Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Scapegoats And Marathon Men

TigerBlog finally got a chance to watch the ESPN documentary "Catching Hell," which centers mostly on the Steve Bartman incident in Chicago while also spending considerable time talking about (and with) Bill Buckner, a great player for nearly two decades who is remembered mostly for letting a ball get between his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

Bartman - and TigerBlog is pretty sure that everyone reading knows who he is - was the unfortunate Cubs fan who, also in a Game 6 (this one in 2003, in the National League Championship Series, against the Florida Marlins), tried to catch a foul ball at the same time that Moises Alou was leaping up to grab it as well.

At the time, it was 3-0 Cubs, and they were five outs away from the World Series, up three games to two and with Mark Prior in the later stages of a dominating performance.

After that now-infamous moment, the Cubs surrendered eight runs before getting out of the inning. They lost Game 6 8-3 and then lost Game 7 (despite a 5-3 lead) and still have not won a World Series since 1908.

The Wrigley Field crowd turned on Bartman quickly, throwing things like beer and death threats at him in a quite casual fashion. Eventually, he had to be led out of the stadium, and his life has never been the same since.

He has become a national joke, a symbol of futility, for one baseball franchise - and for any endeavor anywhere. His ability to walk down the streets in Chicago without fearing for his life vanished forever that night in 2003.

Of course, on a scale of one to 100, his impact on the outcome of the 2003 NLCS was a zero.

The Cubs were up three games to one at one point before losing Game 4 in Florida, and there was of course the little matter of coughing up the eight runs after the fact in Game 6, not to mention blowing Game 7.

And yet it's Bartman who takes all the blame. And, by the way, there was an army of fans around Bartman who went after the ball at the same time.

Buckner's story is fairly similar.

Think about it. If Buckner fielded the ball and beat Wilson to the bag, the inning ends and the game continues into the 11th inning (Buckner's error came in the 10th). What guarantee does Boston have of winning? None. It's not like without Buckner's error, Boston wins the series.

The documentary was very, very good, but it left unanswered one question: Why did these two become such lasting scapegoats?

Maybe it's because of their enduring images, Buckner as he lets the ball roll between his legs, Bartman as he sits stone-faced, green turtleneck, Cubs' hat, earphones.

They looked like such easy targets, and so that's who everyone attacked.

Alex Gonzalez of the Cubs booted a sure double-play ball that would have gotten the Cubs out of the inning up 3-1 and likely into the World Series. It's one of the biggest choke plays in baseball history, way worse than Buckner's, and yet no one ever mentions it.

Bartman to this day remains largely invisible, though Wayne Drehs of Sports Illustrated apparently was able to find him relatively easily. The documentary doesn't quite address how much Bartman shows his face in Chicago these days, but it's clearly not a lot.

Steve Dolan, Princeton's men's cross country coach and assistant track and field coach, and Chris Brock, Princeton's Associate Athletic Director who oversees, well, money, both ran down the streets of Chicago over the weekend in broad daylight, without any of the Bartman-esque worries.

Instead, they were there for the Chicago Marathon, chosen because it is the flattest of the marathons.

Both did extraordinarily well, as Dolan finished in 3:01 and Brock in 3:37.

Brock said something along the lines of how it was fun before, fun for the first 20 miles, hell for the lax six miles and fun afterwards. Dolan said he felt great, great, great and then horrible for the last few miles.

TigerBlog cannot imagine running a marathon. The training that goes into it has to be incredible, and to be able to sustain a pace for 26.2 miles is amazing.

To finish in 3:01? Or 3:37? That's even more absurd.

TB just saw Dolan as he walked down the balcony to the mailroom, and it was clear that he was a tad sore this morning.

He should be fine in a few days, he said. That means he'll be fine in two weeks, when the Ivy League Heptagonal championships come to Princeton's cross country course.

Heps cross country is one of TB's favorite annual Ivy League events, and this year it won't require the drive to New York City.

Princeton's men are favored to repeat their championship of last year, while the women are one of the favorites, along with Columbia and Yale, to win yet again as well.

It will be a great event, and it's right before the Princeton-Cornell football game, so there's no excuse to miss it.

TigerBlog is not a runner, but he appreciates what they go through to excel at it. Or in some cases just to finish in their best time ever.

And he certainly appreciates how much they have to push themselves to get across the line after a grueling cross country race.

Let alone a marathon.


Anonymous said...

I think the point of the "Catching Hell" documentary is that there is a human need to blame somebody -- anybody -- for bad fortune. There were plenty of contributors to both the Red Sox and Cubs losses, but assigning broad blame to multiple targets is not psychologically satisfying for fans. No, people want to say, "It's Buckner's/Bartman's fault. He alone caused my unhappiness."

I've always believed that the reason most people become sports fans is to experience achievement vicariously. The vitriol directed at Buckner and Bartman says a lot about what fans who are emotionally invested in that vicarious achievement feel when it's taken away from them. They need to find somebody to hate.

Anonymous said...

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