Sunday, October 9, 2011

ESPN, the Cubs, and Steve Bartman - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst watches TV

In 2003, as a recovered Cubs fan in psychoanalytic training, I watched the fourth game of the National League Championship Series between Chicago and the upstart Florida Marlins (another National League expansion team that could get to the series before we could do it again (OK, I am not completely recovered)).  I was feeling confident that we would make it.  We were up three to nothing, we had Mark Pryor on the mound, and there was already one out in the top of the eighth inning.  A Marlin hit a high foul ball down the left field line and it drifted towards the stands where a bunch of fans reached for it and it bounced around among them.  No big deal.  Except that Moises Alou, the left fielder of considerable skill who came from a family that produced many major leaguers, did the unthinkable: He had a conniption.  He jumped up and down, throwing a tantrum and pointing at the fans, exclaiming that they had interfered with a ball that he could have caught.

I knew at that moment that we were doomed.  The thin veneer of confidence that we as a team, as a city, as a group of people who knew just how unlikely it was that the Cubs could do it, the thin veneer of confidence that had grown during a season, during the playoffs, and then during this game itself, was torn – ripped off – by Alou’s meltdown.  His childishness revealed the real Cubs, the bumbling, immature, incompetent, and lovable but lost Cubs to be who they actually were, a group of guys who did not belong on the big stage.  They – we – did not belong.

And, sure enough, the batter’s next effort was a routine groundball to the shortstop.  It was a perfect double play ball.  Not a rocket, but it was hit with enough authority to guarantee that we could get out of the inning and be only the top half of the ninth from the World Series.  But the shortstop booted it.  It popped off the heel of his glove, both runners were safe and before you could say disaster eight runs scored.  The series, the season, and nearly one hundred years of futility continued into the next day.  There was another game, but it was all over.  (For happier memories of Wrigley, connect to this post about a recent visit)

ESPN took on the Cubs and the Steve Bartman phenomenon in their 30 [films] for 30 [years of ESPN's existence] film, “Catching Hell.  Who is Steve Bartman, you might ask…  He wasn’t in the story you just told.  Well, no he wasn’t.  He was, or should have been, the footnote.  He became the scapegoat, but I think the shame of what the City of Chicago and Cubs fans everywhere did to him, makes the curse of the billy goat pale in comparison.

Steve Bartman is a life long Cubs fan.  He is computer programmer.  A somewhat nerdy guy who, in his late twenties or early thirties, was living with his parents in 2003.  He was a Little League coach much admired by the kids on the team that practiced in the field next to his parent’s house and he was the guy lucky enough to score seats on the foul line for the fourth game of the National League Championship series.  He was so excited to be there, he so much wanted to soak up the game, that he had a radio in his pocket tuned to the game.  Because it was cold, he wore a turtleneck, with the Little League team’s Tshirt over it, and a Cubs hat with the earphones on top of that.  When the foul ball came towards him, he, along with about ten other fans, reached for it.  He was unlucky enough to be the one who actually got a hand on it deflecting it further into the stands.  The television cameras then picked him out – he looked the perfect nerd in his getup - and the commentators focused on how his touching the ball prevented Alou from catching it.  Suddenly his action – the reflexive action of most fans when the ball is hit to him or her (the exception being the occasional fearful fan who covers his or her head) to reach for the ball, became the cause of the Cubs’ titanic meltdown.

ESPN asked, without conclusively coming to an answer, why this occurred.  Why did Steve Bartman get singled out as the cause of the latest in a long series of heartbreaking blunders by the Chicago Cubs?  Why did he have to hole up in his parent’s home and receive death threats?  Why was he pilloried in the press non-stop?  I was disappointed by ESPN’s answer.  I will try to come at my own understanding, but first I have to reveal the depth of the pathology of a lifelong Cubs fan.  But also to acknowledge that, despite not being fully recovered, there is some distance that has come between the Cubs and me.  I am no longer a rabid sports fan, and therefore somewhat less crazy than I used to be. 

