It was All Just a Bad Dream

April 04, 2011
April 04, 2011

Table of Contents
April 4, 2011


It was All Just a Bad Dream

Bartman never interfered, Alou made the catch, and the Cubs won the National League pennant and went to the 2003 World Series


This is an article from the April 4, 2011 issue

OCT. 14, 2003, 10:15 P.M.

Five outs. Five outs between the most star-crossed franchise in major league sports and a chance to end a record of futility that stretched back almost a century. For most of the 39,577 fans jammed into the 89-year-old ballpark, the unseasonably warm afternoon—57° in mid-October—was a promise that this time would be different. This time, unlike all those other times, the fates had decreed that the Chicago Cubs would be spared the near misses, the heartbreak, the despair.

Look what had brought them to this point: Far from repeating the swoons of 1969 and '73, the Cubs had won the National League Central Division by sweeping a doubleheader against the Pirates on the next-to-last day of the regular season. Rather than duplicate the postseason catastrophe of 1984—in which they lost three straight games and a World Series ticket after leading the Padres 2--0—they had won the Division Series 3--2 by defeating the Braves in their own house on a masterful performance by Kerry Wood. And now, in the League Championship Series, the Cubs led the Marlins three games to two after dropping the opener, an 11-inning 9--8 nail-biter, then crushing the Marlins in Game 2 and going to Miami and winning two straight. Even a Marlins victory in Game 5, a two-hit shutout by that kid Josh Beckett, had been good news of a kind. It meant the Cubs would win the National League pennant in Chicago.

And they were going to win it. Mark Prior, the 6'5", 225-pound boy wonder with the 18--6 record and 2.43 ERA, was throwing a three-hit shutout, as dominant as he'd been against Atlanta when he outpitched Greg Maddux with a two-hit complete game. Prior, who had just turned 23, was getting stronger as the game went on, setting the Marlins down 1-2-3 in the sixth and seventh. He induced a fly out to leftfield to lead off the eighth, but then centerfielder Juan Pierre broke the string with a double. Not to worry; Prior had two strikes on second baseman Luis Castillo.

Castillo was tenacious, though, staying alive through seven pitches. Then he sent the eighth twisting down the leftfield line, near the seats, a sure foul, but leftfielder Moises Alou told himself, I can get it, I can get it....

He was 26 years old, a Notre Dame graduate who worked as a human resources consultant, resided with his parents in Chicago's northern suburbs but lived and died with the Cubs. As a boy on school breaks he had gone with his parents to visit the team at its spring training home in Mesa, Ariz. Tonight he was sitting in aisle 4, row 8, seat 113, the seat angled away from leftfield toward home plate but flush against the wall. A glance to his left and he would have seen Alou racing right toward him, but Steve Bartman wasn't watching Alou, he was watching the flight of the ball, and he was doing what generations of baseball fans have done: risking life, limb and wardrobe for a chance to catch a piece of history. There were other arms stretching out, but Bartman was right there against the wall, reaching up as Alou strained to make the critical second out....

For Tadeusz (Taj) Pulaski, it was sheer instinct. Or maybe it was three generations' worth of muscle memory. Pulaski was a 37-year-old usher at Wrigley Field, assigned to the leftfield club boxes. He had spent most of his working life in the ballpark. His grandfather, Kasimierz, had been a hot dog vendor at Wrigley back in 1945, when Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, was told by Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley that he couldn't bring his pet goat into the park for Game 4 of the World Series because the animal's aroma was too powerful, and Sianis supposedly responded, "The Cubs ain't gonna win no more. The Cubs will never win a World Series so long as the goat is not allowed in Wrigley Field." Taj's father, Boleslaw, worked the turnstiles and told him bedtime stories about the day in 1969 that Mets fans at Shea Stadium let a black cat onto the field, the cat crossed in front of Cubs third baseman Ron Santo in the on-deck circle and then ran straight into the Chicago dugout, and Chicago then blew a nine-game Eastern Division lead. Taj himself was four years into his job at Wrigley when the Cubs lost the last three games of the '84 NLCS. So when he saw Castillo's foul drift toward the leftfield line, saw the sea of hands extended, saw the guy with the Cubs cap and the headphones reaching up, Pulaski leaped across the seats, grabbed Bartman around the waist and threw him into a nearby seat ... as the ball dropped into Alou's glove.

