Here’s how the Internet rabbit hole works. I get recommended a classic Bernie Mac standup, where he comes out to a hostile crowd and says “I ain’t scared of you...” well the next word can’t really be printed here, but needless to say never has a crowd been won over faster. This leads me to Bernie Mac’s Wikipedia page. I read some of his page, find out he sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, and replaced “Cubbies” with “champs.”
The Cubs were winning that game 2-0 at the time and some superstitious Cubs fans think he jinxed the Cubs. Which would be music to Bernie Mac’s ears, a diehard White Sox fan. Anyway, out of curiosity, I search to see if I could find that, and that led me to Steve Bartman. Because it was THAT game. Naturally, I found the entire top of the 8th inning completely on Youtube, commercials and all.
And that, folks, is how I’m writing about Game 6 of the NLCS in 2003, otherwise known as “the Bartman game.” And the reason I’m writing about it, aside from not having anything else to write about, is that about halfway through watching this inning, I thought “I need to write about this.” I HAVE SOME THOUGHTS.
And yes, I’m not even pretending this has anything to do with the Cardinals, I have literally nothing else to write about, and I could blame it on the fact that the Cubs are the Cards rival and that’s the relevancy, but if I happened to stumble onto the Buckner game, I’d probably write 2,000 words about that.
It’s been said before, but I cannot stress enough how true it is. It’s incredible how little at fault Steve Bartman is for what transpired. And I don’t mean in terms of trying to catch the baseball, like “any fan would try to catch that.” Any fan around him certainly would and tried. But no, not every fan tries to catch that. In a regular season game, if a ball is headed towards me and I even suspect that a fielder might catch it, I’m going to let that baseball hit me in the face before I try to catch it. Game 6 of the NLCS? I might run away.
No I mean if you actually look at what happened. I count three Cubs players, Dusty Baker, seven Marlins hitters, and the Cubs fans themselves as responsible for that 8th inning. And then Bartman. Since the Cubs fans acted like a mob, it’s probably fair to count them as one, so I guess Bartman is 13th most at fault for the 8th inning. And yet the only thing anybody, myself included, calls this game is the Bartman game. So unfair. In order of fault:
#1 Alex Gonzalez
Forget Bartman. This should be known as the Alex Gonzalez game. He pulled a Bill Buckner! He botched an easy groundball - hell I’m pretty sure it was even easier than Buckner’s. Seriously, how did this guy escape criticism? Did Bartman magically make him forget how to field? This dude should send Bartman a gift every year of his life. Somehow, by some miracle, this dude pulled a Merkle’s Boner and nobody freaking remembers it!
To recap by the way, ignoring the context of when it happened, Miguel Cabrera hit a ready made double play ball directly to Alex Gonzalez. There were men on first and second base, and there was one out. A successful double play ends the inning, the Cubs get to bat in the bottom of the 8th with a 3-1 lead. The Cubs crowd calms down and they probably win and go to the World Series. Instead, he botches the play, ups the anxiety and frustration of the Cubs and the loss becomes inevitable. He should have been the scapegoat. Instead, he is bewilderingly a footnote.
#2 Dusty Baker
I say this having not analyzed any other Dusty Baker games, nor watched any other inning of this game aside from how he managed the top of the 8th in this game. But I would say with a fair degree of confidence that this is the worst managed game of his life. It has to be the worst managed inning he ever had.
For starters, the obvious: he left Prior in too long. That almost goes without saying. The announcer mentioned he threw 116 pitches in his last game, and in his previous three games he threw over 130 pitches. I know what you’re thinking: 2003. This was the norm. Not exactly. The announcer also mentioned Prior threw more pitches per game than anybody else in baseball. Prior didn’t throw an MLB inning past 25 despite having a 7.8 WAR season at 22.
But that’s a separate discussion. He comes into the inning with 95 pitches. 7 IP, 3 hits, 6 Ks, 2 BBs, no earned runs. Completely fair for him to come back out for the 8th. I wouldn’t have a problem with an 8 win pitcher coming back out in 2022 with that line with those pitches, in 2003 he may have been fired on the spot if he took him out. He falls behind Mike Mordecai, gets away with a pitch because Mordecai was a 51 wRC+ hitter in 2003. He then falls behind Juan Pierre, who makes him throw six pitches before hitting a double down the line.
