Catching Hell

When Alex Gibney’s Catching Hell was originally announced as part of last year’s 30 For 30 slate, fans of baseball and documentaries alike circled the title and waited impatiently. Gibney can be spotty, but he at least tries to make his films a little livelier and more thoughtful than the average doc. (Plus, Gibney is so prolific that even if he only hit .300, he’d still leave a lot of worthy documentaries in his wake. And I’d say he actually hits about .500.) Then there’s Catching Hell’s subject matter: Steve Bartman, that poor bastard who interfered with a foul pop in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, and suffered the scorn of entire stadium and an entire city when the Chicago Cubs went on to blow the series. It’s a moment—an instant, really—that says so much about how fannish passion can turn to something uglier, and about the way we force sports stories into narrative frameworks with heroes and goats.

I don’t know why Catching Hell never made it onto the air during the run of 30 For 30; I can only assume that it wasn’t finished in time. But in a way it’s better that ESPN held it to run right before the baseball postseason—and more coincidentally, at a time when the Boston Red Sox and my beloved Atlanta Braves are in the midst of historic collapses. I can’t speak for Red Sox fans, but it’s been torture watching the Braves squander a huge wild card lead this September. Back on September 5th, a couple of days before I left to go to the Toronto International Film Festival, the Braves were heading into Philadelphia and talking about putting some pressure on the Phillies in the divisional race. The Braves lost that night, and the next night, and then on the 7th, while I was in the Rogers Centre watching the Toronto Blue Jays come back and beat the Red Sox (aptly enough), I was keeping an anxious eye on the out-of-town scoreboard and saw the Braves take the lead on Philadelphia and then blow it. Our up-to-then lights-out bullpen failed, and we were swept in a three-game series for the first time all season. I couldn’t enjoy the Toronto win, I was so irritated. One of my friends at the game said, “But the Braves already have the wild card in the bag, right?” But I was thinking about our season-long habit of striking out or popping up with RISP and of giving up hits on 0-2 counts, and I was seeing a metaphor for our year. Plus I knew we had three games with the surging Cardinals coming up, and that our lead could be slashed considerably. (Which it was; we were swept yet again.) The weeks that followed have seen Atlanta lose about a half-dozen games that we should’ve won, and often in fluky fashion. Our opponents’ grounders squeak through and make it to the corners; our line-drives get caught by leaping infielders. It’s weird. It’s awful. It’s baseball.

The central premise of Catching Hell is that when a team experiences a spectacular failure of this kind, there are dozens of reasons why—some freakish, some perfectly comprehensible. (That mounting sense of dread accompanying escalating blunders is what sportswriter Thomas Boswell once called “the spooky music” that runs under baseball.) And yet it’s easier for us to focus on a single mistake and call that “the turning point.” Case in point: Bill Buckner, Boston Red Sox, 1986 World Series, Game 6. Gibney starts off Catching Hell with a rehash of how Buckner let a routine grounder dribble through his legs, allowing the New York Mets to score the game’s winning run. But as he points out, there were mistakes before Buckner’s error—a wild pitch that brought in the tying run, in particular—and that besides, it’s not like the Sox lost the Series that night. There was still a Game 7 to play, just as there was a Game 7 for the Cubs after Bartman. But the image of Buckner’s blunder was so memorable that it was replayed over and over, burning in the idea of Bill Buckner as The Man Who Crushed The Hopes Of Red Sox Nation.

So it was with Steve Bartman. He wasn’t the only fan who reached for that foul ball; he’s just the one whose hands touched it, and kept it out of the glove of Moises Alou. At the time of the incident, the Cubs were up three games to two on the Florida Marlins in the NLCS, and up 3-0 in the game, with one out in the eighth and a Marlin on second base. That the Marlins went on to score eight runs in that inning and then went on to win Game 7 isn’t Bartman’s fault. But images of dump singles and sacrifice flies and doubles off the wall are too common to stick. The image of a bespectacled, headphone-wearing, butterfingered dweeb in a sweater and a Cubs hat, however… well, that’s evergreen. Even the name “Steve Bartman” sounds kind of dorky when said aloud, over and over and over.

Catching Hell could be a lot tighter than it is. There’s no real reason why it needs to fill up a two-hour block of ESPN airtime, nor does it need to focus so much on the Buckner parallels. We don’t need Bob Costas retelling the story of the scene in the Red Sox locker room in ’86 for the hundredth time; nor do we need a soundbite from Sox fan Dennis Leary. And we don’t need the footage of Gibney being interviewed by WGN radio about the documentary we’re already watching, in which he states his intended points directly. 

