ESPN Films Collection Vol. 1 (DVD Review)7 Dec, 2011 By: John Latchem
$49.95 five-DVD set
There’s a distinct human tendency to boil down a complex sequence of events into one or two significant causes that overlook other factors that may be more responsible. In sports, that can mean blaming a loss not on a team but often on a specific player, such as Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series, or even a fan, as with the Steve Bartman incident during the Cubs’ collapse in the 2003 National League Championship Series. But how fair is it to do so?
To this baseball fan, that aspect of Alex Gibney’s Catching Hell makes it the standout of this five-film set that also includes Charismatic (about the 1999 Kentucky Derby winner and his ill-fated jockey), The Fab Five (about the infamous early 1990s University of Michigan basketball squad), Herschel (about troubled football player Herschel Walker) and Renée (about transgender tennis player Renée Richards). The collection represents the first batch of films that didn’t make it into ESPN’s “30 for 30” series.
Gibney sets the two incidents side by side to dissect the factors that put both Buckner and Bartman in those positions. Gibney wonders why more attention isn’t heaped on the wild pitch that tied the game, rather than the error that let the Mets beat the Red Sox in ’86. (Gibney throws in a prophetic soundbyte from Buckner 12 days before the series in which he pontificates about the nightmare scenario of letting the winning run score by a ground ball between the legs.)
But much more attention is heaped on the Bartman play, in which Cubs outfielder Moises Alou was prevented from catching a foul ball with one out in the eighth inning of a 3-0 Cubs lead in Game 6 by several fans reaching for the ball. Bartman took the heat because he happened to touch the ball first, but there’s a legitimate question about whether Alou would have caught the ball anyway. In any case, the Florida Marlins went on to score eight runs to win the game, and ultimately both Game 7 and the subsequent World Series against the Yankees (who had dispatched the Red Sox in another epic series to complete the dismantling of what would have been a historical Red Sox vs. Cubs Fall Classic of baseball’s longest suffering teams; at the time, the Red Sox had gone without a title since 1918, the Cubs since 1908).
The fans quickly turned on Bartman, who had to be escorted to safety after beer, food and other objects were hurled in his direction. With hundreds of media outlets flashing Bartman’s face on TV (and the Chicago Sun-Times posting his name and personal information online), Bartman would be vilified by a city taking out 100 years of frustrations on one guy over a play that may not have been made anyway. The weight of the moment was so obvious at the time that a columnist sitting near Bartman tried to pass him his card with thoughts of doing a story about him.
Gibney’s enthralling documentary analyzes the key play with a level of detail worthy of the JFK assassination, before it starts to go overboard with the history of the biblical scapegoat.
This even extends to a bonus featurette in which a Yale professor breaks down the inning mathematically and places more blame for the loss on a botched double play later in the inning than on a catch that may or may not have happened. (Although, some visual effects trickery in the film remove the fans from the image and suggest Alou had sufficient trajectory to catch the ball.)
But what of those others reaching for the foul ball? As noted in a 180-page report by two lawyers trying to prove fan interference should have been employed to call the batter out on that play, the most prominent fan in the video is Pat Looney. Had the wind not been blowing as hard, it may have been Looney, and not Bartman, who earned the ire of Cubs fans everywhere.
Gibney interviews several of the fans sitting near Bartman (Looney included), but not the man himself. Bartman has turned down six-figure appearance fees to maintain his privacy, while the guy who finally picked up the ball sold it for more than $100,000 to be blown up by Harry Caray’s restaurant. The remains were then boiled to create steam used in a special pasta sauce.
While baseball has a unique ability to crush fans’ hearts in mere moments, it is also a unique quality of sports that one championship can wipe away decades of heartache. The Red Sox championships in 2004 and 2007 lightened the load on Buckner. But the Cubs burden has now extended into its second century, which means Bartman could be waiting a long time before Cubs fans let him off whatever imaginary hook they’ve unfairly hung him on.