Ten years ago was a day of infamy on the North Side of Chicago. It was one of the most famous collapses any team ever had in the postseason, all the more notable because of the team having it—and its dreadful history.
There is this team called the Cubs—maybe you’ve heard of them. They haven’t typically been very good at the whole “winning baseball games” thing for quite some time. As the song goes, the last time the Cubs won the National League pennant was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan—1945.
That’s easily the longest stretch any team has had without appearing in the Fall Classic. The next longest current World Series-less slump is the Expos/Nationals, who have never made it to the big show since their debut in 1969. That’s 24 years after the Cubs slump began.
But in 2003, it looked like it could finally be Chicago’s turn. The Cubs topped the Braves in the NLDS for their first postseason series victory since the 1908 World Series and advanced to the NLCS versus the surprising Florida Marlins. Behind young pitchers Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs took a three-games-to-one lead.
Chicago lost Game Five when Josh Beckett threw a complete game two-hit shutout, but that’s okay. The Cubs still had the edge in the series, the final two games would be in Chicago, and they had their two best starters ready to pitch: Prior and Wood.
In Game Six on Oct. 14, 2003, things were going well for the Cubs. Through seven innings, Prior had shut down the Marlins without a run. Meanwhile, the Cubs plated three runs for the 3-0 edge. Heading into the eighth, they were just six outs from their first pennant in ages.
I remember watching the game at home, and just wishing that Prior could get a couple of easy outs to begin the eighth. He was at 95 pitches, and maybe this is just Cubs fan paranoia, but I didn’t feel the lead was too safe yet. Just a few quick outs, and then you can hand a three-run lead to the bullpen for one inning. Fine.
Leading off, Marlins shortstop Mike Mordecai fought Prior for a little bit, but flew out easily to Moises Alou in left. One away. Just five outs to record before the Marlins scored three runs. According to WPA, the Cubs now had a 95 percent chance to win.
Up to the plate came Juan Pierre. No one’s idea of a sabermetric darling, the speedy Pierre was a contact hitter. He wasn’t good at working the count and he didn’t have power, but he was good at putting wood on the ball.
Prior fell behind, with the first two pitches called balls. This is unlike Pierre—taking pitches. He took the next one for a called strike. Pierre then started swinging—and fouling. He fouled off two in a row, but the third time was the charm for Pierre: a double down the line.
Up next came Luis Castillo— and one of the most famous moments in Cubs history.
Castillo was similar to Pierre. Both were speedy players without much power. Castillo had more patience than Pierre, though, and he showed it here. He took each of Prior’s first five offerings for three balls and two called strikes. (It’s worth noting how patient the Marlins were being at the plate to start the inning. In 15 pitches, they had taken 11. Either they were mighty disciplined or Prior’s command was off and Florida had noticed it).
Prior throws a sixth pitch, and Castillo fouls it off to stay alive. Time for another pitch and another Castillo swing,for another foul ball. Watching at home, this was torture. Instead of some quick outs, the Marlins had made Prior throw 17 pitches, and he still had just one out.
Well, that could all change if Castillo made an out on the next one. Sure enough he swung again, a lofted one along the wall in left. In any other park in America, that would be easily in play. But Wrigley Field has the smallest foul territory of any stadium.
Still left fielder Alou made his effort, approaching the wall, and did a terrific job timing his leap to get the ball.
We all know what happened. Alou stuck his glove out into the stands to catch it, but the ball never landed in it. Several fans saw a chance to get that most prize souvenir—a foul ball!—and made a play for it. Most famous became the fan right in front of Alou’s glove, a fan sitting in Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113: Steve Bartman.
Reaching for it, Bartman deflected it, ruining whatever chance Alou had for the catch. Who knows—maybe Alou wouldn’t have caught it anyway. It was a tricky play no matter what. But Alou was livid that a hometown fan would interfere. He turned around, lifted his glove to his shoulder and slammed it on the field.
Let’s pause and try some counterfactual history. What happens if Alou doesn’t act like that? Does anyone ever hear the name Steve Bartman? Probably not. It just becomes another foul ball a player reached into the stands to get but couldn’t come down with. Those things happen.