He’s now got 105 pitches. This is where, modern day me, takes him out. I accept most 2003 managers do not. No criticism yet. Then the infamous fan interference. Which was actually on pitch #8 of Luis Castillo’s plate appearance. Pitch #9 was a wild pitch and a walk. Any reasonable person is taking him out at this point, I’d think. He’s allowed a double and a walk and has 114 pitches. He stays in, throws a hanger to Pudge Rodriguez, gets away with it, but on 0-2, Rodriguez lines a single to score the first run. Stays in. Then the Alex Gonzalez error. That was a first pitch. I suppose if you keep him in after Rodriguez, one more pitch and an error is not a reason to take him out. But then Derrek Lee lines a double.
He brings in Kyle Farnsworth and then... intentionally walks Mike Lowell to load the bases. This makes a certain kind of sense. Lowell was a 128 wRC+ hitter that year. He didn’t strike out a lot, he hit a lot of flyballs, and Jeff Conine was a 109 wRC+ hitter. Out at any base, double play ball is in order. Conine hits a sac fly, does his job, gives the Marlins the lead. Sammy Sosa makes a very poor decision to throw home - I get why, he had no shot at throwing him out though - and the runners advance to 2nd and 3rd.
Dusty then intentionally walked pinch-hitter Todd Hollandsworth. This is 100% a stupid move. There are two outs, and Hollandsworth was a below average hitter that year. Yes the on deck hitter, Mordecai, was a bad hitter, like really bad hitter, but at a certain point you got to stop giving the other team free bases. Mordercai cleared the bases with a double, and a pitching change later, Pierre drove in another run. Two of the eight runs were intentional walks, which takes the game from “maybe we can come back” to “out of reach.”
#3 Cubs fans
This is one of those things you can’t prove. There is simply never going to be enough evidence, because it doesn’t happen often enough. But I firmly believe the Cubs collapse was contributed by the entire mood of Cubs fans shifting. They collectively sort of transferred this anxiety, this history of losing, the idea that they would blow it, onto the players. It’s a 3-0 game, in the 8th inning of a game that sends you to the World Series and people are booing. Loudly. A minute earlier, you could tell they were about to go the World Series. You’d have no clue how close they were based on the crowd noise after the Bartman play. And it was just a foul ball.
Like obviously this is hindsight talking and I did watch the game at the time, but I was a little too young for the memory to stick out real well, but just watching the replay, you can feel the Cubs are going to collapse. And when Alex Gonzalez boots the ball later in the inning, you know they aren’t going to the World Series even though they still have a Game 7 if they lose.
#4 Moises Alou
It was a toss-up between Cubs fans and Alou at #3 for me, and ultimately I chose Cubs fans because I don’t blame Alou. His response was a gut reaction. I don’t think he could control his reaction to that moment. But if didn’t flip his lid, alerting the entire stadium that some injustice has just occurred, it’s possible the mood of the stadium doesn’t shift. I’d venture to say that most of the fans at the stadium wouldn’t have been able to see that Bartman blocked the path of the ball into the glove. They just saw Alou’s reaction.
As far as the Cubs players are concerned, I don’t blame Prior. He was left out to dry. Not only should have been taken out of the game earlier, his teammates failed him. He would have gotten out of the 8th if Alex Gonzalez could field the ball. Prior struck out 28.4% of batters that year, and especially after Castillo, it did not look he was capable of striking anyone else out. (Castillo was not an easy strikeout to be fair, especially in 2003)
Both Farnsworth and Sosa deserve some blame for letting the game get out of hand, but the game was over when they made their mistakes. At a time when they badly needed a strikeout, Farnsworth couldn’t do it. And I realize throwing out the guy at home would have kept the game tied, but seriously Sosa had zero shot at throwing out the runner. It caused the runners to go 2nd and 3rd and IBB Lowell. Lowell was actually terrible that postseason and was batting .167 at the time so they might get out of that inning if Dusty doesn’t IBB him with no open base.
As far the Marlins, both Pierre and Castillo deserve a lot of credit. They were very hard to strike out, and both made Prior throw 15 pitches and get zero outs after he was done with them. Pudge was all over Prior and even lined a single with an 0-2 count. Lee jumped on a hittable pitch to tie the game. Ironically, future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera is the one guy who didn’t actually do anything. He hit into an easy double play, just lucked into a terrible error from Gonzalez.
It’s just fascinating looking back and seeing everything that had to go wrong. But if you blame anyone for this, it’s definitely on Alex Gonzalez who ends the bad mojo the stadium had developed by fielding a simple groundball and executing a double play every shortstop makes easily. Instead, the World Series drought lasted a little longer.
Oh and if you’re interested, here’s the link to that inning. Again hindsight, but you can really tell Prior just doesn’t have much left in him watching it pitch-by-pitch.