Ten years ago Monday, 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 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?
The Cubs have had many horrific occurrences throughout their history, but none resonates with fans quite like Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series.
After losing Game 1 at Wrigley 9-8 in extra innings, the Cubs won the next three games to take a 3-1 series lead. They were shut out in Game 5 and returned to Wrigley for a sixth and possibly seventh game. On the mound would be their two aces: Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.
Game 6 is immortalized as "The Bartman Game," but was Steve Bartman really to blame? In honor of the 10-year anniversary of that game, RedEye spoke with Mark Prior and Paul Bako, the Cubs starting pitcher and catcher in Game 6.
PRIOR: We [Prior and Wood] definitely had confidence in ourselves and in our abilities. But it was never like, "We got it, no big deal." We knew we were in for a fight. We knew we needed to go out there and execute our pitches if we wanted to put ourselves in a position to win. The Marlins did what they did in the regular season by not giving up in battle till the end, so we knew we were still in a pretty intense dogfight.
BAKO: We had all the faith and confidence in the world in Mark. We knew, we all knew, and I bet you he knew as well, that without a doubt he was going to go out there and dominate. He was just on. He was in the zone. I don't know if there's ever been a pitcher in the zone for as long as he was coming down the stretch drive into the playoffs. We were looking forward to it. We couldn't wait for the game to start.
Heading into the eighth inning, the Cubs led 3-0 behind a brilliant Prior: 7 innings pitched, 3 hits, 2 walks, 6 strikeouts, no runs. Because of a double switch in the 7th, the Marlins led off the 8th inning with Mike Mordecai in the number 9 hole, followed by the top of the order.
MIKE MORDECAI, nobody on, nobody out, 3-0 Cubs.
4 pitches: Called strike (0-1). Ball (1-1). Ball (2-1). Flyout to LF.
PRIOR: He flew out to left.
BAKO: So there's one out, and we've got five outs to go.
JUAN PIERRE, nobody on, one out, 3-0 Cubs.
6 pitches: Ball (1-0). Ball (2-0). Called strike (2-1). Foul (2-2). Foul (2-2). Double to left.
PRIOR: I don't know specifically what we talked about for that at-bat, but I'm sure it was something along the lines of, "Let's try to get him out early in the count." For those types of guys, I'd rather get them out within the first two or three pitches. Because those guys get really dangerous when they see a bunch of pitches. That's when they can work the count, get on base by walking, or wait for the mistake.
Double to left. I think it was down the line. That's what I'm saying: Pierre was a guy where you had to run it in on him so he couldn't get extended.
LUIS CASTILLO, runner at 2nd, one out, 3-0 Cubs.
9 pitches: Called strike (0-1). Ball (1-1). Called strike (1-2). Ball (2-2). Ball (3-2). Foul (3-2). Foul (3-2). Foul – BARTMAN. (3-2). Ball four, wild pitch, Pierre takes 3rd.
PRIOR: Same situation [as Pierre]. I'd thrown a bunch of pitches to him and a lot of them were good pitches. They were right on the black, give or take, and I was trying to get him to put the ball on the ground. Early on you're trying to get him to put the ball up in the air, where it's just a fly ball and he can't use his speed, or put the ball on the ground so we have a shot at getting one out. He just kept working the count, working the count, and somehow it never got into our favor.
Well, I should take that back. It was in my favor. But he kept fouling balls off. And then you take a pitch really close for a ball, and then he fouls the one ball off that led to the whole Bartman thing. But he was working the count. And it was frustrating. It was a frustrating at-bat.
After working the count full, Castillo fouled off three consecutive pitches, the last of which floated into the left-field stands. Moises Alou, the Cubs left fielder, gave chase.
BAKO: Castillo was just fouling off pitches, which he was tremendous at. Just staying alive with two strikes. Obviously there's no foul ground down there, and off the bat [the Bartman ball] looks like it's going to be a foul ball.
But Mo's gonna catch it, because of the way Mo had a beat on it. He jumped after it like he was making a play. Mo is not one who was full of drama. If he was going to run after a ball and make a play on it, and jump like he did, he had a very good chance of making it. And that's what it looked like to me: that he was jumping up into the stands or jumping up against the wall to catch the ball.
