On the day of the non-waiver Trade Deadline -- a day when the Dodgers and Yankees got even better -- the Cubs were busy announcing that they had given out another World Series ring.
But this one was different. This ring was for Steve Bartman.
At least once a month for the past 14 years, I have thought about Bartman -- which is strange, because I am not from Chicago, and I certainly did not grow up a Cubs fan. His story haunted me in ways that are hard to describe. Two days after Bartman reached up for a foul ball like anyone would, I wrote one of the angrier columns of my days at The Kansas City Star under the headline: "Cubs fans should be ashamed."
"You would have reached for the ball.
Oh yeah. You can deny it. You can say that you would have thought quick, moved out of the way, sacrificed your body, whatever. You would have reached for the ball. I would have reached for the ball. Everybody would have reached for the ball. The last couple of days, it seems like the sports world has gone mad. Newspapers, broadcasters, fans, talk-show hosts, politicians, everybody goes after one poor lifetime Cubs fan who made the single mistake of being human and reaching up for a baseball hit at him.
What an American disgrace."
That was 2003, a long time ago, but that anger I felt then has never quite faded away. It's difficult to quite recapture the madness of that time. The Cubs were famously five outs away from the World Series when the ball was hit toward Bartman, who was sitting in the stands along the left-field line. Chicago's Moises Alou thought he had a shot at it, he leaped up and Bartman (and really, everyone sitting around him) reached for the ball. Bartman deflected it. Alou was so furious he threw his glove and screamed.
The Cubs fell apart -- errors, intentional walks, terrible pitching, etc.
And everyone blamed Bartman.
It was the nastiest reaction imaginable. The television cameras just hovered around Steve Bartman. Hs supposedly had to stay in a Cubs office for his own safety. And then came the reaction, the deranged reaction. Remember Rod Blagojevich? He was governor of Illinois then -- this was before he was impeached, disbarred, arrested and sentenced to prison -- and he came out with a statement: "Nobody can justify any kind of threat to someone who does something stupid like reach for that ball."
Cubs manager Dusty Baker seemed to blame Bartman after the game ("I've never understood why fans do that, because if you're a fan of a team, you try to get out of the way"). Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered Bartman asylum in Florida. Jimmy Kimmel sent a pizza to Bartman's house. A few sports columnists across America called Bartman the idiot Cubs fan, a goof, a nerd, Captain Oblivious, a meddler, a jerk. Fans were even harsher. People dressed up like Steve for Halloween; and some were booed for doing so. Bartman's address was posted in various places. He and his family were hounded. Threats. Insults. Bartman basically went into hiding.
"I'm heartbroken," Bartman -- a lifelong Cubs fan who had come to the game to see his team finally win, that's all -- wrote in a statement.
But the fury was all-consuming.
The passion we bring to sports is mostly good. These games jolt us out of the dull hum of everyday life, they give us a reason beyond -- outside of our families, our friends, our jobs, our faith, our neighborhoods -- to feel great joy, to connect with the people around us, and sure, to feel relatively harmless rage.
We enjoy throwing our fury into games because we believe that it is benign, safe and there are no consequences -- I don't really hate John Elway for tearing up my Cleveland Browns and my childhood, not really; not in the bold and ugly sense of that word.
But the story of Bartman is a reminder that in sports, the rage, the hunger, the hatred isn't always healthy or fun.
There were occasional efforts after the insanity calmed down to reach out to Bartman, but even these were clunky. Baker gave an interview before the 2004 season; Baker is a good person, and I think he felt badly about what had happened to Bartman. I also think Baker felt remorse for the small role he had played in it. He wanted to make amends.
"I'd like to win and put him in the parade with us," Baker said. "Exonerate him for life."
I feel sure that Baker said that out of kindness ... but it only made things worse. Exonerate him? For what? For being a Cubs fan? For doing what any fan would do when a baseball is hit at them?
But that indeed was one theme of the Cubs' halting effort the past 14 years to finally win a World Series. Winning one, we were assured, would silence the ghosts, it would break the curse, it would satisfy the billy goat and yes, it would exonerate Bartman.
On Monday, Bartman was given a Cubs World Series ring. He did not make a public appearance to accept it. Bartman instead released a beautiful and haunting little statement, one that expressed his gratitude and that also showed the scars of the past 14 years.
"My family and I will cherish it for generations," Bartman wrote of receiving the ring. "Most meaningful is the genuine outreach from the Ricketts family, on behalf of the Cubs' organization and fans, signifying that I am welcomed back into the Cubs' family and have their support going forward. I am relieved and hopeful that the saga of the 2003 foul-ball incident surrounding my family and me is finally over."
That last sentence -- "relieved and hopeful that the saga ... is finally over" -- chill me to the core. You read that statement and you understand just how hard it has been.
You know, in the hours after the Cubs lost that 2003 series, Kerry Wood tried to take the blame. He started Game 7 and he didn't have it. First inning, Wood gave up a triple, a walk and a homer. The Cubs came back to take a 5-3 lead, but in the fifth, he gave up three more runs with a couple of walks and double and a single. In all, Wood gave up seven runs in one of his worst outings of the season.
"I choked," Wood told reporters. "That's the bottom line. I let the team and the organization and the city of Chicago down."
But for some reason, nobody really blamed Wood. No pizzas were sent to his house, no governors talked about him, nobody called him an idiot in the papers, no fans mockingly dressed up like him for Halloween.
I guess maybe this gets at why I think about Bartman so often. Heroes. Goats. Parades. Blame. It's all so capricious. Bartman didn't ask for any of this. He didn't want any of this. He didn't deserve any of this. Sure, Bartman could have cashed in on this moment. He could have written a book or two. He could have made appearances, become a minor celebrity. I think a lot of people would have. But Bartman had no interest in any of that. He just wanted to go on and live a quiet life with his family. And it clearly hasn't been easy.
All because someone hit a foul ball toward him during a game and -- just like I would have -- he reached up to catch it.