Prior struck out Pudge Rodriguez on three pitches to end the inning. He struck out Miguel Cabrera to open the ninth. He gave up a single to Derrek Lee. And then, with almost 40,000 fans on their feet, screaming, weeping, praying, Mike Lowell hit a wicked grounder to the left of second. Alex Gonzalez, the best fielding shortstop in the league, speared the ball and flipped it to Mark Grudzielanek, who stepped on second and threw to Eric Karros for the double play that put the Chicago Cubs in the World Series for the first time since 1945.

Bartman, briefly hospitalized with a fractured left wrist and a bruised cheekbone, laughed when asked if he would sue the Cubs. "I'd have taken a bullet for the team," he said. He and Pulaski appeared together on The Late Show with David Letterman, reading a list of Top Ten Secret Strategies to Beat the Yankees ("Number 6: When Yanks are at bat, block the base paths with squeegee men"), and Bartman was given tickets to the Series games at Wrigley in the same seat he'd occupied on that pennant-winning night.

"Forget the billy goats and black cats," Oprah Winfrey gushed on her show. "Bartman's our living, breathing good-luck charm."

Of course the Cubs would be playing the Yankees. It would make their redemption all the sweeter. "Hating the Yankees," Mike Royko had written two decades earlier, "is as American as pizza pie, unwed mothers and cheating on your income tax."

The Yankees and the Cubs were the yin and yang of postseason fortune. The Cubs' last World Series victory had come in the final days of the Roosevelt Administration—Theodore Roosevelt's. They had last won the pennant when U.S. troops were patrolling the streets of Berlin and Tokyo. And the Yankees? Since the Cubs' last World Series appearance, the Yankees had played in 24 Fall Classics and won 16 of them. This would be their sixth trip to the Series in eight years. They had earned it with another demonstration of the Curse of the Bambino, coming back from a four-run deficit in Game 7 of the ALCS to beat the Red Sox on an 11th-inning home run by Aaron Boone, one of New York's less-celebrated hitters.

When it came to head-to-head competition, the Yankees had swept the Cubs in '32, the year Babe Ruth "called his shot" by gesturing to centerfield and planting the next pitch on the other side of the wall. They swept the Cubs again in '38. So it was understandable that in New York City the Cubs were considered a minor inconvenience on the way to a 27th championship. (YANKS IN THREE! the New York Post bannered on its back page.)

Not that such disdain mattered to Chicago fans: They had Wood and Prior, two of the best pitchers in baseball. They had Sammy Sosa, with his 40 home runs and 103 RBIs; Grudzielanek, with his .314 average; and leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton, whose bat had found renewed life after a midseason trade from Pittsburgh.

Indeed, the end of the 58-year pennant drought had turned Chicago's perennial pessimists into believers infused with absolute certainty—and woe to anyone who questioned their faith. The day after the NLCS victory, a rising young politician (and devoted White Sox fan) with designs on the vacant Illinois U.S. Senate seat appeared on a local talk show and cheered on the Cubs. But during a commercial break he chatted with the host about the nature of Cubs fans and said, "I think they've become so bitter about all the frustrations that they cling to defeat almost as a matter of pride. I'd like to believe the Cubs can, but history says, 'No, they can't.'"

As it happened, the engineer at the station was a cousin of Rep. Bobby Rush, the man the young politician, Barack Obama, had unsuccessfully tried to unseat in the 2000 Democratic congressional primary. Within four hours the off-mike chat was in the hands of every Chicago radio and TV station. Within two days the flood of hostile calls and letters—not to mention protesters massed outside Obama's office chanting, "Yes, we can!"—had driven him out of the Senate race.