PRIOR: Moises definitely had a play on the ball. He probably would have caught it. But it was a foul ball. I didn't think much of it, other than like, "He should have caught that. A fan got in the way." But I want to be perfectly clear: this issue obviously has been hyped and brought up and examined over and over, and I've said this before: 95 percent of anybody in that same situation as well as the three or four other people surrounding him would have probably—and they did—reach out and try to get that foul ball.
BAKO: My reaction was probably a little bit of a "hey, fan interference" type thing. And then if not, immediately turn our attention to getting the hitter out and seeing what we could do there. Because that was either going to be turned into an out somehow, or we'll go back to square one [with] Castillo.
PRIOR: Do I think that Moises would have caught it? Yeah, probably. If he was in a position to catch balls, he caught balls. He wasn't somebody who dropped balls or made errors. He was there. It looked like he timed it perfectly and probably would have made the play. But at the point when it happened, for me, it was, "Whatever. It's a foul ball. Let's move onto the next pitch."
The next pitch was in the dirt for ball four, but it got past Bako and Pierre took third base.
BAKO: He just kept laying off pitches. He put up a helluva at-bat. And eventually you're just trying to get Castillo to put the ball in play somewhere, and hopefully it's at somebody, you know? He wasn't going to drive the ball. He's a singles hitter. So if we get him to put it in play there, we take our chances with it being a ground ball at somebody. And he ended up working a walk.
PRIOR: I know much has been played up and talked about, but honestly I was like, "Whatever. I walked a guy." I didn't think much of it. It was the 9th pitch in the at-bat. And then I probably would throw a fastball. Not because of what had just happened but because he kept fouling balls off and I felt like if I tried to put a little extra on it then maybe I would get the foul tip into Bako's glove. You put an extra mile or two on it, because obviously at that point he's got some pretty good timing on my pitches.
So that's kind of what happened—I think I just yanked it. That's how I walked him. That's more or less where the wild pitch/passed ball type thing came from. Not because we didn't catch a foul ball. I think it was a non-issue. It was a non-issue to most of us. And to be honest, nobody in the dugout even knew what happened because they can't see it. It wasn't until after the fact that we even knew anything about that situation.
REDEYE: Did you think Moises's reaction affected the team?
BAKO: No. I don't think it could have or should have. He was acting in a fired up, competitive way. If he'd reacted differently, that would have meant he didn't have a chance to catch the ball. I don't see how we could have taken that in any kind of negative situation. That's the way I look at it. Like, "Shit, it didn't work out. We gotta turn our attention and keep moving forward here."
IVAN "PUDGE" RODRIGUEZ, runners at 1st and 3rd, one out, 3-0 Cubs.
3 pitches: Foul (0-1). Swinging strike (0-2). Single to left, Pierre scores, Castillo takes 2nd.
PRIOR: The Pudge at bat. I had him 0-2. If I had anything to regret or be upset about it was that 0-2 pitch. Not the pitch itself. The execution of it. 0-2, it's got to be in the dirt no matter what. No questions asked. And I just spun it up there. Even if I had him fooled, he was a good enough hitter where he's going to throw his hands at the ball. It was sitting on a tee for him. That was a mental and physical mistake by me, and that cost us the first run, which probably led to the chain reaction.
BAKO: Prior tried to bury a curve ball, and he didn't quite get it as low as he had in previous at-bats. He just left that one up. A lesser hitter, or maybe not quite as good of a bad ball hitter as Pudge, probably wouldn't have gotten a base hit on it. But he was just a guy that with two strikes, especially, you have to go out of the zone and make him chase it. That pitch wasn't far enough out of the zone where he had to chase. It might have been a little low for another hitter, but the way [Pudge] could cover outside the strike zone, it wasn't a bad pitch for him.
PRIOR: I go back to Pudge. It starts with him, getting the out. You put that ball in the dirt—even if he takes it for a ball—I'm not saying he wouldn't have gotten a hit, but still, that's one of the first things you're taught: once you get to two strikes, you don't give him anything good to hit, and I gave him something good to hit. So he did what he was supposed to do with it.
REDEYE: How surprised were you that Pudge reached that pitch?
BAKO: Not as surprised as I was that Prior didn't get it where he wanted it. Not that it was a bad pitch from Mark. It wasn't quite as low or wide as I think he wanted it to be. I was more surprised by that. I was not surprised that Pudge got a hit off it. Because that's just how effective and how much in command Mark was. He could throw the ball anywhere at any time. He could do anything he wanted, you know?
