CHICAGO — There is one game, and specifically one inning, that Cubs fans associate with arguably the darkest and most painful moment in the history of Wrigley Field.
Yet it’s really an experience of three days for Cubs’ fans that tell the tale the story of arguably the most epic collapse in the team’s rough pre-2016 history.
Up 3-1 in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series against the Marlins, the Cubs dropped Game 5 in Miami Gardens then suffered defeat in Games 6 & 7 at Wrigley Field.
It denied them a shot to end a then 58-year pennant and 95-year World Series drought, with the last two contests adding to the jinxed history of the franchise that permeated until the 2016 title.
But now that “Curse of the Billy Goat” has been exercised, how is this moment viewed on its 20th anniversary?
That’s something WGN News Now is reflecting on after not just the anniversary of Game 6, known dubiously as the “Steve Bartman Game,” but also the following game along with the aftermath in Chicago.
Memories of emotions – good and bad – remain
One could argue that the atmosphere around Wrigley Field was never more electric than it was on October 14, 2003 in the hours before Game 6 of the NLCS, when the Cubs had a chance to clinch a berth in the World Series.
It came as the team made an unexpected surge to the postseason under first year manager Dusty Baker. A strong finish to the season saw the team clinch a playoff berth on the second-to-last day at Wrigley Field when they won their first division title in 14 years.
Then the Cubs won their first postseason series in 95 years against the Braves, defeating them in five games in the division series to advance to face Florida in the NLCS.
Even with the Game 5 defeat, there was still optimism that this would be the end of the Cubs’ dreaded “curse” that extended back to the 1945 World Series. Cy Young finalist Mark Prior, arguably the best pitcher in the game late in 2003, was on the mound for the Cubs.
Everything went to plan through seven innings with a raucous crowd witnessing more of the pitcher’s brilliance while the opportunistic offense scratched together three runs to build a lead.
Prior got Mike Mordecai to fly out to start the eighth inning, getting the Cubs just five outs from the World Series, before all hell broke loose.
On a 3-2 count, Marlins infielder Luis Castillo lifted a gently hit fly ball down the left field line that the wind pushed ever so slightly back to the field. That gave left fielder Moises Alou the chance to make the catch, but as he rose to grab it, the man people eventually learned was Steve Bartman deflected it away at the last minute.
A furious Alou slammed his glove in frustration, fans reacted angrily with an expletive chant, and the team didn’t do much to rectify the moment. Prior walked Castillo, surrendered an RBI hit to Ivan Rodriguez, Alex Gonzalez booted a Miguel Cabrera grounder that what would have at least been at least a force out, and then Derrek Lee tied the game with a double.
The nightmare continued, with Florida taking it to the Cubs’ bullpen, scoring five runs to make it an eight-run eighth inning. As Bartman was led away from a furious crowd, the home team was headed to a stunning 8-3 defeat that forced Game 7.
Alou expressed hope after the game that the team might be able to get the fan off the hook with a win the next night, while other Cubs tried to put the stunning loss behind them.
It wasn’t just Game 6 that was part of this story
Easy to forget there was still a Game 7 to be played as history tells the story of the 2003 Cubs, but that night had drama, too.
More stunned than the team, fans were dazed by the loss as the team had an epic collapse, with the atmosphere around the ballpark being much more reserved before Game 7 on Wednesday. Fans showed up to Waveland Avenue, but not as many as many as were there the night before.
An emotion-filled first two innings saw the Cubs fall behind by three runs before starting pitcher Kerry Wood tied the game with a two-run homer that sent the ballpark into a frenzy. Some have said it’s the loudest they’ve heard the ballpark, with the pitcher’s blast being one of the more memorable round-trippers in franchise history.
Despite Moises Alou putting the Cubs ahead by two runs with a homer in the third, the pitchers couldn’t hold it. The Marlins kept scoring while Josh Beckett held the Cubs to just one run and one hit after they took the lead.
With two outs in the ninth, Paul Bako’s fly ball easily fell into the glove of Marlins’ left fielder Jeff Conine’s glove to give the visitors a 9-6 win and the National League pennant. A sea of players streamed out of the visiting dugout and flooded the field as Cubs fans sat in silence at the opportunity that, once again, got away.
Stunned Cubs tried to recap what had happened in the span of about 27 hours, where the chance to snap a near 60-year drought had dramatically disappeared.
The hangover that lingered for a winter
A generation of Cubs fans now had their somber tale of glory that just got away, joining others that spoke sadly about the 1969 team’s late-season collapse or the 1984 squad’s bungling of a potential pennant.
This wasn’t just a three-game sweep or loss in five games, this was the Cubs blowing three chances to make it to the World Series. Two of those came in front of loyal fans who packed into Wrigley Field day in and day out despite the product on the field being sub-par for the majority of the 58 years since the 1945 pennant.
Cubs’ players spoke of optimism as they greeted fans at the old parking lot on the first base side of the park near Waveland Avenue on October 17 as they moved out of the Friendly Confines for the last time that season.
Yet the sting of that moment would last for a while.
After 2003, a change occurred in Cubs fans
“Lovable Losers”? No way after those three days at Wrigley Field.
Conscious of the pain of losing and the desire to win, expectations rose in the fan base with pressure coming like never before for the team to end their dreaded championship droughts.
Perhaps that was shown in 2004 when a Cubs’ team that was better than the previous year couldn’t match their finish from 2003. With drama and some internal strife, the team completely missed the postseason that year and wouldn’t return in the Baker era, which ended after the 2006 season.
After flameouts in the 2007 and 2008 playoffs, where the Cubs failed to win a game in a pair of NL Division Series, the club’s new ownership, the Ricketts family, finally took a path to build a longtime winner. Theo Epstein, who helped end the Red Sox 86-year title drought in 2004, was brought to the franchise in 2011 to do just that.
It paid off, with the Cubs making the playoffs five of six years over that decade along with the curse-snapping 2016 World Series title. Yet the failure of that team to get back to the Fall Classic frustrated a fanbase that demanded more out of the club, and already there was angst when the team failed to win a playoff game in their last two postseason trips.
The beginning of that attitude can be traced back to those days in October 2003.
A shift of blame away from Bartman
With the benefit of time and perspective, much of the blame for the infamous Game 6 collapse has gone away from Bartman, whose life was forever changed by the unfortunate moment involving Alou in that eighth inning.
Many now shift the blame to the outfielder’s reaction that helped to trigger the crowd, which only a few had access to the replays at that moment.
Gonzalez’s untimely error has become the focal point for many along with the fact that Prior tired in that eighth inning after a huge workload in the final six weeks of the season.
When the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, chairman Tom Ricketts presented Bartman with a World Series championship ring.
Yet the memories of those three days remain even after the Cubs banished the “curse” seven years ago. In 72 hours, the team formerly known as the “Lovable Losers” vanished forever.