"Too bad," said New York senator Hillary Clinton. "With his talent, there's no telling how far he could have gone." (Five years later she would choose him to be an assistant attorney general in her presidential administration.)

On Oct. 16, 250,000 fans went to Midway International Airport to cheer the Cubs as they boarded their charter for New York. A group of their most famous fans, including Bill Murray, Jim Belushi and Roger Ebert, sang Steve Goodman's classic A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request with a new chorus:

We will march through the town as the Yankees go down

And the victory flag is unfurled

It's a century late, but it's well worth the wait

To be crowned as the CHAMPS—of the world!

It was going to be a highly unusual World Series. That was clear even before the first pitch was thrown.

As the last notes of the national anthem ended, all eyes turned toward centerfield, where a Yankee Stadium star was making an unexpected appearance. For four years a bald eagle named Challenger had marked the end of the anthem by flying from deepest centerfield to home plate. But 10 days earlier, spooked by the noise of an F-14 jet flyover, Challenger had lost his bearings and swooped low, almost colliding with Derek Jeter. The famous eagle had already booked an event that conflicted with the Series, but when the Chicago newspapers and sports radio outlets learned of Challenger's absence and began questioning New York's patriotism, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner told his staff, "I want the bird!"

Now Challenger took off, heading flawlessly toward home plate, past Bernie Williams, past Alfonso Soriano—but then, right before approaching David Wells on the pitcher's mound, the eagle wheeled and headed straight for the box seats just to the left of the Yankees' dugout. As dignitaries dived for cover, Challenger's handler, Al Cecere, raced from home plate to the box and lifted the bird off the head of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. "The governor's hair looks exactly like Challenger's nest," Cecere said at a postgame press conference. "He was just trying to go home."

Going home was more than the Yankees could do as the Cubs took away their home field advantage with a 4--1 victory in which Wood held the Bombers to six hits. When New York manager Joe Torre—known for his swift late-inning hook—was asked how he felt about Wood's complete game, he responded, "What's a complete game?" ("He was probably joking," Roger Angell would write in The New Yorker.)

The joy in Chicago was short-lived; the Yankees evened the Series with a 9--3 thumping behind Andy Pettitte's five-hit pitching and just the second two-homer game of Williams's season, then took home field advantage back when Mike Mussina's four-hitter and a six-RBI outburst from Hideki Matsui gave the Yankees a 7--3 victory at Wrigley.

Game 4 would define the Series. And it was in Game 4 that one of the sport's most commanding figures took center stage.

It wouldn't have happened in Miami, where the challenges of the climate are heat, humidity and rain. In Chicago, however, there is the Hawk, a vicious wind that can chill the bones and freeze the soul—and profoundly affect the flight of a pitched ball. And on the night of Wednesday, Oct. 22, the Hawk was flying.

Those who had followed the career of Roger Clemens might be forgiven for believing he would not notice even if a hurricane were blowing the fans out of the upper deck. He was a study in overwhelming intensity: the 6'4", 205-pound frame, the relentless stare, the obsessive focus that reduced the universe to a 60-foot, 6-inch path between the mound and home plate. Now, after 300 wins and 4,000 strikeouts, the 41-year-old Clemens had announced that 2003 would be his last season. Game 4 of this Series would in all likelihood be the last game he ever pitched—a fact the Wrigley fans recognized when they gave him a sustained standing ovation as he walked to the mound.

The affection lasted all the way to the third pitch of the game—when Clemens, notorious for keeping batters off the inside of the plate, threw a 94-mph fastball and a gust from the Hawk altered his rhythm by a fraction, causing the ball to pass an inch away from Lofton's chin.

Clemens insisted later that the pitch was supposed to have been low and a bit inside. ("If I'd been aiming for Kenny," he said, "he'd have known it.") But, as every fan knew—and a not-so-instant replay reminded viewers—there was a history: Clemens had beaned Mets catcher Mike Piazza in an interleague game back in 2000 and then, in that year's World Series, retrieved a piece of a broken bat and hurled it toward Piazza as the catcher was running toward first base.

