Ten years ago tonight, the Cubs were five outs away from their first World Series appearance since 1945. Chicago led the Marlins 3-0 in the top of the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field, but the Cubs gave up eight runs in that inning to lose the game, and then blew an early 5-3 lead the next night to lose Game 7. In the 10 years since, they haven't won a single postseason game, and they haven't won a World Series title since 1908.
For many, the flashpoint of Chicago's 2003 collapse came on a foul ball hit by Florida second baseman Luis Castillo, which came down over the wall in shallow left field. Cubs left fielder Moises Alou leaped to catch it, but a fan in a black sweater, green turtleneck, Cubs cap, glasses and headphones -- who didn't notice Alou -- also went for the ball. It bounced away from both of them, of course, and landed in the seats. Before that half-inning was over, Chicago trailed by five runs. When the Cubs lost the series the next night, the Windy City had someone to blame.
But blaming the fan ignores several important facts. The first is that the Marlins had five hits in that inning, none of them by Castillo, who walked later in his fateful at-bat. Second, Chicago subsequently issued two intentional passes that also came around to score. Third, and most importantly, with runners on first and second and one out, and with the Cubs still up 3-1, shortstop Alex Gonzalez booted a sure out, an error that made five of the eight runs that Florida scored in the inning unearned. If there was a key moment in Chicago's eighth-inning collapse, it wasn't Steve Bartman knocking a foul ball away from Moises Alou, it was this:
I started my first baseball blog in August 2003 and wrote this about the game immediately after its conclusion:
The lingering image from all of this is the fan knocking the ball away from Alou, but, while that may have signaled to the baseball gods that the curse was on, the crucial mistake of the inning was the error by Gonazalez. Not only was it a routine play, but it very well could have been an inning-ending double play, despite the missed out on the foul ball. On the other hand, even if Alou catches Castillo's foul, if Gonzalez still makes his error, chances are the Marlins still tie the game.
Fan interference was not called on the Castillo foul because the umpire judged that the ball would have come down outside of the field of play, thus making it fair game for the fans. Had the fan reached into the field of play, the umpire could have called Castillo out. The unfortunate Cubs fan who attempted to catch the ball was quickly drenched in beer and pelted with other items by his fellow Cubs fans (some of whom also reached for the ball but didn't touch it). He left the stadium with a security escort. While what he did may have been foolish, it did not cost the Cubs the game. That rests on the shoulders of the Cubs pitchers and Gonzalez. It's one thing for a professional athlete to become a lifelong goat along the lines of Fred Merkle or Bill Buckner -- it's an occupational hazard -- but this poor fan technically did nothing wrong and very well may have to move if he maintains a residence in the area. It's a painful thing to see.
On [ESPN's] Baseball Tonight, Bobby Valentine . . . blam[ed Mark] Prior's meltdown on the length of the seventh-inning stretch (during which Bernie Mac surely angered the baseball gods by saying "let's hear it for the Champs" and singing "root root root for the Champs, Champs!") and the Cubs' run-scoring bottom of the seventh. Prior's a young pitcher who sat too long after throwing seven innings, claimed Valentine. It's possible that had something to do with his performance in the eighth, but it's the job of the Cubs coaching staff and Prior's catcher to detect that sort of thing and nip it in the bud by going to the 'pen. Otherwise, it's Prior's job to keep warm during those long layovers late in the game. That still doesn't explain [Kyle] Farnsworth giving up a three-run double to [Mike] Mordecai, or [Mike] Remlinger giving up an RBI single on his first pitch. And it doesn't explain Gonzalez's error.
It's unsettling to note that Mac died in August 2008 having never seen the Cubs win the NL pennant that he had prematurely bestowed on them, and that Prior, one of the brightest young stars in baseball in '03, threw his last major league pitch at the age of 25 in '06 due to a variety of arm injuries. Chicago manager Dusty Baker, who had seen his Giants suffer a similar collapse in Game 6 of the '02 World Series, also hasn't managed a team that has advanced in the playoffs since. And the Cubs have been swept in their only two subsequent postseason appearances, losing in the Division Series in '07 and '08.
Gonzalez, a Miami native, pops up occasionally as a television analyst and became a certified player agent last year, but he has otherwise been forgotten, due in part to the fact that the other starting shortstop in that game was also named Alex Gonzalez and remained active through this season. The player who hit the ball that Gonzalez booted, and who later scored the go-ahead run for Florida, meanwhile, was a 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera.
As for Bartman, though the Cubs didn't win Game 7, he didn't have to move. Instead, he took control of his unfortunate baseball legacy by refusing to participate in it. Bartman apologized to his fellow Cubs fans in a statement released the next day, which remains his only public act since. Despite many lucrative offers, he has never given an interview, and he has never appeared on camera since leaving Wrigley Field with a security escort that night.