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ESPN film examines curses and scapegoats

Unitarian Universalist minister lends religious perspective to questions of fan behavior.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
9.26.11

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“Catching Hell” will air on ESPN on Sept. 27.

“Catching Hell” will air on ESPN on Sept. 27. (ESPN)

For Chicago Cubs fans, few names say defeat like Steve Bartman’s. He’s the hapless fan who is blamed for the baseball team’s playoff collapse in 2003, when he reached out from the left field stands to catch a foul ball, preventing left fielder Moises Alou from making the play.

Bartman bears the burden of extending the curse on the Cubs, much like Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, who let a ground ball—and the collective hopes for a World Series title—roll between his legs in 1986.

Why did Bartman and Buckner become infamous scapegoats for their teams? Why not the Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez or Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley, who both stumbled in the same innings? Why do sports fans need scapegoats anyway? It’s a topic Oscar-winning film director Alex Gibney explores in his documentary “Catching Hell,” scheduled to air on ESPN Tuesday, Sept. 27, at 8 p.m. Gibney turns to many sources to explain the powerful urge to scapegoat, including the Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, co-minister of the West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Rocky River, Ohio.

In the film, Gibney, a lifelong Red Sox fan, set out to understand why diehard fans have the tendency to scapegoat. And why is the animosity so enduring? Do these scapegoats fulfill some role that fans need them to play?

The images can be painful for Cubs and Red Sox fans to watch. Gibney repeatedly replays the scene of Bartman reaching out for the foul ball and Buckner missing the grounder. He solicits input from fans who sat near Bartman during game six of the 2003 National League Championship Series game, as well as sportswriters and broadcasters.

And then he turns to Rolenz. “While researching the film, we googled ‘Bartman and scapegoat,’ and Rev. Kathleen Rolenz came up,” Gibney said.

Rolenz had preached a sermon about scapegoating in October 2008, prior to Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. She opened her sermon with an examination of the purpose of scapegoats. “We found her sermon, and it was perfect,” said Gibney. “Then we went on to interview her, and she was very warm and articulate.”

In the sermon, and in the film, Rolenz describes the origins of scapegoating, which go back to the Bible and the book of Leviticus. Each year on the day of atonement, Rolenz said, a priest chose a goat to take to the temple. He prayed over the goat and laid his hands on it. “That was to confer the sins of the people on the animal. And then the animal would be led out of town and the people of the community would jeer and insult and throw things on the goat,” she said. After the goat was led away, people shut the gates to city so the goat could never return to the fold.

Rolenz saw a close parallel with Bartman. Cubs fans began to throw food and beer at him. Inside and outside Wrigley Field, they chanted profanities at him. Eventually Cubs’ security was summoned to lead him out of the stands. As Bartman left, fans cursed him and pelted him with food and garbage. “He was the perfect scapegoat,” said Rolenz. “The whole idea is you take an innocent thing and you put your sins upon it. Scapegoats are solitary and vulnerable.”

Bartman has never spoken to the media about what happened, and he has rebuffed six-figure offers to tell his story. He has remained hidden and reclusive, known to baseball fans only by the images of him from that night, which have been rebroadcast repeatedly. His face was partly obscured by glasses and a Cubs hat, and he wore a green turtleneck and a Walkman.

“We need to look at what damage the idea of scapegoating does, not only to the person who becomes the scapegoat but to those people that are jeering and berating the scapegoat. It diminishes our humanity,” Rolenz says in the film.

Rolenz will leave on sabbatical the day the film airs, Sept. 27. However, she attended a premiere in Chicago a few blocks from Wrigley Field.

She said she loved the film. She’s not a baseball fan, herself. But Rolenz says that the film and the Bartman and Buckner stories are about more than just baseball. “It’s about disappointment and redemption.”

In his seclusion, Bartman has never been forgiven publicly by Cubs fans. Buckner, however, was invited to return to Fenway Park—after the Red Sox had won World Series Championships in 2004 and 2007, breaking the “Red Sox curse.” Buckner walked across the historic field of Fenway Park to throw out a first pitch, to a rousing ovation. He wiped tears from his eyes, as thousands of fans did, too.

“The filmmakers had a brilliant clarity about some of the deeper issues that sports brings out in us,” Rolenz said.

In the film, Buckner agreed. His life, and the life of his family members, was changed forever by the media obsession over the ball rolling between his legs. Buckner expressed a sympathy for Bartman that he could appreciate more than anyone. “To get crucified the way he did was mindboggling,” Buckner said. “Fans need to look back and look at themselves in the mirror. Where are we as fans, as people?”


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