But Alou did slam his glove down, putting a giant bulls eye on Bartman. As the inning progressed, the bigger a target he became. Bartman could hear the fans jeer him, and on his headphones could listen to veteran Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone utterly blast into him.
So the Cubs didn’t have their second out of the inning. Still alive at the plate, Castillo made the Cubs—and Steve Bartman—pay on the very next offering. He took another pitch for ball four. So a possible out was now a base runner. It was just a man on first—he didn’t even advance Pierre on second—but now we had a rally going.
And up next was star catcher Ivan Rodriguez. And he really began making the Cubs pay, swatting a single that scored Pierre and sent Castillo to second. It was 3-1 with the tying run on.
And it should’ve ended right there. Young Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera now came up. Though a great talent, the Cubs had him this time. He slapped Prior’s first pitch to the right of shortstop Alex Gonzalez.
Never a great hitter, Gonzalez had his starting job because of his glove. He was supposed to be a dependable fielder out there. But now, at the most critical moment of all, he wasn’t at all dependable. The possible double play ball bounced off the heel of his glove. Instead of an inning ending ground out, or at least an easy second out, all hands were safe. The bases were loaded and a single could tie it up.
Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113 must’ve felt like the loneliest seat in the world. Soon, security would have to escort Bartman from the building for his own safety. I remember my mom watching the game at home and—while she was no one’s idea of a bellicose fan—she was also screaming at what an idiot that guy in left field was.
Did the moment get to Gonzalez? Did he choke or was it just one of those things that happens sometimes? It’s impossible to know, but it sure looked like the moment was getting to the Cubs.
Next up: slugging first baseman Derrek Lee. Prior’s first offering to him—his 24th pitch of the inning—was a good one for Lee. He bashed a liner into left for a double. Two runs came around to tie the game, 3-3. And the winning run was just 90 feet from home plate. Oh, and there was still just one out.
So long Mark Prior. Cubs manager Dusty Baker, never known for his in-game tactical maneuvers, was too slow on the hook, but did reach for it eventually here. Baker went for hard throwing Kyle Farnsworth. The archetypal million-dollar arm but 10 cent head pitcher, Farnsworth had had a good season, and now sure would be a great time for a strikeout.
First, Farnsworth issued an intentional walk to load the bases and set up the double play. Jeff Conine came up next and hit a sacrifice fly to score another run. Now it was 4-3 Marlins.
Let’s go back to counterfactual hell for a second. If Bartman hadn’t gotten in the way and Alou made the catch, the inning would’ve ended with a 3-2 Cubs lead. The run wouldn’t have scored on Conine’s fly (which would’ve been the third out) and Castillo wouldn’t have been on base to score the second run.
Though the Cubs no longer needed the double play, Baker opted to intentionally walk the next batter anyway. Yeah, I don’t get that. Like I said, though, Baker was never known for his in-game tactics.
Now Mordecai came up for the second time this inning, and stuck a dagger in the Cubs’ hearts. The Marlins still had the lead, but it was just a one-run advantage. But Mordecai clocked a double that cleared the bases. Three runs scored, including two guys who reached base on intentional walks, and it was 7-3 Marlins.
That was all for Farnsworth. New pitcher Mike Remlinger then gave up an RBI single to Pierre to make it 8-3. Finally, mercifully, the Cubs got a pop up to end the disaster. The out was Luis Castillo—the same man who hit one to Bartman earlier.
The Cubs had no fight after that. Six up, six down in the bottoms of the eight and ninth. It took just 18 pitches to put them down, with only two batters lasting more than two pitches.
There was plenty of blame to around after the game: Prior for his pitching, Gonzalez for botching the grounder, Baker for his managing. But it was the really odd moment at the beginning that everyone remembered. And the next day, the Chicago Sun-Times gave the lynch mob a name; Steve Bartman. And his life forever changed for the worse.
All of this could’ve been forgotten if the Cubs won Game Seven, but co-ace Kerry Wood just plain didn’t have his stuff, and the Cubs lost, blowing a great shot for the pennant.
At the time, they were one of three pre-expansion teams with long droughts without winning the World Series. But the next year the Red Sox won their first world title since 1918, and the following season the White Sox won their first world title since 1917.
But that was in the future. Tenyears ago today was a nightmare loss for the Cubs and their fans—especially the one in Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113.