By Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune reporter
11:39 PM CDT, October 12, 2013
As the 10-year anniversary of the most talked-about moment in Cubs history approaches, it turns out everyone was wrong all along.
Touching the famous foul ball in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series wasn't the worst thing to happen to Steve Bartman.
Having it auctioned for more than $113,000 and blown up on TV was worse, leading to bitter feelings between the world's most vilified Cubs fan and the head of a restaurant group bearing the name of the team's most beloved announcer.
After biting his lip for the last decade, Bartman spokesman Frank Murtha said they have had enough. They were never on board with the ball being blown up at Harry Caray's restaurant or with the subsequent promotions of Harry Caray's president and managing partner, Grant DePorter.
"We are no more fine with it now than we were then," Murtha said. "No one person has perpetuated the storyline more than (DePorter) did."
By now the Bartman story is familiar to most baseball fans, and his name is known around the world.
With the Cubs five outs from advancing to their first World Series in 58 years, Bartman's deflection of a foul ball that Moises Alou may or may not have been able to catch preceded an eight-run eighth-inning Marlins rally that sent the series to Game 7. Bartman was abused and ridiculed, forced to leave the ballpark with security and blamed for the Cubs' blowing their big chance.
Murtha pointed to shortstop Alex Gonzalez's critical error, adding, "Don't forget, there was a Game 7, and some pitcher named Kerry Wood starting."
Wood blew an early lead in Game 7 to lose the series, and the Cubs have not won a playoff game since. Game 6 remains the closest they have come to a World Series since 1945, and their last championship was in 1908.
After enduring death threats and hate mail and becoming a household name, things have settled down for Bartman as the years marched on. Murtha said he has lived a relatively normal existence in the Chicago area since, with his family, friends and workplace fiercely protecting his privacy.
"Because of the kind of person he is, he has continued to live his life in a manner with the same moral fiber he had going into this incident," Murtha said.
"He continues to work. Has this incident posed challenges to him? Yes. Has he more than overcome them? Yes. But he has been bigger than those who have commercially exploited the incident."
Bartman has remained Sphinxlike, staying out of the public eye, ignoring interview requests and monetary offers and basically keeping a low profile, becoming the J.D. Salinger of sports fans. He never has spoken publicly about the events of Oct. 14, 2003, aside from issuing a written apology the next day, and last was quoted in any media outlet in 2005 while trying to get away from an ESPN the Magazine reporter who stalked and surprised Bartman in the parking garage of his workplace.
"Steve has no intention to personally speak about it," Murtha said. "When and if he did, it'd be under his terms and conditions."
Murtha said Bartman has turned down "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in inducements over the last decade, saying no to all offers and media requests, including TV's "Dr. Phil," who wanted to probe his psyche. Murtha, an attorney, said he is "aggressively moving on any attempt to commercially exploit the (Bartman) name," though that particular barn door has been open too long to shut now.
Bartman probably could have starred in a wacky Super Bowl commercial by now, perhaps selling headphones or turtlenecks or Snickers bars. The incident has inspired dozens of Bartmanesque references in modern culture, whether blatant or oblique.
• Two weeks after the playoff incident, actor Kevin James told Tribune columnist Terry Armour he was considering starring in a movie project called "Fan Interference." James said it would not specifically be about Bartman but conceded the incident was ripe for a movie: "I feel sorry for him, but to love a city so much and to love a team so much and to have one event completely change your life and now you're public enemy No. 1 is a great story." A movie, however, never has been made.
• A ripped-from-the-headlines "Law and Order" episode centered around an infamous "foul ball guy" who was discovered murdered before the opening credits. Murtha sent a letter to NBC chiding the network for putting that idea in viewers' heads.
• A "Family Guy" episode featured a 10-second non sequitur in which the Stewie character, sitting at a Cubs-Marlins game at Wrigley Field, convinces a turtleneck-wearing fan in headphones named "Steve" to try to make a catch. ("It's a foul ball. What harm could it do?")
• The creator of a PlayStation ad for "MLB 12: The Show" was forced to verify that a Bartman-like character sitting alone in his Chicago apartment celebrating a fictional Cubs championship actually was not Bartman. He admitted the ad's creators "kicked around the idea" of asking Bartman to appear in the commercial.
The fact that Bartman has refused to cash in has earned him some props from fans and players alike.
"In this day and age, he could've made tons of money doing things," said Marlins outfielder Juan Pierre, who was perched on second base during the play. "But he took the high road. Hopefully Chicago will embrace him again one day."
While Murtha said DePorter isn't the only one to capitalize on Bartman's misery, he does blame him for exacerbating it. He understands Bartman still would be demonized without the ball being blown up but says it added another layer to the story.
