From the billy goat to the scapegoat

October 17, 2003|By Donovan Burba

CHICAGO -- Fifty-eight years from now, when the Chicago Cubs are still struggling in vain to reach the World Series, perhaps Steve Bartman will return to Wrigley Field.

Maybe by then the Cubs' faithful will have forgiven the so-called traitor in their midst, the one who, by merely reaching for a foul ball, allegedly cost the Cubs -- and the city of Chicago --everything they had waited for so long.

Never mind that Mr. Bartman acted exactly as any other fan in that situation would; when the ball is coming at you, you try to catch it, plain and simple. In fact, a dozen fans around Mr. Bartman (the ones who started throwing beer on him immediately after the gaffe) also reached for the ball.

He just had the bad luck to actually get a hand on it.

Also ignore the fact that the Cubs (owned by Tribune Co., which owns this newspaper) were still winning after the incident, but blew the lead in spectacular fashion. And forget that they were winning 5-3 in the fifth inning of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, only to let that lead slip away, as well.

But the essence of a good curse lies in one's ability to disregard the logical -- "He should have fielded that ground ball" -- in favor of the bizarre. Since 1945, the last time the Cubs made the World Series, fans have blamed the team's lack of success on the Curse of the Billy Goat. Legend has it that a Chicago tavern owner tried to go to a Series game with his pet goat, but was refused entry. He cursed the team, and evidently did a pretty good job of it.

Since then, the Cubs haven't had many good teams, a situation created by stingy ownership and poor personnel decisions. The Curse, then, usually doesn't even need to be invoked. But on the rare occasion that the team looks as if it might be getting somewhere, there's no doubt that eerie things happen.

1969: With the Cubs clinging to first place at New York's Shea Stadium in September, a black cat scurried across the visitors' dugout. The Cubs lose the game, and within a few days the Mets move into first. The rest is history.

1984: Leon Durham, normally a sure-handed first baseman, lets an easy grounder slip through his legs, Bill Buckner-style, allowing the San Diego Padres to come back and win the decisive Game 5 of the NLCS.

1989: As manager Don Zimmer strategizes with Greg Maddux on the mound in Game 1 of the NLCS, San Francisco Giants' slugger Will Clark somehow reads Maddux's lips: "fastball." He hits the next pitch, a fastball, for a grand slam.

1998: Left fielder Brant Brown drops an easy fly ball with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, costing the Cubs a critical September win. In a stunning reversal of fortune, the Cubs went on to win the Wild Card, only to be swept by the Atlanta Braves in the first round.

Mr. Bartman's mistake is more tragic than any of those aforementioned miscues, though, because of his position as a fan.

Those who know Mr. Bartman call him a diehard Cubs fan, a youth baseball coach who traveled all the way to Arizona to see spring training.

In other words, the last person who would ever try to hurt the team. Now, because of a cruel twist of fate, he needs police protection.

Plenty of tears were shed Wednesday, in Chicago and across the country, for the Cubs. Who knows what Steve Bartman thought as he watched Marlins' outfielder Jeff Conine squeeze the final out in his glove?

Here's hoping he knows the collapse wasn't his fault -- and that he won't really have to wait decades to return to Wrigley Field and watch his Cubs finally win it all.

Donovan Burba, a lifelong Cubs fan, is a senior at the University of Iowa.

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