Bartman and the ball —- NBCsports.com photo
By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
The coronavirus batted the 2020 major league baseball season into limbo, but stories about baseball never get old.
Here’s one about the Chicago Cubs, a seriously maligned baseball fan and journalism ethics. Like many classic tales, it’s told, retold and people argue about the details in their favorite watering holes. Sometimes the story gets better each time it’s told.
It boils down to this: Was it ethical to name a baseball fan who deflected a foul ball, possibly costing the Chicago Cubs a trip to the World Series? This question has become a staple in some journalism ethics classes. I was reminded of that when a student named Maddie contacted the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, asking if news organizations violated the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics by naming that hapless fan.
That fan, as the world knows by now, is Steve Bartman. He was sitting in the front row along the left field corner wall behind the on-field bullpen on Oct. 14, 2003, during a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins in Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
A pop foul off the bat of Luis Castillo drifted toward Bartman’s seat. Cubs left fielder Moisés Alou raced to the wall, jumped up, and reached for the ball. At the same instant, Bartman, looking up at the ball hurling from the sky toward him, reacted by reaching up, fumbled it, and deflected the ball away from Alou’s glove as Alou cursed. The umpire ruled no interference.
Bartman stayed seated as television cameras broadcast live shots of him between multiple replays of the foul ball incident. His image became part of baseball legend: A diminutive fan wearing a Cubs baseball cap, glasses, headset and a green turtleneck shirt.
Angry Cubs fans cursed him and chanted an A-word I will not repeat. A phalanx of security guards surrounded Bartman and led him out of Wrigley field for his own safety. On his way out, fans shouted at him and pelted him with trash, beer and other drinks.
This happened during the eighth inning of game six of the National League Championship Series, with Chicago leading 3-0 and holding a three-game to two lead in the best-of-seven series. If Alou had caught the ball, it would have been the second out in the inning. The Cubs would have been four outs away from winning their first National League pennant since 1945. Instead, the Marlins sent 12 batters to the plate and scored eight runs. Florida won the game 8-3 and eventually won the 2003 World Series.
That’s how baseball was played. Now let’s see how the game of journalism was played.
The story was an example of an ethical dilemma because Bartman might have been in danger from irate fans. For that reason, I have argued that Bartman’s identity should not have been disclosed by Chicago and other media to protect him.
As I recall, it took about a day before an enterprising Chicago Sun-Times reporter, Frank Main, revealed that Steve Bartman was the fan who fumbled the ball. For a short time, the Chicago Tribune did not reveal Bartman’s identity. But after the Sun-Times went with the story, revealing Bartman’s identity, so did the Chicago Tribune and other media.
They flashed every detail they could about him, not only his identity, but where he lived and where he worked. As many as six police cars lined up outside Bartman’s home to protect him and his family. The Illinois governor suggested he join a witness protection program and Florida’s governor offered Bartman asylum.
Here’s where the ethics dilemma gets tricky. As I see it, if the Chicago Tribune or any other media withheld Bartman’s identity in the interest of protecting him, why identify him just because somebody else did? That’s copycat journalism, as I see it, and not standing your ground on ethics. If it was wrong before, then it was still wrong to identify him even if somebody else did.
Ethics means doing the right thing and sticking with your decision. I did not agree with the Sun-Times decision to name Bartman. I participated in a few public meetings on this issue and other journalists scoff at my view on this. News is news, they say, and that’s what journalists are supposed to report. The guy who fumbled the foul ball was all over national news, so journalists had to identify him, they said.
But have a heart. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics encourages journalists to “minimize harm” and show compassion for people affected by news coverage. The Bartman case shows how news judgment is influenced by what other journalists do. Ethical decision-making involves coming to your own conclusions, not simply doing what other journalists do. Think for yourself. Don’t follow the herd. That’s herd mentality.
Concern for Bartman’s safety
I was working for the Chicago Tribune as a reporter when all this happened. If I had been editor of the Tribune at the time, I would have stuck with the decision the newspaper made initially, which was to withhold Bartman’s identity for the sake of his safety. It probably would have been an unpopular decision, possibly even ridiculed by other journalists. So what? My conscience would have been clear if Bartman had been hurt. It was wrong to put him in that position.
There was concern that some fans might track him down and take revenge.
Besides, the guy never asked for that notoriety and wanted to protect his privacy. He was not a public figure. Bartman apologized and said he wanted to move past it and return to a quiet life.
He released a statement saying he was “truly sorry.” He added, “I had my eye glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moisés Alou, much less that he may have had a play.”
Bartman declined interviews, endorsement deals and requests for public appearances. His family changed its phone number to avoid harassing phone calls. He has declined a $25,000 offer for an autographed picture of himself and declined a six-figure offer to appear in a Super Bowl commercial.
Cubs players came to his defense, saying they lost the game, not Bartman. At first, Alou was angry, but was quoted later saying that he would not have caught the ball anyway, and then he said he was joking, and that it was time “to forgive the guy and move on.” His final comment in a 2011 documentary was: “I’m convinced 100% that I had that ball in my glove.”
The saga comes to a close
Bartman’s father came to his defense. He told the Chicago Sun-Times: “He’s a huge Cubs fan. I’m sure I taught him well. I taught him to catch foul balls when they come near him.”
Chicago being Chicago, some blamed the foul-ball affair on the Curse of the Billy Goat, named for a well-known story about a Greek restaurant-owner who cursed the Cubs when he was ejected from Wrigley Field for trying to bring his goat into the ball park. Others said the Neanderthal behavior of Cubs fans reflected poorly on Chicago’s sports culture. Bartman’s seat in Wrigley Field became a tourist attraction, but he never returned to the ball park.
Chicago had not won a World Series since 1908. The championship drought ended in 2016, when the Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians for the World Series championship. It offered a chance to make amends with Bartman. On July 31, 2017, the Cubs owner Tom Ricketts presented Bartman with a championship ring.
Expressing his gratitude, Bartman said the ring signified “that I am welcomed back into the Cubs family and have their support going forward. I am relieved and hopeful that the saga of the 2003 foul ball incident surrounding my family and me is finally over.”
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.