Now, with the Chicago fans howling almost as fiercely as the Hawk, Clemens lost focus just enough to walk Lofton. Then Grudzielanek, with an 0-and-2 count, lunged at a wasted pitch and dropped it just over the head of first baseman Jason Giambi. Sosa was up next, and he put Clemens's first pitch over the leftfield wall. As Sosa crossed the plate, Torre trotted out to the mound, to be met by a glare that would have stopped a freight train. After a few words the manager went back to the dugout—and Clemens struck out the next two men ... and all three Cubs in the second ... and all three in the third. And for the next five innings he turned in one of the most memorable pitching performances in World Series history.

By the bottom of the eighth Clemens had struck out 14 men. Then, in the top of the ninth, with one out and the bases loaded, Ruben Sierra's sinking line drive landed just under Sosa's glove in rightfield and rolled all the way to the wall, and the game was tied.

In the dugout Torre was sitting next to Clemens, gesturing, apparently beseeching. Clemens was just as furiously shaking his head. And when the Yankees' half of the inning ended, with the score tied 3--3, it was Clemens, with 115 pitches that night, going out to the mound to a prolonged, emotional ovation, a final salute to the human spirit triumphing over age. But when Clemens opened the inning by walking pinch hitter Eric Karros, Torre headed out of the dugout, shoulders hunched as if leaning into a wind fiercer than the Hawk, and beckoned to the bullpen. The cameras, tight on Clemens's face, captured his state of pure rage. As he stalked off the mound, he hurled his glove—in frustration, he later insisted—and it missed Torre's head by a few inches.

Thus began the first intrateam brawl in World Series history, as the manager rushed his own pitcher. After a brief scuffle Giambi, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada and four security guards dragged the flailing Clemens to the dugout as he repeatedly yelled, "That f---ing wind! That f---ing wind!"

It was left to Mariano Rivera to snuff out the Cubs and then lead off the 10th with the first hit of his baseball career, score on a Jeter home run and set the Cubs down in order, giving the Yankees a lead of three games to one. (Clemens, suspended for the remainder of the Series by commissioner Bud Selig, never pitched again, but he of course found a new career when he teamed up with Suzanne Somers to produce their hugely successful book and video, Forever Ageless—Keeping Your Hormones Healthy.)

WE CAN DO IT! screamed the back page of the Sun-Times, proclaiming a sentiment almost no true Cubs fan believed. But the next day Yankees starter Wells, famous for his disdain for conditioning, reared up in agony and left the game after the first inning with crippling back spasms. His replacement, Jose Contreras, surrendered five runs over the next four innings. And when the Series returned to New York, fate once again blessed the perennial losers. Carlos Zambrano limited the Yankees to five hits, while Sosa and Gonzalez hit two homers each off Pettitte, and when the game ended Chicago had a 6--1 victory—and the World Series between the most and least successful major league teams had come down to a single game.

There hadn't been anything like it since March 1971, when Muhammad Ali met Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden for the heavyweight championship of the world. On the night of Sunday, Oct. 26, 2003, Yankee Stadium became the center of the known universe. All day, as an unseasonable warm front pushed the temperature to 68°, fans and onlookers gathered around the stadium. Outside gate 4, Freddy (Freddy Sez) Schuman, the 78-year-old fan who roamed the park banging a good-luck pan and brandishing homemade signs (FREDDIE SEZ MAKE IT 96 YEARS!), was posing for pictures. Scalpers were asking $1,500 for a bleacher seat—and getting it.

Inside the Stadium Club, Rudolph Giuliani, Billy Crystal, Puff Daddy, Regis Philbin, Dan Rather and dozens of other boldface names gathered for sirloin tips, tuna carpaccio and p√¢té. A thousand miles away more than 40,000 Cubs loyalists were sitting in Wrigley Field, where they had paid $20 each to watch the game on a JumboTron in centerfield. It was a crisp, clear night, with temperatures at a reasonable 35°—a good sign, a portent, the fans were sure.

