The Steve Bartman incident: Four reasons why the Cubs, not their superfan, were to blame in 2003

Twenty years ago this week, the most infamous inning in Cubs history — and that’s saying a lot — cost the baseball club on Chicago’s north side a shot at the World Series. 

You, of course, know the inning, the eighth one in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS against the Marlins. It was immediately, and forever will be, known as The Bartman Incident. 

With one out and a runner on second, lifelong Cubs fan Steve Bartman reached up to catch a foul pop fly off the bat of Luis Castillo, and his hand got between the ball and Moises Alou’s glove. The ball bounced away. Alou threw a fit, and the Cubs melted down in a way that was shocking even for a franchise known for decades of failure. 

The inning started with the Cubs leading 3-0. It ended with the Marlins up, 8-3. When that moment happened, the Cubs were leading the series, 3-2, and were only five outs away from wrapping things up. So, yes, the incident became a flashpoint. It fit in with the Billy Goat Curse and other reasons — sorry, excuses — for the Cubs not being able to win games that mattered. Remember, at that point, they hadn’t won the World Series since 1908 and had not been to the World Series since 1945. 

But the truth is this: Of all the things that happened during that crazy inning at Wrigley Field, Bartman’s deflection of the baseball wasn’t the most damning. It wasn’t even in the top three. Would Alou have caught the ball? Maybe, maybe not. He was a great hitter in his career, but not much of a fielder. And that ball was coming down right along the wall, meaning Alou had to leap, reach up and over a bit just to get in position. 

Anyway, Bartman’s hand hit the ball, and Alou didn’t catch it. That’s what we know. And we also know that the Cubs melted down. We don’t know how things might have played out otherwise. But was it Bartman’s fault? No. If the Cubs hadn’t fallen apart, we would never know the name Steve Bartman. 

Remember, when that moment happened, there was one out and a runner on second. The Cubs still led, 3-0. It’s not like it happened with two outs and the bases loaded and then Castillo cleared the bases on the next pitch. So many things had to happen to turn that from a footnote to a catalyst in the narrative.

Nobody would remember that moment if these four things — the real mistakes that cost the Cubbies a shot at the World Series — hadn’t happened.

MORE: Full 2023 postseason bracket, schedule

1. The Alex Gonzalez error

The situation: One out, runners on first and second. Rookie Miguel Cabrera at the plate. Cubs up, 3-1.

What happened: The Marlins could sense Prior was tired, and they were jumping all over pitches in the strike zone. The previous batter, Ivan Rodriguez, had swung at all three pitches he saw. Cabrera made it four in a row, hitting a high two-bounce chopper to Gonzalez at shortstop. The slick defender moved back and to his right, as the ball bounced up waist-high. It was an easy play, one Gonzalez — a glove-first shortstop — had made a thousand times in his career, but this one hit the heel of his glove and dropped to the dirt. 

Instead of maybe a double play — Cabrera was never a base-stealer, but ran well at 20 years old, so it would have been tough to turn — or at the very least, a force out at second for the second out of the inning, the Marlins suddenly had the bases loaded, still only one out. 

This was truly the moment that mattered most.

2. Sosa’s mental mistake

The situation: One out, bases loaded. Jeff Conine at the plate. Game tied, 3-3

What happened: Conine lofted the first pitch into right field, plenty deep enough for Cabrera to basically trot home for third with the go-ahead run (he didn’t trot, though, he raced to the plate) and give Conine a sacrifice fly. Not even Bo Jackson or Dave Parker could have thrown him out, and most outfielders would have known better than to even try.

But Sosa tried, launching a balloon-ish throw in toward the plate. The launch angle on the throw was so high that Mike Lowell, who was on first base after an intentional walk, knew he could easily take second base. Sosa absolutely should have thrown in to second base, to keep Lowell where he was. But his actual throw was so bad, so short of possibly getting Cabrera that first baseman Eric Karros picked it up on one bounce a couple feet onto the infield grass. 

The poor decision wasn’t even mentioned on the broadcast because, well, of everything else, but it was a pretty big mental blunder. Instead of keeping the force play at second in play, suddenly first base was open, and the Cubs issued their second intentional walk of the inning, this time to Todd Hollandsworth. And remember, because Farnsworth entered after Lee’s hit, he was the one who intentionally walked Lowell, meaning he had to intentionally walk two of the first three batters he faced, through no real fault of his own. Probably didn’t help his control for the next batter he faced (we’ll get to that in a moment). 

Spoiler: Like Lowell, Hollandsworth would score. 

3. Leaving Prior in too long

The situation: The entire inning, pretty much

What happened: Look, Dusty Baker has been long criticized for his overuse of pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. A lot of it is justified. But bringing Prior out for the eighth inning was not a mistake. He was at only 94 pitches, had given up only one hit after the second inning and had faced just nine batters in the previous three innings. He was, by any definition, cruising. And he retired the leadoff batter in the eighth on a lazy fly ball.

Baker should have been prepared, though. He didn’t get anyone up in the bullpen through Juan Pierre’s six-pitch at-bat, and didn’t get anyone up when Pierre doubled. As Luis Castillo battled, Baker didn’t call down to the bullpen until the seventh pitch of the at-bat, one pitch before the infamous moment down the left-field line. Baker didn’t bring in a reliever when Rodriguez took three rips in a row, lacing the third pitch into left field for an RBI single. It seemed obvious that Prior was tired. 

“There’s not nearly as much break on the breaking balls in this inning as we have seen earlier in the ballgame,” said Steve Lyons, one of the analysts on the Fox broadcast, said after the RBI single. “Both of the breaking balls he threw to Rodriguez hung and that one got hit for a base hit.”

Baker didn’t come out when Cabrera jumped over the first pitch he saw, either, making contact on the ball that Gonzalez booted. That error sucked the air out of Wrigley Field. And yet, Baker left Prior in to face Derrek Lee, and the big first baseman lashed the first pitch he saw — Prior’s 119th of the game, 25th of the inning — into left field for a double that chased home two and tied the game. 

4. Avoiding Mordecai 

The situation: Two outs, bases loaded. Mike Mordecai batting. Marlins up, 4-3.

What happened: At this point, the Cubs and every Cubs fan in the ballpark are in a state of shock. The lead is gone. The World Series no longer looks like a lock. But it’s still only a one-run game, and the Cubs have their 6-foot-4 hard-throwing reliever Kyle Farnsworth on the mound. To that point in the playoffs, he’d thrown 6 1/3 innings, allowing just three hits, one walk and one run while striking out seven. The Marlins had Mike Mordecai, their 5-11 utility infielder who hadn’t hit a home run since August 2001 — remember, it’s October 2003 — at the plate. He stepped to the plate, with a grip showing he’d choked up on the bat.

Farnsworth should have come right after him, right? Instead, maybe off his rhythm because of the intentional walks, two of his first three pitchers were breaking balls in the dirt. Credit to catcher Paul Bako for blocking both of them, but Mordecai wasn’t exactly the type of chase. So with the count 2-1, Mordecai knew Farnsworth was likely to challenge him with a fastball in the zone. That’s exactly what he got, basically a middle-middle fastball, and he jumped all over it. The ball bounced off the ivy in left-center, missing a grand slam by only a couple feet. 

All three runners on base scored, and suddenly the score was 7-3.

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