turn of events was a hit by the Marlins followed by a botched double play and pretty soon it is 8-3 Florida.

The Cubs go on to lose the series and the whole town turns on the fan, who the Chicago Sun-Times outs as local resident Steve Bartman.  Bartman is blamed for losing the game, losing the series and keeping the Cubs from winning the World Series for another year.  There was so much hatred and anger directed to him that Bartman went into hiding and has not made a public appearance since.

When it all came crashing down.

What the movie is looking at is why Bartman ended up the scapegoat rather than any (more deserving) other person.   Why was this lifelong fan that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time vilified by his fellow fans? The documentary takes a blow-by-blow approach to the game and shows cleanly how quickly the crowd turned and how little fault Bartman was to the outcome of the game.

The film starts off with a long explanation about an earlier gut punch of a game, this time the 1986 World Series where the Red Sox lose the championship with a flow dribbler that gets through Bill Buckner’s legs.  Although the bleeding had already started by the time the ball went through the first baseman’s legs and they had a whole game to play after the error, Buckner, for many years, was public enemy number one in Boston.  That city was finally able to excise its demons in 2004 with a World Series win, but the Cubs have still been unable to have that cathartic release.

Even the players got involved in the finger pointing.

After showing what the World Series in 1986 did to the town and to Buckner, the table is set for the Cubs, those loveable losers, who in a span of a year were turned to winners (at least in the regular season). The director Alex Gibney (Oscar winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side) shows the footage of the game in a very academic way.  There is no emotion, no love and no pity.  Catching Hell uses the found footage of that fateful night like a time capsule. Gibney captures the hope, excitement and later dread of the night as if all of the viewers were flies on the wall.  He also shows no pity for the Cubs fans, the Fox broadcasters and team themselves who built Bartman into the ultimate scapegoat by all their actions.

This was the lowest point for Cubs fans and Gibney does not let one forget it through the movie.  Here are the facts of the situation that he spells out very well in his film:

  1. Bartman wasn’t the only one going for the ball; he was just the unlucky guy who touched the ball.
  2. Bartman would have had no way of knowing the Alou had a chance at the ball since his vision was obscured and the radio broadcast he was listening to was delayed.
  3. Alou’s overreaction and stare down of Bartman were the gasoline on the fire and were more damaging then anything Bartman did.
  4. When Bartman caught the ball the team was up by three; the shortstop’s error two pitches later and Prior’s meltdown were the reason they lost 8-3.
  5. The game was game six; the Cubs lost game seven all on their own.

Catching Hell shows that Bartman was not the enemy, he was just a poor guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Here was a man that has never profited off the instance (although he has had ample opportunity), has stayed away from the spotlight and actually wrote an apology to all Cubs fans the day AFTER they threw beer, yelled at him and even threatened his life.  Cubs fans should be ashamed of what they did to him before seeing the movie, but after Gibney shows us what he went through that night, including asking people who sat around him that night if he did anything wrong, we should beg for his forgiveness.

The last great thing that the film did was say why he HAD to be the scapegoat.   It was a whirlwind of reasons that the game happened the way it did.  It was the pitching, the fielding (I still see the bobbled double play ball in my sleep), and the feel of dread the fans projected onto the field almost immediately.  But on top of all of that it is our faults as Cubs fans that after years and years and years of futility and heartbreak, we were expecting something different.

When the rug was pulled out from under us again, who could we blame?  We couldn’t blame fate. We couldn’t blame our beloved team who were the true culprits of the collapse. We couldn’t blame ourselves for being so invested so the one person we could blame is the dorky looking guy in the green turtleneck.  The guy who Alou yelled at, the guy who was kept being shown and talked about on the broadcast and the guy who didn’t seem to know what to do next, that guy we could blame and blame we did.

This reaction didn't help matters.

The movie concludes by showing Boston finally forgiving Buckner after they win the series twice in 4 years.  Why they had to “forgive” Bucker because of one error is a topic for another film, but Buckner graciously accepted the town’s forgiveness and threw out the ceremonial first pitch.  In my opinion it was a little too late because their demons were exorcized and they were champions.  Forgiveness is much tougher when the person is still upset and hurt, it is quite simple to do when the person is at the top of the world.  That it why I propose that everyone from the Cubs organization to Fox sports and trickling down to the fans need to get on their hands and knees and apologize for putting him through this hell.  He did not deserve it and did nothing to earn it.

Honestly, if one is a Cubs fan, this movie hurts to watch.  It opens old wounds and continues to pour salt on it for 2 hours.  After seeing it, I was in a funk and was once again thinking about how close we came. Gibney paints the documentary in such an interesting way that you couldn’t keep blaming Bartman after seeing all of the facts and the shit that he went through. October 2003 was when “the Friendly Confines” and the fans inside were given a black eye with how they handled the situation.  The best thing the movie did was shine a light on this low time and ask why?

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 Catching Hell is playing on ESPN channels all this month.  Check your listings for dates and times. 

Posted by Ryan

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