By game time the fervor in Yankee Stadium was measured by a calculus familiar to New Yorkers: how early the national anthem was drowned out by cheers. On this night the clapping and cheering began just as Robert Merrill was singing "by the dawn's early light." By the time he had reached the final "Oh, say," more than 55,000 fans were chanting a taunt left over from the days when the New York Rangers were seeking to end their half-century drought: "NINE-teen OH-Eight For-EVER, NINE-teen-OH-Eight For-EVER...."

The cheers only grew louder when Mussina walked to the mound and threw a nine-pitch 1-2-3 inning. But when Prior struck out the side in the bottom of the first, the cheering ebbed. And for the next two hours the noise waxed and waned rhythmically as Mussina and Prior pitched 7½ innings of shutout ball.

Then, in the bottom of the eighth, with two out and the bases empty, Jeter took a high, outside fastball and lined it four feet inside of the rightfield foul pole. "You can feel the Stadium literally shaking!" said Fox analyst Tim McCarver as Jeter rounded the bases and the crowd chanted, "DER-ek JEE-ter!" The chanting continued even as Jason Giambi flied out to end the inning.

Everyone knew what was coming next, not least the shocked patrons a thousand miles away at the Cubby Bear, across the street from Wrigley. As the Yankees took the field, the P.A. blared the ominous first notes of Metallica's Enter Sandman, and Rivera, the greatest closer in baseball history, jogged to the mound, bringing with him that devastating one-pitch repertoire—a cut fastball—as well as a postseason-record 29 saves and an ERA of 0.70.

"Mariano is as close to perfect as any reliever who has ever played the game," Joe Buck said, "but he is human."

"And here's the proof," McCarver said as Fox played a tape of the end of Game 7 of the 2001 Series, in which Rivera, with a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth, gave up a single, committed a throwing error and then gave up a double and the game-winning bloop single over the drawn-in infield that gave the Series to the Diamondbacks.

More than a few Yankees fans recalled that grim moment as the Cubs' leadoff hitter, Grudzielanek, walked on a pitch that just missed—or just hit—the outside corner. Posada ripped off his mask to snap a few words at umpire Ed Rapuano, and now a palpable uneasiness rippled through the park: Sosa was at the plate, with 332 home runs in the previous six years, 103 RBIs this year alone. The slugger worked the count to 2 and 1 ... and then skied a pop foul that third baseman Aaron Boone calmly put away.

"Shades of Yaz in '78!" McCarver said. "And now Posada's really going at it with Rapuano!" Indeed, the Yankees' catcher, still fuming over the leadoff walk, was nose-to-nose with the home plate umpire. Torre sprinted from the dugout and grabbed Posada by the shoulder. "Back off," lip readers saw Torre say. "We can't lose you now." Posada spun away—and banged into the chest of Rapuano, who threw his thumb in the air. Posada had been ejected.

No one could say for certain that Posada's expulsion was the cause of what happened next. John Flaherty, a 12-year veteran with more than 950 games under his belt, had appeared in 40 games with the Yankees in the regular season, but he hadn't caught Rivera much—a fact that became evident when Rivera repeatedly shook off his new catcher, then called him out to the mound ... and finally, with his first pitch, hit the batter, Alou, something he had done only four times the entire season.

For any bred-in-the-bone Yankees fan this was no real cause for alarm. Rivera would keep the ball low, maybe even get Aramis Ramirez to hit into a double play that would end it. And in fact Rivera's first two pitches were nasty, down at the knees and just nicking the inside corner.

"Not to note the unlikely, if not impossible," McCarver said, "but Ramirez did hit three home runs in six games against the Marlins."

Rivera's next pitch was just as low, but this time it was aimed at the outside corner. The righthanded Ramirez swung, and the ball headed down the rightfield line, hit not very hard at all, but the fence was only 314 feet away, and rightfielder Karim Garcia was shaded toward center, playing Ramirez to pull, and now the ball was falling into the seats tucked just inside the foul pole—a home run as unimpressive as Dusty Rhodes's 10th-inning, 296-foot pinch-hit homer for the Giants in Game 1 of the '54 Series. But it put the Cubs up 3--1, and after Rivera set down Simon and Karros, the Cubs took the field for the bottom of the ninth.

