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Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #3 – Catching Hell

Catching Hell (Directed by Alex Gibney)

Acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney’s exploration of a memorable and troubling moment of recent baseball history is most notable not for the questions it answers but for the further questions it poses, namely about the terms and nature of sports fandom.

I’m sure it’s been said (though I can’t be sure of where) that the mass emotional investments in the fortunes of sports teams in modern capitalist society constitute nothing less than a substitution for the similarly intense association once felt for popular religion (and the two belief-system continue to unite in parts of America, in particular the Bible Belt’s mania for high school and college football). The sort of irrational tribal loyalties and inherited ideologies that characterize sports fandom as they once embodied institutionalized faith are nowhere more self-evident than in the orbit of clubs and franchises with a long history of futility, or at least of championshiplessness (new word!). And no franchise in North American sports has experienced a more infamously long run of futility than the Chicago Cubs.

Little know fact: Bartman was actually listening to “Stacy’s Mom” on repeat the entire game.

Catching Hell focuses on a recent incident in Cubs futility (which stretches back over a century to 1908, when they last won a World Series title) that left particularly visible scars. In Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago, the Cubs had a lead over the Florida Marlins and were but a few outs from reaching the World Series (which would have been accomplishment enough for the club, not having been there since 1945). A fly ball into foul territory down the left field line seemed to portent one of those precious outs, and outfielder Moises Alou moved towards a key catch near the stands. As he leapt with his glove upstretched into the liminal no-man’s-land between field of play and fan seating, however, several fans in the crowd reached for the ball, too. One of them made contact, knocking the ball into the seats; Alou stomped in frustration at the missed catch. Boos began.

What happened subsequent to this – an eight-run inning from the Marlins and a victory for them in the NCLS and eventually in the World Series as well – had no direct line of logical causation to a simple missed catch on a foul ball. At the very least, the Cubs’ fall had no more direct line to that play than to a key fielding error or the poor relief pitching that also characterized the comeback rally. But once the Cubs had suffered another painful defeat, all the more excruciating for the cruel proximity to glory, it became clear to the Cub fan consciousness that this moment was where the psychic energy had shifted against the home team and another failure became inevitable.

The mob’s ire turned immediately, before the disastrous inning was even over, at the perceived culprit of their collective shame, or a simple scapegoat for it: Steve Bartman, a mild-mannered fan in a cap, turtleneck and headphones who was judged to have administered the fatal touch. Negative vibes and open threats were directed at Bartman as the Cubs fell further behind and in the days and weeks that followed the defeat, necessitating first his removal from the stadium by security and then his self-sequestering from the media and fan circus that subsequently ensued. Beyond that, the repeatedly televised image of Bartman after the play, alone, self-contained, and headphoned (he was listening to the radio call of the game while watching it) in the midst of an increasingly rabid crowd, when combined with his public silence, seemed to be a provocation to the popular anger. How could he not appear to be feeling the anguish that all Cubs fans were feeling, especially when he was the perceived cause of it? It was too much to bear (bear/Cubs pun not intended, though I now wish it was).

Gibney’s fascination with this incident stems not from a shared devotion to the Cubs, but from an analogous fan trauma. Like so many of America’s progressive artists, Gibney is a Bostonian, and therefore a loyal Red Sox fan whose youth was marked by several irruptions of the legendary Curse of the Bambino, the folkloric assurance of Red Sox futility in the championship arena supposedly tracing back to the club’s trading of baseball’s mythic Father Abraham, Babe Ruth, to the rival New York Yankees in 1920. As this so-called “Curse” was lifted after 86 years and several close calls by not only one but two recent Sox titles, Gibney can afford to be magnanimous in his sympathy for another fanbase’s collective anguish (although he holds them to account for the ugliness of their collective reaction, to be sure).

But he also related the Bartman incident to a similar endlessly-replayed moment in Red Sox lore: a ground ball trickling through Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, which allowed the New York Mets to score the winning run and, like the Marlins, eventually the title. Gibney wonders at why Buckner’s specific error, rather than the chain of mistakes by other Sox players that led up to it, was the focus of wrath, a question that transfers easily to the Bartman situation, too. Buckner himself appears, also wondering at the persistence of the wrath and displaying obvious emotion in recalling it, even though his place in franchise history has been rehabilitated post-championships.

Relying on archival television footage, video from the Cubs game taken by superfan and filmmaker Matt Liston, and interviews with other witnesses, observers, and sports media types (though not with Bartman, who has meticulously defended his privacy since that fateful moment), Gibney gives the incident as detailed and nuanced a treatment as he gives his more serious documentary subjects. But Catching Hell also suggests that there is a certain seriousness to the mentality of the sports fan as well, or at least a core of zeal surrounded by a sleeve of easily-frayed resentments and dire voodoo superstitions. Rationally-minded and/or statistically-rigorous fans balk at the run-of-the-mill fan’s belief in the fairy tales of curses and momentum, but an unswerving belief in the irrational motivates sport fandom as surely as it does any other segment of American society.

As the Bartman incident demonstrates, and as Gibney comes right up to the verge of saying without quite saying it, the demands of irrational beliefs can often push American subcultures into the mentality of the mob (even to the bloodlust of the lynch mob; Bartman did receive death threats, and may not have been physically safe from reprisals had he remained at Wrigley until the game had ended). This unsettling conclusion is what sets Catching Hell (what an apt and chilling title that is for this story) apart as a sports film: it suggests that sports, or rather those who watch and love them, can be dangerous, and it examines a nucleus of illogical and potentially violent negativity that lurks at the heart of even America’s most idyllic and popularly romanticized pastime.

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  1. February 13, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    That poor guy! I watched this a while ago and I was so mad! >.>

  1. January 26, 2014 at 8:38 am

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