Like longtime Red Sox fan and sports commentator, Bill Simmons, I’ve always been a skeptic when it comes to sports curses. Living in Atlanta as a kid, my sports memories are more shaped by mediocre teams, incompetent management, and a little bad luck, but the idea of a sports curse always seemed more like a sidebar, a creative narrative to give a game or a team a little more flavor (although I briefly flirted with the idea of curses as a teenager when the Braves temporarily evicted then-mascot Chief Noc-a-homa from his perch in left field, and yes, in retrospect, I am fully aware that the whole concept of the chief was a little embarrassing) . But, despite Simmons’ claims that true Sox fans “never” talked about being cursed, it’s clear that these narratives have a tremendous amount of power, especially for those long-suffering fans who have never experienced the excitement of winning a World Series. Alex Gibney’s new documentary for ESPN, Catching Hell (IMDB), thoughtfully explores this terrain, asking questions about how these curse narratives develop and why they have such power.
Gibney’s film focuses on two of the more memorable moments in the history of sports curses, Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, in which Bill Buckner watched Mookie Wilson’s ground ball roll slowly between his legs, and Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, in which Cubs fan Steve Bartman reached for a foul pop-up, knocking it away from Cubs left-fielder Moises Alou. The latter play extended Luis Castillo’s at-bat and eventually led to the Marlins scoring eight runs. As Gibney points out, both events have taken on far more weight than they deserve. Buckner’s error likely never happens if Calvin Schiraldi doesn’t give up several ninth inning hits. In the 2003 NLCS, bad bullpen management by Dusty Baker and an error by shortstop Alex Gonzales also played a key role in the Cubs’ Game 6 loss. Gibney also points out that both events took place before the final games of their respective series, but that, for many fans, those final games had an air of inevitability: once the pivotal moment hit, the series was lost. But curses (or at least the narratives about them) defy logic. Once an iconic moment of futility or fate has been established, that image–whether of Buckner looking helplessly as the ball rolls away or of Bartman sitting impassively as thousands of fans boo him and chant “asshole” at him–seems to offer some kind of greater truth, an explanation for why the Sports Gods seem to be punishing a given team.
To explore how Bartman becomes the chief villain in the renewed narrative of Cubs futility, Gibney uses the massive archive of official and unofficial recordings of the game. As one of the game’s producers acknowledges, there were several cameras that captured the Bartman foul ball, and once he was identified as the “culprit,” he was incorporated more deeply into the narrative of the game. Fox broadcaster Steve Lyons, among others, acknowledge some culpability here. Although Lyons sought to deflect blame from Bartman (who hadn’t been identified by name at the time), he admits that incorporating the foul ball so deeply into the narrative of the game helped create the conditions in which Bartman became a villain for Cubs fans. Exacerbating the situation, fans outside the stadium on Waveland Avenue, who had come to celebrate a Cubs playoff victory, were watching the game on a TV and were reacting to the error, blaming the fan. Eventually, Bartman, who made an inviting target due to his bright green turtleneck, earphones, and impassive demeanor, was escorted out by security, with countless Cubs fans shouting threats and throwing objects at him.
To explain how Buckner and Bartman have become the objects of ire for their respective fan bases, Gibney, via an interview with Unitarian minister Kathleen C. Rolenz, resorts to the Biblical idea of “scapegoating,” in which an innocent goat is weighed down with the sins and mistakes of an entire village and is then cast out of that village, banishing those elements from the community. And with the Bartman narrative, scapegoating seems to offer a plausible explanation. The Cubs’ fans immediately turn on Bartman, a response that is only exacerbated when Bartman seems to shrink into his seat, and yet, as many of the fans who sat near Bartman acknowledge, they were also reaching for the foul ball. One fan even triumphantly holds up the ball after it bounces to him before being warned by a friend to sit down. Amateur footage of the bleachers at Wrigley Field seem to show fans turning immdiately, but rather than resignation, their response is shockingly hostile, a reaction that may have been cued by Moises Alou’s angry reaction. Since then, Bartman has virtually disappeared, with ESPN’s Wayne Drehs offering one of the few “public” moments when he stalks Bartman to a Chicago parking deck.
The “scapegoat” explanation is less convincing when it comes to Buckner, however. This may be due to the fact that the Red Sox have since won two World Series and to the fact that Buckner continued to play Boston in 1987, and then briefly in 1990. Like Simmons, Buckner regards the curse as an effect of the media, and when he talks about forgiveness, he doesn’t feel the need to forgive fans as much as he does the sports media that have replayed his clip for decades. Sure, Buckner once seemed like part of a constellation of players and managers who represented a long history of playoff frustration in Boston, but I’d imagine that Grady Little probably evokes more resentment at this point for Red Sox Nation for leaving Pedro in too long during another key game.
Significantly, the film’s obsessive focus on Bartman and Buckner also causes it to ignore other notorious curses. The Chief Noc-a-Homa curse was a mild diversion for Braves fans in the 1980s, one that allowed owners to complain about corporate greed when the chief’s “teepee” was displaced to add 150 extra seats in left field, but in the wake of the 1995 World Series, it’s pretty much long forgotten. Other teams have similar levels of futility and manage to avoid romantic notions of curses. Finally, the focus on baseball ignores the lesser known and somewhat allegorical Curse of the Detroit Lions, suggesting that Gibney chose examples that fit his “scapegoat” thesis while ignoring others.
With that in mind, I think there are several things to like about Gibney’s film. He’s clearly a sports fan, and his microscopic, almost obsessive, examination of these two pivotal sports moments–one review suggests that Gibney treats these moments like they are crime scenes–helps us to think about how they work and about how Steve Bartman, a lifelong Cubs fan, could be driven into a life of permanent seclusion, with one reporter describing him as the “J.D. Salinger of sports fans,” someone who cannot use a credit card for fear of being publicly identified. Gibney also recognizes the role that narrative plays in shaping our experience of sporting events. Stories of curses offer alternative explanations for why “we” don’t win. In addition, Gibney also subtly criticizes the sports media for perpetuating some of these storylines, in particular for making Bartman into a target for frustrated Cubs fans. Finally, as Christopher Campbell acknowledges, Catching Hell also conveys something about the ways in which sports fandom can descend into something resembling an angry mob during moments of frustration, and as Campbell observes, we need more attentive explorations of how sports fandom, in particular, works.
I do think the “scapegoat” explanation of the Bartman phenomenon works, to some extent, but even the documentary seems reluctant to use it as a full account for why he became so deeply vilified by Cubs fans, at least in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 collapse. But as an archive of two of the most discussed moments in baseball playoff history, Catching Hell offers some thoughtful reflections on the intersections between sports and entertainment.