Chicago Cubs fans were left numb by a disastrous 2002 campaign, which saw the club finish fifth in the NL Central Division and 28 games below .500.
But the Cubs played solidly in 2003 and led the division on June 11. But then it was business as usual as the Cubs dropped 15 of their next 23 games and were two games out of first place by July 4.
That would be about the only low point of the season. On Sept. 27, Chicago swept a doubleheader from Pittsburgh to clinch its first division title in 14 years.
In the NL Division Series, the Cubs faced the Atlanta Braves, a team that finished 40 games above .500 and won its division by 10 games. However, behind the solid pitching of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, the Cubs dispatched the Braves, three games to two. The Cubs returned to Wrigley Field to take on the Florida Marlins in the first two games of the NL Championship Series.
The end of years of World Series appearance frustration appeared within the reach of Cubs fans. Standing in the way were the Marlins, the NL wild card team.
Leading the umpiring crew for the series were crew chief Jerry Crawford and Mike Reilly. Also on the crew were Fieldin Culbreth, Mike Everitt, Chuck Meriwether and Larry Poncino.
The Cubs jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the opener but couldn’t hold it, losing in 11 innings, 9-8, on a home run by pinch-hitter Mike Lowell. Chicago pasted Florida, 12-3, in game two to send the series to Florida tied at a game apiece.
Chicago grabbed games three and four, 5-4 and 8-3. In the fourth game, Aramis Ramírez blasted a first-inning grand-slam, the first in Cubs’ postseason history, putting them just one win away from their first World Series in nearly 60 years.
However, Josh Beckett pitched a masterful two-hit shutout and Florida stayed alive with a 4-0 victory in game five.
Despite the loss, Chicago headed home with a three games to two lead with Prior set for game six and, if necessary, Wood for game seven.
Going into game six, Chicago fans were ecstatic.
“There was so much enthusiasm. They thought they had the series won, needing only one victory to reach the series.” Crawford said. “The fans were so excited. It was a marvelous time to be in Chicago.”
Prior was outstanding in game six on Oct. 14. His team had a 3-0 lead and he was working on a three-hit shutout after seven innings.
“In all the postseason games I have worked,” Reilly, the plate umpire recalled, “I have never seen a more dominating performance. Prior was just outstanding.”
As one might imagine, owing to the Cubs miserable record of past failures, the crowd at Wrigley probably could feel underlying tension wondering what would go wrong this time.
Then came the fateful eighth inning.
With one out, and the Cubs five outs away from the World Series, Juan Pierre hit a double. That brought up Luis Castillo. On Prior’s eighth delivery, Castillo hit a high popup in foul territory down the left-field line and toward the stands. Moving over to catch the ball was Moisés Alou. As the ball arched toward the front row of seats, Cubs fan Steve Bartman was about to become the most unpopular Chicagoan since Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.
Video replays showed Alou reaching toward the stands only to become engulfed in the outstretched hands of fans reaching for the ball. Bartman was the first to touch it, but he couldn’t control it and the ball rolled away. Alou, who believed he was interfered with, slammed his glove to the ground with both hands.
Now the attention focused on the one man on the field who would decide the issue — Everitt, the left-field umpire. As Everitt was quoted later by the Associated Press, there was no doubt in his mind. “The ball was in the stands,” he said. “It was clear, I just zeroed in on the ball and it was an easy call.”
Crawford remembered there wasn’t much umpire discussion about the call after the game. “That play has happened a thousand times and nobody does anything,” but Crawford reflected, “with the Cubs being 58 years away from a World Series and 95 years away from a World Series win, this happens and the place goes up for grabs.”
The Cubs and their fans are often referred to as “Loveable Losers.” Not that day. Not right then. Alou’s reaction brought down a rain of boos aimed at Bartman.
“I thought Mike (Everitt) made a great call,” Reilly said. “I ran to the wall myself. Dusty (Baker, Cubs manager) asked me, ‘Mike wasn’t that ball in play?’ I replied, ‘No it was just inside the stands.’ There was no argument.” Reilly then brought up a point few, if any considered. “You have to remember,” Reilly said, “that the seats are about eight feet or so above the playing field. Normally seats near the field are two to three feet above the playing surface. With that much height, and looking up at an oncoming ball, it is unlikely Bartman even saw Alou.”
The fans, of course, didn’t see it that way and that caused concern for crew chief Crawford. “I think the crowd reaction was more how Moisés reacted than anything else,” he said. “However, the crowd wouldn’t let up. I actually feared for the guy and I was thinking of having him removed for his own safety. He was in dire straits.” Security was finally able to get Bartman out of the stands.
Reilly agreed with Crawford’s assessment. “I don’t think there was much of a problem if Moisés didn’t react with so much enthusiasm,” Reilly said. “But the minute he threw his glove to the ground, the rafters came down on the guy.”
From that point on, the Cubs imploded.
“I couldn’t believe how good (Prior) was pitching,” Reilly recalled, “and how fast he lost it.”
The key play in the Cubs’ demise was the usually reliable shortstop Alex Gonzalez’s error on a sure double play ball that would have gotten the team out of the inning. When it was all over, the Marlins went on to win the game, 8-3.
For all the criticism he received, the bottom line is that Bartman didn’t allow eight runs, five hits, three walks, a wild pitch and an error in the eighth inning. He also didn’t boot the double-play grounder that would have gotten the Cubs out of the inning with a 3-1 lead.
Try to get Cubs fans to believe that.
Many fans associate the Bartman incident with the “Curse of the Billy Goat.” That label was laid on the Cubs after Billy Sianis and his pet goat were ejected from Wrigley Field during the 1945 fall classic. The Cubs lost that series to the Detroit Tigers in seven games and have yet to return to the World Series.
In what seems to be a footnote, the Marlins won game seven, 9-6, to advance to the World Series, in which they beat the New York Yankees, four games to two. Of course, nobody will ever know how Chicago would have fared against the Yankees had it played in the series. However, one thing is certain. The agony continued for the long-suffering Chicago fans until their World Series victory in 2016.
As of this day, Bartman has refused interviews and highly paid endorsements for a variety of products. He still lives in Chicago and is still a Cubs fan. However, due to the bitterness of the experience, he has never returned to Wrigley Field. That foul ball incident left him, among other things, with more than 80 pages in Google search. His seat, 113 in section 4, row 8, is still a “must see” attraction for tour groups who visit the ballpark.
Quite a legacy for a guy who showed up at a ballgame and nearly got the souvenir of a lifetime.
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