On the other hand, without Gibney’s penchant for overkill, we might not’ve gotten all the multiple methods of forensic investigation that Catching Hell applies to the Bartman incident. Gibney digitally removes everyone but Bartman and Alou, to show that Bartman and Bartman alone did in fact prevent what would’ve likely have been a catch. At the prompting of Cubs fan Scott Turow, Gibney matches the famous images of Bartman and his headphones with what he actually would’ve been hearing on the radio at the time. He interviews some of the fans who sat near Bartman, and gets their first-person recollections of the foul pop, and how Bartman reacted. He finds a fan who watched the game from a higher seat, who has videotape of the whole incident, including footage of the way the fans turned on Bartman once they’d realized what had happened. It may be too much—okay, it is too much—but it’s all pretty fascinating, especially for baseball fanatics.

Even better is the way Gibney scrutinizes the sad scene that ensued in the minutes (and days) that followed. At first, few people in Wrigley understood that Bartman had interfered with the play. But in the age of cell phones—and with people just outside the park watching the game on portable TVs—it didn’t take long for the word to spread, and for chants of “asshole… asshole” to arise. Making matters worse: Alou’s exaggerated annoyance with Bartman; Fox’s repeated replays of the interference; and the fact that the Cubs suddenly could not get any Marlins out, which gave the fans and Fox plenty of time to dwell on that one dopey-looking dude with the too-good seats down the third-base line.

Gibney talks to a fan who threatened Bartman at the stadium, and to a sportswriter who tried to give Bartman his card in the middle of the inning. (Bartman declined it.) He also talks to a Wrigley security supervisor who helped smuggle Bartman out of the stadium, and actually hid him in her apartment for a while after the game. (She says he was so stunned that he didn’t even know what had happened in the game after his big moment.) He then gets into the media’s culpability, from color commentator Steve Lyons wondering why Cubs fans didn’t throw Bartman onto the field—the way they do with home-run balls—to Tony Kornheiser laughing on PTI the next day that, “This kid is meat!” And then, of course, there was the Chicago Sun-Times, which learned Bartman’s name and reported his personal info.

Gibney doesn’t have an interview with Bartman or anyone even close to Bartman. After delivering a heartfelt public apology via his brother, Bartman has refused all interview requests and other (sometimes lucrative) offers of public appearances. The rumor is that he still lives in Chicago, but that he can’t even use a credit card, lest someone recognize the name.

But Gibney offers his subject some hope by bringing Catching Hell back around to Buckner, who was embraced by Boston after the team won two World Series in the ‘00s. These legendary strange-but-true sports stories rarely end with the last out or the final whistle; subsequent events can change the context of what seemed like a fatal wound. If the team later wins, then that botched chance becomes just another obstacle on the way to the moment of glory. Then even the goats get grandfathered in as heroes. (If they’re willing that is. In Buckner’s case, and perhaps in Bartman’s someday, the goat has to be willing to forgive the fans for the abuse they heaped more than the fans have to be willing to forgive the goat.)

More to the point, it’s moments like the Bartman incident that make sports so vital. And Catching Hell gets that. Gibney shows the way that Chicagoans dressed as Bartman for Halloween in 2003, and how even today people treat Bartman’s seat at Wrigley as a sacred baseball location: a shrine within a shrine. First, we’re mad at Bartman. Then we feel bad for Bartman. But deep down, we have to acknowledge that the the overarching story of our national pastime is better because of Bartman.

Stay observations:

  • There’s a nice bit of irony in footage of then-Governor Rod Blagojevich, interviewed by the local news outside Wrigley Field, saying he wouldn’t pardon Bartman.
  • One of the interviewees says he knew the Cubs were doomed even before the Bartman incident, after Bernie Mac sang “root, root, root for the champs” rather than “for the Cubbies” during his seventh-inning stretch performance of “Take Me Out The Ballgame.” Dude, that’s like mentioning a no-hitter in progress. Uncool.
  • Mike Lowell is interviewed wearing Marlins gear. He does know he’s no longer on the team, right?
  • I love some of the weird parallels that Gibney brings up, like the way that Buckner was traded away from the Cubs in the middle of their 1984 playoff run, and how the player that replaced him at first base—Leon Durham—allowed a ball to go through his legs at a crucial moment in the ’84 NLCS. Or the way that the ’03 Cubs-Marlins game had color commentary from Steve Lyons, who had his own oft-replayed on-field blooper when he dropped his pants in the middle of an inning. One unremarked-upon bit of synchronicity though: that Cubs manager left Mark Prior in the game too long, just as Red Sox manager Grady Little would do with Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of that year’s ALCS—thus delaying Boston’s redemption by one year.
  • I also appreciated that just as Gibney allows that most fans would probably have reached for that foul ball, so most players would’ve reacted the way Alou did, and most broadcasters would’ve harped on the interference the way the Fox team did. In sports as in life, we live in the moment.
  • For the record, I think the other good Gibneys (besides this one) are Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, Taxi To The Dark Side, Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Hunter S. Thompson and Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Elliot Spitzer. Not that big a fan of Casino Jack And The United States Of Money or Magic Trip. I’ve heard good things about The Last Gladiators, which played at the Toronto International Film Festival and which should be released more widely soon.