Think about it man: that Pudge ball is a little lower, and then [pauses] … [bleep].
MIGUEL CABRERA, runners at 1st and 2nd, one out, 3-1 Cubs.
1 pitch: Ground ball to shortstop, error on Alex Gonzalez, everybody safe.
REDEYE: And then the next pitch is the Gonzalez play.
BAKO: Yeah, the very next pitch. Exactly.
The ball was a little bit to Gonzo's right. And watching Gonzo play all year, I knew that we had at least one out at second. Once I realized it wasn't going to the hole, I thought, "Well, there's at least one out." And then obviously it didn't work out. We didn't get him.
PRIOR: We got what we wanted. It wasn't a great pitch, but it was a pitch we were looking for. Off-speed pitch to start him in the count, he's either going to take a strike or have him looking for a fastball, which I think he was, based on his swing. And he hit a ground ball to short. It was exactly what we needed. We got what we needed. And, you know, he dropped the ball. So not only did we not get a double play, but we didn't get one out.
REDEYE: How big of a surprise was that error?
BAKO: Very big. Gonzo was as sure and steady as you possibly could get. He had 10 [errors] in the regular season. That's damn good for a big league shortstop playing 162 games, you know? That's my point. That's how surprising it was. Gonzo just doesn't make errors.
PRIOR: Was I surprised looking back on it? Yeah. Alex— I don't know how many errors he made all year, but he was pretty sure-handed. I think everybody to a man, if you said, "Were you surprised he dropped it?" "Yeah," just because of how well he'd played defense.
But you gotta come from the mindset of, "They made an error, I'm going to pick them up." If I walk a guy, I love Alex making great plays and turning double plays. It's about picking up your guys. Like, "I'm going to make a pitch here and get the next guy out. We're going to get out of this."
DERREK LEE, bases loaded, one out, 3-1 Cubs.
1 pitch: Double to left, two runs score, Cabrera to 3rd.
BAKO: We'd gotten into D-Lee's kitchen a lot with balls at his hands and belt-high and in, and that one was just a little lower than I believe Mark wanted. He definitely got it in there. It just wasn't quite as high as some of the other pitches we were beating D-Lee on the whole series.
PRIOR: I threw a pretty good pitch to the next batter. And to this day I still think he—it was 95 on the inside part of the plate. He had to be looking for it because he turned on it and that's what scored the next run.
After Derrek Lee's run-scoring double, Dusty Baker made a pitching change, bringing in Kyle Farnsworth.
BAKO: It was unbelievable. It was so loud when Mark was in the game, and even after the fly ball to left and after the ball Pudge hit and after the ball Cabrera put in play—all that stuff was fine and dandy. And then, you know, some of the energy definitely got lost when Prior came out and Farnsy came in.
PRIOR: I was just sitting there [in the dugout] watching and hoping we get out of there sooner rather than later. It didn't happen. We got out of it later. (Laughs.) I don't remember having a whole lot of emotion one way or the other. I was upset, but not down or depressed. Just a normal competitive madness kind of thing.
BAKO: I remember [Farnsworth] being pretty quiet and ready to go. I remember him being like, "Just get back there. I'm ready to pitch." Not verbalizing that, but he came to the mound ready for business, and was ready to take care of business.
Mike Lowell, runners at 2nd and 3rd, one out, 3-3 tie.
4 pitches: intentional walk.
Jeff Conine, bases loaded, one out, 3-3 tie.
1 pitch: sacrifice fly to left field, Cabrera scores, runners advance.
With runners at second and third, Farnsworth's first order of business was to intentionally walk Mike Lowell. On Farnsworth's first real pitch of the inning, Jeff Conine hit a sacrifice fly to left field to score Cabrera. The runners advanced to second and third, and the Marlins had their first lead of the game.
Todd Hollandsworth, runners at 2nd and 3rd, two outs, 4-3 Marlins.
4 pitches: intentional walk.
Mike Mordecai, bases loaded, two outs, 4-3 Marlins.
4 pitches: Ball (1-0). Called strike (1-1). Ball (2-1). Double to left, three runs score.
Todd Hollandworth pinch hit for the pitcher, Chad Fox, and with first base open, Farnsworth intentionally walked Hollandsworth. This brought Mike Mordecai to the plate for the second time in the inning.