"I knew it would always be part of something," he said. "I just didn't think it would have the life it has had."
The ones who have exploited Bartman the most, according to Murtha, are DePorter — who bought the ball, blew it up and displays the shreds in his restaurants — and ESPN.
The sports network created a show called "The Top Five Reasons You Can't Blame Steve Bartman for the Cubs 2003 Playoff Collapse" and featured an Alex Gibney documentary on the incident called "Catching Hell" for its "30 for 30" series.
The biggest problem Murtha had with the media company was "stalking" Bartman for an ESPN the Magazine article in 2005, then pretending it was in the name of exonerating him for the incident.
"It was like he had found Osama bin Laden," Murtha said. "All he did, he went to the address where 14 satellite trucks were parked for two weeks, then followed him to work, sat in the parking lot and jumped out of a bush."
But DePorter's role in the Bartman legacy is more problematic for Murtha.
It all began when an anonymous Chicago attorney known only as "Jim" nabbed the foul ball on the rebound and auctioned it one month later through Mastro Auctions, which folded in 2009 during an FBI probe of its activities.
Jim the attorney told the Tribune then it was "like found money" and would be used as a college fund for his not-yet-born child. DePorter wound up paying $113,824 for the ball, and he told Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed he would blow it up so Cubs fans could "erase the most tangible symbol of that pain." Proceeds would go to Ron Santo's favorite charity, JDRF, and only "pro-Bartman" people could attend.
On the night of the explosion, in February 2004, DePorter told the Tribune "it's also time for all of us to move on." But Murtha argues DePorter did not move on even after the ball was blown up, contributing to the demonization of Bartman.
"The next spring, they sold spaghetti sauce made of the shards of the ball," Murtha said.
Murtha recalled the day DePorter called him and asked him to attend the ceremonies extinguishing the ball forever.
"As a promoter, a P.T. Barnum, he's Triple A," he said. "He gave me a pitch over the phone: 'Steve should come to the ceremony.' He said Ryne Sandberg wanted him to come, and Dutchie (Caray) and Ernie (Banks) wanted him to come. Then he said, 'Harry would want him to come.'
"I listen to enough of his blarney, and I say, 'OK, if Harry says he should come, he'll be there.' "
Murtha said there was a long pause. Harry Caray had been dead since 1998, as Murtha knew well.
"Finally (DePorter) asks, 'Well, how you gonna do that, Frank?' " Murtha said.
Murtha said he explained to DePorter that his father was buried close to Caray at All Saints Catholic Cemetery in Des Plaines.
"I know my dad and Harry talk all the time," he recalled saying. "So if Harry says to him, 'Steve should come,' he'll be there."
It was Murtha's sly way of saying: No chance.
Murtha believes DePorter has profited off Bartman's situation. DePorter told the New York Times in September 2004 that blowing up the ball helped increase revenue by about 20 percent, or $1.5 million: "And I attribute almost all of it to the ball, people clustering around the case to see it."
DePorter acknowledged that figure but said he had offered, through Murtha, to compensate Bartman.
"So far, Steve has not wanted any compensation," DePorter said.
Murtha said DePorter told him the ball explosion would be "the end for the ball and the end for Steve," but he pointed to the selling of the spaghetti sauce and a book as examples of the continued exploitation of Bartman's name.
"If I had a choice of having the ball blown up and buried, or hanging the shreds in a restaurant, I'd rather bury it," Murtha said. "And whatever they didn't blow up, they put in a spaghetti sauce and sold."
DePorter said he regretted not letting Bartman know about selling the spaghetti sauce. He said he has "respect" for Murtha, has contributed thousands in Bartman's name to JDRF and never has been anything but "supportive" of Bartman.
Will Bartman ever come out of the shadows?
DePorter believes it's time Bartman ends his self-imposed exile from Wrigley Field, saying fans and players would embrace him now.
"Maybe it's time for him to not be Greta Garbo and the 'mystery,' " he said. "Maybe it's time for him to get out there, go to a game with Ernie (Banks). He would find people want to support him because that's all I've ever heard."
Banks left a message on Murtha's phone Friday asking to set up a private meeting between him and Bartman. Murtha said he would relay the message and that Bartman has "all the respect in the world" for Banks.
Still, it's Bartman's choice to maintain his privacy, and that's what he will continue to do.
Murtha said the retelling of the incident has managed only to obscure the real story — namely, the incredible collapse of a baseball team that was on the cusp of the World Series.
"Distance has provided the media and fans cover for some lousy baseball, and that's what it was," Murtha said.
"Steve is still a baseball fan. On many occasions the Cubs organization has expressed there is no ill will toward him and has welcomed him to attend a game.
"He has no ill will toward the Cubs or toward baseball."
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