While those of you who love tidy endings continue to feel good about the Cubs’ bestowal of a World Series ring upon Steve Bartman, I’d like to ask a question:
If a fan reacted to a foul ball today in the same way and under the same circumstances as Bartman did 14 years ago, how would he or she be treated?
Answer: The way Steve Bartman was treated. With hatred. With bile. With a scapegoating frenzy that has been around since time immemorial.
Never again? Dream on.
The problem is — what’s the word? — people. People can be very, very small. When small people gather in large groups, whether in a ballpark or on Twitter, they feel empowered by the shared anger and what they think is a shared anonymity. They act out. Often their rage is about something other than what they think they’re mad about. The resentment might stem from their lot in life. The same instinct that makes rioters set cars on fire after a loss in a championship game is the same instinct that made people turn on someone who tried to catch a foul ball in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field.
What would have happened if a Cubs fan had made a Bartman-like lunge for a ball in Game 6 of the NLCS last season against the Dodgers? Good Lord. I picture a mob carrying the guilty party to Graceland Cemetery for an immediate live burial.
The idea that the shameful treatment of Bartman in 2003 and beyond somehow has changed human behavior is ludicrous. Social media was in its infancy 14 years ago. Facebook and Twitter weren’t even around yet. The ability to pile on has grown exponentially. Is there anything in the ugliness of social media that suggests sports fans have become gentler? No. Just the opposite.
On Monday, the Cubs said they had given Bartman a 2016 World Series ring. The team apparently is trying to right a wrong, but it’s a wrong that can’t be righted. The bullet can’t be put back in the barrel. Bartman has lived a mostly hidden life for 14 years. A ring can’t bring back those years. A ring can’t rid the world of the losers who abused him, and it can’t stop them from reproducing.
Bartman said in a statement that his ‘‘hope is that we all can learn from my experience to view sports as entertainment and prevent harsh scapegoating.’’ After the venom that was sent his way, he surely knows one gesture from a baseball team, no matter the motive behind it, won’t change how people act the next time.
To this day, there remains a debate about whether Bartman’s attempt to catch a foul ball in front of left fielder Moises Alou was A) an innocent, natural reaction that most people would have or B) a baseball sin that no clear-thinking fan would commit. The answer, by the way, is A. The debate continues, which tells me that nothing has changed and that, in the heat of an important game, people again would turn on any poor slob who puts his hand out.
Alou’s angry reaction to the play was the spark that lit the mob. It was clear almost immediately that Bartman had no chance going forward. That’s the other thing about human behavior in sports: Fans always will side with whomever they perceive to be the more important party. If Alou was mad, then they were going to be mad. If Alou thought it was Bartman’s fault, then thousands of doting Cubs fans were going to think the same thing.
The embers are still there 14 years later. Bartman wants to live in peace, but his life changed the moment the crowd — inside the ballpark and out — directed its rage at him. The same will be true for the next victim who has to go into seclusion. A World Series ring doesn’t hide a scarlet letter, no matter how undeserved that letter is.
The guess here is that we’ve learned nothing. And now we’re loaded to the teeth with social media for ease of scapegoating. Enjoy the ring, Steve. You deserve so much more. So will the next guy.
Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.