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Out of Bounds: Of trench coats, Babe Ruth, and a goat

by Derek Clarkston, Sports editor

Five outs away from breaking the curse that has haunted the Chicago Cubs since 1945. Five outs away from a frenzy of excitement at Wrigley Field. Five outs away from ending the Florida Marlins’ season prematurely. Sometimes, though, those five outs are the hardest five outs to get. Just ask a Cubs fans.

 

The Cubs raced out to a 3-0 lead in the sixth game of the National League Championship Series as they attempted to their first trip to the Fall Classic in 58 years. Then somebody notified the billygoat, resurrecting a curse that has been haunting the franchise since 1945. This time though, the billygoat turned itself into a scapegoat, coming to life through one of the Cubs own fans.

It was the top of the eighth inning. Wrigley field was abuzz with the feeling of finally beating the curse. Then a foul fly went down the left field line. Moises Alou, the Cubs left fielder, gave chase and appeared ready to make the catch as the ball dropped into first row of the stands, when a fan’s hand suddenly grabbed the ball before it reached Alou’s glove. That play, and a costly error by shortstop Alex Gonzales, led to a monumental collapse for the Cubs and a historic comeback for the Marlins. When it was over, the Marlins had scored eight runs en route to an 8-3 victory.

That fan, 26-year-old Steve Bartman, suddenly turned into the most-hated man in Chicago and the most famous person in Florida.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush offered Bartman a free three-month oceanfront retreat in Pompano Beach if he needed to get out of Chicago.

Even Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich joined the fans of Chicago in issuing a statement. “Nobody can justify any kind of threat to someone who does something stupid like reach for that ball,” said Blagojevich an in article done by ESPN.com.

Bartman, a youth baseball coach, was escorted out of Wrigley Field by security guards after he was threatened and bombarded with debris. When he got home, police guards were posted outside his home to make sure things didn’t get worse.

“ I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moises Alou, much less that he may have had a play,” Bartman said in a statement.

The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908, and they haven’t played in one since 1945.
Can the Chicago faithful really blame Bartman for nearly a century of misery?

Or can they blame the billygoat that started the Chicago curse?

The legend of the curse began when a bar owner named William Sianis bought a ticket for his billygoat for game four of the 1945 World Series against Detroit. The owner of the Cubs, P.K. Wrigley, wanted the goat out of Wrigley Field. As legend has it, Sianis cursed the Cubs as he left the stadium saying that there will never be a World Series played at Wrigley Field again. The Cubs went on to lose the series and they haven’t been back since.

Since then, the curse has struck the Cubs in several crucial moments in the team’s history. In 1969 the Cubs had a nine-game lead in the middle of August when a black cat ran in front of the Cubs dugout. The Cubs promptly went on a season-ending losing streak and missed the playoffs. The curse also made an appearance during the 1984 NLCS when the Cubs had to win only one game against the San Diego Padres but failed. The Padres won the final two games to move onto the championship series. And now, in 2003, that old curse showed up again.

Cub’s fans can never assume any thing, and they can’t assume that Alou was going to make the catch. Yes, the ball was in the stands but only by a few inches. Yes, Bartman had as much right to the ball as the player. Should Bartman have realized that the game was on the line and that Alou had a chance to catch the ball to record the out? Sure he should have, but his instincts as a ballplayer kicked in and he went for the ball. Chances are Bartman did what any fan would have done sitting in those seats, go after the ball. So we really don’t know if Alou would of made the catch or not. But try explaining that to the entire town of Chicago.

The Cubs themselves are not taking the easy way out and blaming Bartman, but they are looking at what slipped away from them. They were up 3-1 in the series and had to win just one game out of the last three to unchain that billygoat. They failed to do so. The Cubs even had two of their best pitchers going for them in game six and seven and had the leads in both of the games, but the Marlins managed to overcome the deficit to make it to their second World Series in their 11-year history.

Hopefully the Cubs won’t have to wait for another 58 years to go the Fall Classic.

 

Enter the late Robert Stack in his trademark trench coat and cool “Untouchable” hat, with a voice that could make mysterious a Burger King commercial. Lots of ominous music plays as he purposely ambles toward center stage. Quick visuals of Porky Pig in pinstripes, Saturday Night Live’s “Goat Boy” munching on a baseball cap, a solitary black cat running through the grass. Stack, the consummate television detective type, stops on cue. The weird music dims; he looks into the camera and addresses the audience with his staccato, emotionless delivery.

“ Good evening. In this episode of “Unsolved Baseball Mysteries,” we will learn of billy goats, the Great Bambino, fate, destiny, irony, angst, tragedy, and such baseball strategies as knowing when to take your ace pitcher out and go to the bullpen. Is there a curse that keeps two of the games most-storied franchises from winning the Fall Classic? Or are they merely seasoned experts in the art of choking? And how many more bottles of Tums antacid were sold this October in Boston and Chicago compared to similar markets?”

