Fair or foul?

Recently, ESPN Films released another documentary in their 30 for 30 series entitled “Catching Hell.”  The film retold two infamous events in baseball history, the 1986 Boston Red Sox with Bill Buckner’s failure to field a groundball during the World Series and the Bartman incident during the 2003 National League Championship Series (NLCS) between the Chicago Cubs and Florida Marlins.

The latter you probably remember while the former may be just old news.  The comparison between these instances is uncanny.  The hatred it caused for two people, one a fan and the other a player, shows how passion for a team can turn our society into the most ugly it can become.

Let’s go back and relive history for a second.  It’s game six of the 1986 World Series, Boston facing the New York Mets with Boston up three games to two.  The game went to extra innings with Boston scoring two runs in the top of the 10th.  In the bottom half, the Mets were able to score two runs to tie the game, chasing Red Sox pitcher Calvin Schiraldi, making then manager Jim McNamara use Bob Stanley.

What happens next is unthinkable.  A slowly hit ball up the first base line is coming towards first basemen Bill Buckner.  As he lowers his glove to make the play, his momentum takes him to his left, closing part of his glove and letting the ball travel through.  The Mets scored, the game was over and the Boston fans were shocked.

This shock would further be compounded with a loss in game seven and the continued fear of the curse on the Boston Red Sox.  This play may still haunt Red Sox fans today if it were not for the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox teams for winning the World Series.  However, the same cannot be said for Buckner.

The amount of hatred towards him from the fans forced him to leave the city and not return to the Red Sox nation until he threw out the first pitch of the 2008 season, after the second time the Red Sox won the championship.  Fans were cheering him then, but did not remember hurting him in the past.  His play in the 1986 World Series did not lose the entire team the championship, yet he and his family were hounded and shamed for his error.

This leads to the more recent incident in an even worse situation.  A fan, Steve Bartman, was unaware that a simple foul ball would change his life forever.

Like any other fan in the country would, Bartman reached out to catch a foul ball.  Little did he know outfielder Moises Alou, of the Cubs, was going for the ball as well.  This would have been the second out of the eighth inning, putting the Cubs four outs away from the World Series.  Instead, the Cubs would allow the Marlins to score eight runs in the very same inning and eventually lose the NLCS.

Bartman would be the scapegoat for the city, blaming all of their misfortunes on one single person.  How is this possible?  As Bartman was being escorted out of Wrigley Field, fans were throwing beer at him and yelling obscenities and threats to his face.  Would they have wanted the same happening to them?  Should we expect them to have understood that he did what every other fan would have done?

It is very difficult to play this role, looking back into recent history with a revisionist eye.  To say that the people of Chicago should have been more understanding is one thing, but should we, as a society that places so much meaning on sports, look every other Cub or Red Sox fan in the eye and expect them not to be angry?  Some fans have invested so much time, money and emotion that they are overwhelmed that the team they have supported for their life loses on another freak incident.

However, this should not be an excuse to pile blame upon an innocent person such as Bartman or Buckner.  The “what if” game could be played forever, but we would get nowhere.  There is no one to blame in any situation such as these because what did they do wrong?  Fans dream of catching a foul ball, much less one from a their favorite team in a playoff game.  Who wouldn’t want to play for the Red Sox, one of the most beloved sporting franchises in history?  We can only accept them for what they are, a game.

It is when we begin to combine our lives with teams.  When we begin to say “that’s my team” or “we won the game.”  Fans must be able to separate themselves in the instances mentioned above lest something they wouldn’t dream of happening come to fruition.

People watch sports for the enjoyment, excitement, heartbreak and camaraderie that let us travel far away from the realities of the week.  But if we begin to let the worlds bleed together, we begin to treat sports in a way it isn’t meant to be treated.