I was born in Chicago.  My grandfather – a graduate of the University of Chicago – became a Cubs fan when they last won the pennant – against other teams reeling from losing their stars to service in the military during the Second World War – in 1945.  During that World Series, Billy Sianis, who bought a ticket for himself and one for his goat, was ejected because the goat smelled bad, and Billy, in turn, supposedly cursed the Cubs - thus the curse of the billy goat.  In any case, my grandfather died without ever seeing the Cubs return to the World Series.  His son, my uncle, became an Andy Frain Usher at Cubs games and was a lifelong loyal fan.  When my uncle contracted prostate cancer, which he did not get diagnosed until its very late stages, he lived, miraculously, for ten years.  We joked that God was keeping him alive until the Cubs won the series.  If that was the case, even God couldn’t manage keep him alive long enough, as my uncle died last spring and the Cubs still have not gotten to the series.  I come by my love of the Cubs honestly.

Growing up, my family moved all over the country.  Never in a city large enough to have its own major league team, I rooted for them from afar.  In the days before cable, I had to rely mostly on the newspaper reports – usually only a box score, the occasional Saturday when they were on national TV, and going to the park when we went to visit Grandmother.  This kept me connected to the city of my birth, gave me a stable geographical center as we moved from place to place, and it also helped me maintain a stable identity.  I was a Cubs fan.

Being a Cubs fan is complicated, though.  All of that failure does not come without cost.  I began to fear that their failings were caused by me.  I noticed that when I went to Wrigley field to watch them play, they lost.  I wondered if I might be a curse to them – a sort of baseball cooler (See the movie of the same name for an interesting description of how love transforms losers).  This reached strange proportions.  When they would lose in Chicago, and I lived in Florida, I would wonder if I had done something – if I had opened a curtain at the very moment that someone talking with a friend in Chicago had meant to say something, but the distraction made them lose their train of thought meaning some significant (or perhaps insignificant) piece of information was not transmitted, setting up a long chain of reactions that led to – the Cubs losing.

I think this is because of a number of factors.  One is that my failing the Cubs masked the fact that they failed me.  I remember leaving an Ohio State football game, wearing my Cubs hat, and being taunted by Ohio State fans [Ohio State has the fifth most wins of any college football team all-time and has spent more time at number 1 than any other team] for rooting for losers.  But my crazy thoughts meant that I wasn’t rooting for a losing team – I was causing my team – a team that, when I was a kid, was peopled by Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, Ferguson Jenkins and Billy Williams, all excellent players - to lose. 

The second factor was that my failing the Cubs masked how irrelevant I was to the functioning of the team.  Despite my passionate concern about them, the Cubs – the players that I loved – gave not a whit about me.  At least if they had won, they would have given me some excitement, some pride.  But losing meant that I really got nothing from them.  So turning their failure into mine kept me in the dark about just how irrelevant to them I was.  In fact, it elevated me to a position of central importance.

Steve Bartman then, at least from my perspective, would have become the villain for me that he seemed to become for the entire city of Chicago if some of my passion hadn’t waned.  He personified me – the loyal, loving, but never loved fan who protected his idealized players by imagining that they did not fail him, but the other way around, that he had failed them.  My self blame could now be heaped on someone else – I could denigrate Steve Bartman and – and this is the kicker – I could keep my secret alive.  It was me, all along.  The fan does matter.  I – me – Every Day Joe me – in the form of Steve Bartman – brought down the Cubs. 

Moises Alou, someone with skills I could never imagine having, someone who was raised by a major leaguer, who has forgotten more about the game than I will ever know, and someone who has worked incredibly hard to get where he has, someone who should have been able to keep his cool at a critical juncture, is not the person that I blame if I am still a diehard Cubs fan.  I must continue to revere him.  I will buy tickets to watch him perform, I will imagine that I can do what he can do, and I will idolize him, protecting him (but really me) from my realization that he was deeply, fundamentally flawed at the moment when I, as a fan of a franchise, most needed to be able to rely on him – not to catch the ball – but to keep his head.  And this will keep me coming to the game.  Believing and hoping that my cheers, my support, my unwavering loyalty will, before the next century is done, spur someone who dons the light blue pinstripes to finally bring home the pennant and, could it happen?  A World Championship.

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