BAKO: It's a tough position there for Farnsy to come in. He throws one pitch to Conine, right? And all of a sudden it's a 4-3 lead for the Marlins. And we walk Hollandsworth and bring up Mordecai.
Mordecai was just a really good fastball hitter. We were trying to get ahead with something off-speed, and it didn't work. He ended up getting a hitter's count with the bases loaded, where we had to come at him with a fastball, and he made us pay.
Mordecai hit a bases-clearing double to boost the Florida lead to 7-3.
BAKO: After Mordecai hit that ball, that double, I remember standing at home plate and the only thing I could hear in the whole stadium was the Marlins' voices in their dugout celebrating. I'm not exaggerating. I couldn't hear anything else other than their voices. 12, 15 minutes before that, you couldn't hear yourself think, just because of the energy and enthusiasm. (Sighs.) It was the definition of a 180. It was just crazy, crazy, eerily quiet after that hit.
Baker made one more pitching change, bringing in the left-hander Mike Remlinger to face the left-handed Pierre. Pierre singled to score Mordecai. The Cubs finally got out of the inning when Remlinger got Castillo to pop out to second base.
Juan Pierre, runner at 2nd, two outs, 7-3 Marlins.
1 pitch: single to right, Mordecai scores.
Luis Castillo, runner at 1st, two outs, 8-3 Marlins.
5 pitches: Foul (0-1). Ball (1-1). Ball (2-1). Swinging strike (2-2). Pop out to second.
BAKO: Man, [when the inning ended], I would say we were as shocked and awed as the crowd was. Obviously we're all professionals, but when you start that inning winning three to nothing and you come back in and you're down 8-3, that was definitely impossible to come back from that particular day. I mean Game 6, you know?
The competitor in you is like, "Let's go boys. We have six outs left to score. We can win this. We've done it before." But the reality is like, "Hopefully we can shake this off and come back tomorrow ready to play." As soon as the game's over, that's what we're thinking.
It was as bad a feeling as I've had from a game. The only time I ever had a comparable feeling was after losing the World Series [in 2009 with the Phillies]. It was very similar to the feeling of losing the World Series. The feeling in the stomach in both games was one and the same.
It's like a frickin' unsolved mystery. An unexplained phenomenon. It's like Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster. I've never looked at the box score like this. I'm looking at it right now, and it's just such an anomaly. It's such a crazy—you know, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 1, 8, 0, 0, 0. It doesn't even make sense, you know? Almost like if you would take it to a statistician, he would say, "Is this a typo? What is this?" It doesn't make sense.
REDEYE: And it defies the rhythm of not just the game but almost of the series.
BAKO: Oh no doubt. Yes. Of the series. Of playoff baseball. It just defies everything.
The Cubs entered Game 7 the next night with hopes of a rebound effort. And after Kerry Wood homered in the second inning and Alou homered in the third, the Cubs led 5-3 and all was joyous at Wrigley Field. But Florida scored three runs in the fifth inning to take a lead they would never relinquish. They won the game 9-6 and went on to win the World Series.
Despite successful seasons in 2004, 2007, and 2008, the Cubs have not won a playoff game since the 2003 NLCS.
BAKO: The reality is that we were all completely disappointed. But from a whole body of work perspective, excluding the last two games of the season—which I know is hard to do—we were very tight. And I think we were proud of where we came from. From being in a brand-new situation in spring training, to coming together so quickly and getting to the playoffs and the NLCS. As bittersweet as it was, I think it was a huge accomplishment.
The closeness and the chemistry and the camaraderie in the clubhouse was tremendous. And equal to that, or a very close second, was the turnaround. Turning it around from the season before. The worst-to-first. And how well we played. I think a lot of that was reflective of Dusty and how he got us all together and how tight of a group we were.
PRIOR: It was one of the better, if not the best team I was on as far as relationships and friendships. I think winning obviously helps, but I think winning was a byproduct of the way we all felt about each other. There weren't a lot of egos on that team. Everybody was pulling for each other.
Overall, it was just a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun playing the game and a lot of fun being in Chicago. I feel proud that we were part of maybe helping to nudge the culture of the organization and pushing for a championship. I think we did great things there, and I think we're all proud of the way we played together.
Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor. @readjackWant more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye Sports' Facebook page.