Three outs. Three outs, and 95 years of pain would disappear. Three outs, and the Second City would be second—or fifth or last—no more.

At the Billy Goat Tavern the kitchen doors were thrown open so patrons could stare and cheer as a goat—the first and most enduring of Cubs curses—slowly roasted on a spit. At Wrigley the crowd was standing, cheering, weeping. In the owner's box at Yankee Stadium, a red-faced Steinbrenner was screaming at general manager Brian Cashman after summarily firing a steward who had been slow to fetch a drink.

In the stands 55,773 fans—most of them, anyway—were chanting "NINE-teen OH-eight for-EVER!" but it had the ring of desperation. Prior, striding out to the mound, had given the Yankees nothing save Jeter's home run.

Williams, as beloved as any Yankee, led off. But Williams had lost something—his batting average had dropped 70 points that season—and after he swung and connected on Prior's second pitch, a ball that might have sailed into the Yankees' bullpen a year or two earlier fell into Sosa's glove just on the edge of the warning track.

One out, bases empty.

Matsui was luckier than Williams. "The most popular Japanese import since Sony," as one sportswriter called him, stroked the first pitch into the hole between third and short, where it took a hop just over Gonzalez's glove. Then it was Curtis Pride's turn; pinch-hitting for Flaherty to create a lefty-righty matchup, he punched an opposite-field single to left.

One out, men on first and second.

And Jason Giambi was up: 41 homers and 107 RBIs for the season, three home runs against the Red Sox and another one against the Cubs in the postseason. With a 1-and-0 count Giambi unleashed a monstrous uppercut swing ... and the ball dribbled slowly, slooowwly down the first base line. Only Giambi's speed—his lack of it, that is—permitted Prior to retrieve the ball in time to nip the runner at first.

Two out, men on second and third.

Robin Ventura went up to pinch-hit. Cubs manager Dusty Baker trotted out to the mound and conducted as brief a conference as any manager ever had: all of eight seconds. When he left, Prior—despite Ventura's mediocre hitting that year—intentionally walked the batter.

Two outs, bases loaded.

In one sense it was a cardinal violation of baseball protocol: You do not put the winning run on base. By another measure it was a shrewd move, setting up a force at any base; and the Yankees were out of lefthanded hitters. The Series would be left to Boone, the man who had hit the Game 7 home run against the Red Sox but had gone only 3 for 21 against the Cubs.

Boone took the first pitch: belt-high, on the outside corner. Strike one.

Boone took the next pitch: shoulder-high, down the middle. Ball one.

On the third pitch Boone swung. And connected. But from the sound of the ball meeting the bat, it was evident: He had missed the sweet spot. The ball rose in a lazy arc toward centerfield, a can of corn.

As Lofton, waving his arms with joy, moved toward the ball ...

... and the three Yankees base runners, heads down, began running ...

... and the fans at Wrigley poured out of the stands onto the field ...

... and Steinbrenner reached for the red phone, the hotline to the Yankees dugout, and screamed at Torre, "You're fired!" ("Hey, I like the sound of that," said his guest Donald Trump) ...

... and Lofton settled under the ball ...

... and suddenly a rumble was heard overhead, a sound deeper and louder than any clap of thunder anyone had ever heard ...

... and a flash brighter than a dozen suns lit up the night as a bolt of lightning tore out of the sky, striking the turf inches from where Lofton stood and sending the centerfielder flying as the ball dropped to the ground ...

... and as Ventura crossed the plate with the Yankees' winning run, a voice powerful enough to shake the foundations of the stadium, a voice beyond anything mortal yet with a timbre strikingly similar to that of Yankees announcer Bob Sheppard's, said:

"There are some things I do not leave to fate."

Jeff Greenfield is a senior political correspondent for CBS News.His latest book is Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan (Putnam).