New perspective

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

If you read this column regularly, you probably know that I am a long-suffering, incurable fan of the Chicago Cubs.

Of course, it seems as if 35 percent of the American population is a Cubs fan these days, but many of them havenít earned that title. Itís easy to jump on the bandwagon when a team is winning, not so much when you follow a team for more than 30 years without a World Series appearance.

I fell in love with the Cubs in the early 1980s, when I discovered their games on cable television during summer vacation. There were no lights at Wrigley Field in those days, so every Cubs home game was played during the day. For a baseball-obsessed 11-year old, there wasnít much cooler than getting to watch a major league game at 1:30 in the afternoon on a Wednesday.

Of course, the Cubs broke my heart over and over again before they finally broke through and won the World Series last October. Two moments of agony stand out: blowing a two-game advantage in a best-of-five National League Championship Series against the San Diego Padres in 1984 and losing the 2003 NLCS to the then-Florida Marlins after the infamous incident involving Steve Bartman.

Both of those series became newsworthy, in a sense, over the past few days. In a way, my perspective on both incidents has changed.

First, the 1984 loss to the Padres. Of course, I despised the entire San Diego team but no one more so than first baseman Steve Garvey. He delivered some key hits for the Padres but my most vivid memory is the smug look on his face as he flipped the ball back to the pitcher after the second out in the ninth inning of the final game. Years later, I was a sports editor in Pine Bluff when Garvey came to town to participate in a home run derby where he lost to former Cubs relief pitcher Steve Trout. Poetic justice.

But what I didnít know at the time was how Garvey responded to an incident off the field. According to a report I saw Sunday on ESPN, female sportswriter Claire Smith was barred from the Padresí locker room after Game 1 at Wrigley Field. When he found out, Garvey left the locker room and sought out Smith to help give her the information she needed to do her job. Iím still upset about what Garvey and the Padres did to the Cubs, but I have a new respect for Garvey as a man.

Nineteen years after the agony of 1984, I discovered a new level of baseball hell. The 2003 Cubs were a legitimate World Series-caliber team led by probably the best pitching staff in baseball. And with a 3-2 lead over the Marlins in the NLCS, the Cubs were one game away from reaching the World Series. They led Game 6 3-0 with one out in the eighth inning when Luis Castillo hit a fly ball toward foul territory in left field. As Cubs left fielder Moises Alou attempted to catch the ball, Bartman reached for the ball and deflected it. Alou was furious, and when the Marlins scored eight runs in the inning, Bartman became the most hated man in Chicago. Security ushered him out of Wrigley Field in a makeshift disguise and he has never spoken publicly about the incident. He apparently has never returned to Wrigley Field, either, although he reportedly remains a die-hard Cubs fan.

On Monday, the Cubs organization privately presented Bartman with a 2016 World Series ring, a move that hopefully will end Bartmanís self-imposed exile and close the book on an ugly chapter in Cubs history.

At the time of the incident, I was angry with Bartman. But the fact is, he was just a scapegoat. The Cubs lost that game because they fell apart defensively, not because Bartman deflected a foul ball that would have been difficult for Alou to catch even without interference.

Hopefully, Bartman will be back at Wrigley Field soon to enjoy the Cubsí newfound success. Like a lot of real Cubs fans, he has paid his dues.