Ten years ago this month, fans came as close to seeing the Cubs in the World Series as they’d been in six decades. Then the eighth inning of Game 6 in the National League Championship Series happened, setting off a catastrophic chapter in Chicago sports history.
Why relive the Bartman game? Because it’s a “where were you when … “ moment. Whether you blame him to this day or always believe he was a victim of overreaction, you’ve got an opinion. And even though it knocked Cubs fans down, they just keep getting back up.
Which makes this the perfect time to check in with those who lived it. Not only because it’s a key moment in Cubs lore, but because it gives everyone a chance to ask: With the Cubs so far away from winning it all, do you still believe in them?
In 2003, pitcher Shawn Estes followed his former Giants manager, Dusty Baker, to Chicago to play for the Cubs as their fifth starter. After a rough season (8-11, 5.73 ERA), the left-handed veteran found himself a spectator during the first two rounds of the playoffs. He shared his Game 6 story with RedEye.
I wasn't on the roster for those two series [Atlanta and Florida]. I knew I wasn't going to start, but I wanted to just be in the bullpen and have a chance to pitch. And Dusty said that, "If we go to the Series and the Yankees is the team we play, you'll be on the roster because they have more lefties." The Marlins were a more right-handed dominant lineup, but the Yankees had more lefties in there, so I was really wanting to get to the World Series. For, you know, selfish reasons, I wanted to be on the roster, and also I wanted to have a chance to win a World Series.
So I was watching these games with no pressure at all. Just as a fan. And after we lost Game 5, I said to [general manager Jim] Hendry before we got on the bus, "At least we can go home and celebrate in front of our home fans." And he said, "I would rather have won tonight." [Laughs.]
Meaning he would rather have won Game 5 against [pitcher Josh] Beckett. He just wanted to get it over with. Because I think in the back of everybody's mind everybody still felt that anything could happen. The Cubs haven't had the best luck in the last 100 years. So when you have your chance to kick a team when they're down or kind of put the nail in the coffin, you want to do it. You don't want it to be the perfect scenario, you know what I'm saying?
Which would have been unbelievable. To come home and have Prior on the mound and be able to celebrate going to a World Series in front of your hometown—that would have been storybook.
But I remember saying that to Hendry when we got on the bus. And I'm thinking, I can't be the only person thinking that we're going to win one of these next two, and we're probably going to win Game 6. The Marlins had already used their best guy in Beckett. Nobody had really pitched well for them other than maybe [Chris] Redman. And here we have [Mark] Prior and we're facing [Carl] Pavano, you know? He pitched well, but we still thought we were going to beat him.
I felt really good about [Game 6] until the top of the eighth inning. I've got a story about that deal. Like I said, I wasn't pitching, so I was in uni but I was on the bench. We're winning three to zip. Prior's just filthy, as usual. And I'm just thinking about how frickin' awesome it's going to be to go to the World Series.
I went up to go to the bathroom. Clubhouse through the dugout is really close at Wrigley. I think it was after we scored in the seventh to make it 3-zip. I went up between the seventh and the eighth inning to the bathroom, and they had already set up for the postgame celebration. All the lockers are covered. They had the podium set up. They had the champagne on ice.
I just remember thinking—my brain was telling me we were going to win this thing, but my gut was saying, "This is just too early to do. You can't do this right now. You got six outs to go." Yeah, we have a guy who is just flat out dealing on the mound, but there's still six outs to go. A lot can happen. You cannot assume we're going to win this thing.
I just had this feeling in the pit of my stomach when I walked back down to the dugout. It was like, "Gosh, they better not have jinxed us." We're all pretty superstitious that way. Whatever the scenario might be: a no-hitter, winning a game, a chance to go to the World Series. You just don't want anything out of the ordinary to happen and jinx you. You want to keep it all – you want to stay under the radar with all that. But I just remember walking up and thinking, "I really wish they didn't set up so early." And then I went down and watched the eighth inning unravel.
By the time you guys got back after the game, was the locker room still all done up?
No, they ripped it down. They had enough time in that 8th inning to rip it down. As soon as the Marlins tied it up – I mean, they scored five more runs after that, so they had plenty of time to get rid of that. [Laughs.] They did a good job of getting that stuff taken down.
So, did you watch "Catching Hell"?
What'd you think of that?
It's awesome. It was tough to watch, but it was awesome.
They made a big point about how there was nobody warming up in the bullpen. Was that a concern at all or was that just the announcers talking and it's like "whatever."
I didn't even think about it. Prior was going to pitch the whole game, in my opinion.
The Bartman play didn't even concern me. At the time it happened, I saw—you know, everybody kind of gets to the top step [of the dugout] and looks out. We were kind of blinded by it. We were blocked off. So we didn't really see. I just saw Moises going crazy in left, so I'm thinking, "Gosh darnit, you could have caught that ball."