Slow fade and CUT to Subway commercial.

OK. All of us who have been holding our breath for a Cubs-Red Sox World Series on the 100th anniversary of the Classic, and the inevitable world Apocalypse that would surely follow, can relax. Hold onto your mortgage, and forget precious metals. It’s safe to come out of the bomb shelters. After weeks of high drama, disappointment, and downright throwing stuff across the room, the 2003 World Series ended up pitting the New York Yankees, a team everybody loves to hate (except their dark legions of evil fans), and the Florida Marlins, the National League wild card entry. (For those of you who hate the Yanks, Yeah, I know…It’s hard to root for a Fish? But we have no choice.)

Admit it. Everyone wanted to see the Red Sox and Cubs. You, me, especially the Fox TV executives who dreamed of viewer ratings that would rival the first man on the moon and the last episode of Cheers.

Instead, we are left with the Bronx cheers, I mean Bombers, and something that belongs on the bad end of some really nice fishing tackle. Not that the Marlins are a good ball club: after falling in game one, they beat the San Francisco Giants in three straight in the NL Divisional Series, and held off elimination in the LCS by winning three straight over the Cubs.

For those of us who scoff at superstition, maybe a little head scratching is in order. The Cubs and the Sox were each five outs away from clinching a trip to the 2003 World Series. The deciding game seemed to be in hand for both teams. But curses aren’t easily broken. If they were, Indiana Jones would still be a school teacher. If Robert Stack were still alive, I can just picture him pacing the foul line. Pacing and wondering.

The Cubs have their curse of the “billy- goat,” and the Red Sox have the “curse of the Bambino.” The Red Sox won five of the first 15 world series championships. In 1918, they won the Fall Classic against the Cubs, with Babe Ruth pitching two of the victories. In 1920, Boston owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth, “the Great Bambino,” to the Yankees for $125,000 and a $300,000-plus loan. They haven’t won a championship since “the Babe” left. Ruth went on to slug 54 home runs for the 1919 Yankees, and New York won all of its world championships after the Bambino became a Yankee.

The Red Sox didn’t make it back to championship play until 1946, when they fell to the St. Louis Cardinals four games to three. Boston had similar results in the 1967 series against St. Louis, in which Cardinal ace Bob Gibson pitched three complete-game victories. Not bad for a pitcher who missed two months of the season with a broken leg.

But probably the biggest case for a curse was the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets. Game six was deadlocked in a 3-3 tie after nine innings. In the top of the 10th inning, Boston’s Dave Henderson drove in a leadoff homer and Wade Boggs later scored on a Marty Barrett single, putting the Sox up 5-3. In the bottom of the 10th, Boston pitcher Calvin Schiraldi retired the first two batters and it seemed the 68-year-old curse would be lifted. But Schiraldi gave up three straight singles and the Mets cut the lead to 5-4. Boston reliever Bob Stanley came into the game, threw a wild pitch, and the score was tied at 5-5. And then came the play that personifies the agony of every Red Sox fan. Still seeking the third out that would extend the game, Stanley got New York’s Mookie Wilson to a full count in a 10-pitch battle. Wilson grounded right to Red Sox first base man Bill Buckner on what looked like a routine out. But the ball went between Buckner’s legs, and the Met’s Ray Knight came home to score the winning run. Boston fell 8-5 in Game 7, and haven’t been back until this season.

As the AL Wild Card entry, Boston drew the rival Yankees in the LCS, and the media had a heyday. Talk of the curse added drama to an already tight series, but the actual results have more to do with what happened on the field than with some mysterious outside force. In game seven, Boston went to its ace, Pedro Martinez to match up with the Yanks’ Roger Clemens. The Sox had a 5-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning, five outs away from a trip to the Fall Classic. With runners at second and third, Red Sox manager Grady Little went to the mound and talked with Martinez. Despite Boston’s resurgent post-season bullpen, Little stuck with his ace. Martinez gave up three runs before leaving the game with the score tied at 5-5. The Yankees went on to break Boston’s heart in the bottom of the 11th inning when Aaron Boone hit a walk-off, game-winning homer, giving the Bronx Bombers their 39th American League pennant.

So do these teams have a curse?

Or is it a creation of the media?

Perhaps all the media hype piles even more pressure on teams that already feel the pressure of postseason play. One things for sure: the anguished fans of the Red Sox and Cubs will have to wait at least another year. And although the great Robert Stack is no longer with us, you can bet that the “Unsolved Baseball Mysteries” will still be around then as well.

 

 

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