But it didn't even concern me. He wasn't even the tying run. It was like "OK, they'll just get him out." At the time, I saw Moises' reaction and I was like, "Oh crap, he could have caught that ball. That would have been a big out." But Prior's still dominating, and he'll get Castillo out. I'm not worried about it. When I really started to worry was when Alex [Gonzalez] made that error.
You know, people don't focus on that because they want to focus on something else, some higher being having a factor in the game, and Bartman was the fall guy for all that. But if we play clean baseball we win the game. That's all there is to it. He was as sure-handed as you get that year. I don't know how many errors he had but he was very solid as a shortstop. He wasn't a guy who was prone to making errors.
He was more than solid. I think he led the National League in fielding that season.
I can find out. Let's see… [Estes looks up Gonzalez's numbers] Alex only made 10 errors in 625 chances. Yeah.
So Castillo singles?
No. Castillo walks, and it's a wild pitch, and Pierre takes third base, and it's first and third with one out.
And Castillo's at first.
Castillo's at first. Ivan Rodriguez singles to score …
To score Pierre. So first and second.
First and second, 3-1 Cubs …
One out. And then Miguel Cabrera grounds into what should have been the inning-ending double play.
That's right, Cabrera. I was trying to remember who hit the ball to Alex Gonzalez. [Pauses.] So that's the inning. It's over. 3-1 going into the bottom of the ninth.
Yeah. So then bases loaded and Derrek Lee doubles to score two. And that's when the game is tied and Kyle Farnsworth comes in to replace Prior.
Yeah. Bases loaded one out. 3-3. And then all hell broke loose.
Yeah. You could have heard a pin drop in that stadium. That was a tough one to watch. And then obviously losing that game it just felt like the energy was sucked out of the whole city.
Did you guys ever talk about Bartman? Like, years later, did that ever come up? What's your take on him and his place in Chicago sports history?
I thought he was unfairly criticized. I felt terrible for the guy. And even Moises—he could have come out a little earlier and said what he did, about how he didn't think he could have caught the ball, but I think deep down he felt like he got a chance at it. And the more you watch it the more you realize that he had a chance.
But the more you watch it the more you realize that 99 out of 100 fans would have probably interfered with it. If it wasn't Bartman, someone else would have interfered. It's tough when you have a ball that's going to land on your head to think, "Just let this guy catch it." I've been in the stands before at a baseball game. If the ball's coming at you, your first reaction is to catch it. [Laughs.] You're not looking at Alou and looking at the ball. You don't have that much time to really make that decision. You don't know how close it is to the wall. Anybody would have done that. Anybody.
I think any fan would have done that. I feel terrible for the guy. I've never blamed him one bit. I've always been a, "You take care of stuff on the field," and we had a chance if we played clean baseball to win the game. If we don't boot the ball at shortstop we probably win the game. And you can't pin it all on one guy. It's not Alex's—he's human, he's going to make errors. But if you take care of what you can take care of on the field, and you pitch and you catch the ball, and you do it better than the other team, you're going to win most of the time. And unfortunately it was one play that upended us. That to me was the biggest play of that game.
What's your perspective on the widely-discussed theory that Dusty rode Prior too much and that he mishandled the pitchers and the innings in that game, and such and such.
I don't agree with it at all. Prior, like you said, he went 10-1 down the stretch. He was the best pitcher in baseball. Him and Kerry both. You can always go back. Hindsight is 20-20, and that sort of a thing. But [Dusty]'s a firm believer that if he's got horses, he's going to ride his horses. As a starting pitcher, I appreciated that. I wasn't that caliber. I wasn't a dominating punch-out guy. But if I was rolling—and he'd ask you, too. "How do you feel?" And it's your job as a pitcher to be honest with him. If you feel like you're getting tired, then you gotta tell him. If you feel like you're running out of gas and he leaves you in and you give it up, it's on you.
If he asked Mark how he felt, I'm sure he said he felt great. Mark was never a guy that was going to say, "I'm tired." He was a strong kid. So Dusty comes from the old school, and starters would throw. When he had horses, he was going to ride those horses as long as he could. You don't get many opportunities to go to a World Series, either. And he had confidence in his bullpen but he had a lot more confidence in Mark Prior than he did in anybody else in that bullpen.
You can always look back and criticize this and that, but the bottom line is that he got a ground ball, we didn't make the play, and we lost the game. Kyle Farnsworth came in, and he didn't do his job. He didn't get the outs. You go down the line in that eighth inning and you can criticize that inning all you want. But we didn't score any runs in the bottom of the ninth. And we didn't score in the bottom of the eighth for that matter.
You still gotta score runs. It's not over just because it's 8-3. I know it's a lot tougher to come back from. But I think Dusty—you don't want to second guess. I know that he was second-guessed quite a bit even after that year, but there are not many managers who have gotten that far as a Cubs manager throughout the whole history of the Cubs. It's just a tough one to swallow. It just wasn't meant to be, Jack. [Laughs.]
Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor. @readjackWant more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye Sports' Facebook page.