Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Invisible Fan

Steve Bartman, pictured in 2003, is one of the most recognized
Cubs fans of all time. (Scott Strazzante/Tribune photo)
Scapegoat Bartman has managed to remain undetected for 8 years
By K.C. Johnson, Chicago Tribune reporter
September 26, 2011
He isn't on Facebook, though his fake profile and a fan club for him are. He doesn't Tweet, at least under his name. He never did the talk show circuit, cashed in any of the lucrative financial offers thrown his way or accepted the official overtures to return as a VIP to his beloved Wrigley Field.
Instead, Steve Bartman disappeared.
Forget about 15 minutes of fame or, perhaps, infamy. Bartman is approaching eight years of silence.
Bartman's brother-in-law read a statement from Steve on Oct. 15, 2003, one day after Bartman unwillingly entered Cubs folklore by trying to catch a foul ball that left-fielder Moises Alou hoped to snare with the Cubs five outs away from their first pennant in 58 years.
Since then, Bartman's silence has spoken as loudly as the venom that spewed from a supercharged fan base. The emotion even led to death threats for the suburban youth baseball coach and consultant after security escorted him from the stadium where the Cubs lost Game 6 and, eventually, Game 7 of the National League Championship Series to the Florida Marlins.
Yet in this age of 24-hour news cycles, social media and Kardashian-tinged celebrity, Bartman is a ghost.
"Yes, he is happy," says Frank Murtha, a lawyer, agent and longtime family friend. "Because that's who he is."
Murtha talks to Bartman regularly. Sometimes, their conversations involve business, as when Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney sought Bartman's presence in his documentary on the subject that premieres Tuesday on ESPN. Bartman turned that down, just as he turned down, according to Murtha, a six-figure offer to appear in a Super Bowl commercial.
Mostly, though, their conversations are personal.
"The kind of person he was growing up and throughout the time I knew him at Notre Dame, I'm not surprised he chose not to commercially profit from this incident, which many others have and would've," Murtha says. "That was consistent with my advice. But it was his idea. And it wouldn't have been difficult for him to profit considerably."
Murtha is asked if Bartman's vanishing act is a permanent position.
"If he ever chooses to speak publicly, it will be in a time and place and medium of his choice, not one that has been imposed on him by others," Murtha says. "That's not to say he will do that. At this point, he has no immediate plans for discussion."
And so others are left to talk for Bartman. Perhaps equally amazing as Bartman's silent stand is that those who do analyze him don't know him. His friends don't talk about him. His employer, Aon Hewitt, has swallowed him in a protective cocoon. Save for a brief comment from his father the day after the incident, his family has stayed quiet as well.
"Those who know Steve saw this incident unfold and its ramifications," Murtha explains. "No one was holding a gun to their heads. But they respected Steve and his posture on it that with no real exceptions, they did whatever they could to respect his privacy. When it was all first going down and 14 satellite trucks were parked in front of their house, a neighbor went on the 'Today' show. But that's about it."
An ESPN.com reporter followed Bartman to his office parking complex and waited 10 hours for him to emerge for a 2005 feature. Even then, Bartman disarmed the reporter with his response, saying he'd consult with his legal team and politely scolding him for stalking.
And so, for some reason — following Bartman's lead or perhaps trying to assuage the initial torment he experienced — the media has become partners in the equation. Bartman can be found. It just seems clear he isn't talking.
"He must be fiercely private," says Erica Swerdlow, managing director for Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm specializing in crisis communications. "Even beyond disloyal friends or family members selling things, Kevin James wanted to do a movie about it. A lot of money may have been thrown his way. He could be on 'Dancing With the Stars' right now if he wanted to. Money often extends people's 15 minutes. He stepped away. And he did it early."
Swerdlow lives in the same suburb where Bartman's parents do and saw the satellite trucks parked outside their home. She admits to being "embarrassed" by the angry fans' reaction.
"The only thing he didn't include in his statement — and I remember screaming at the TV at that moment and still would today — is he should've put everybody in his shoes," Swerdlow says. "He was very apologetic. He said he was a big Cubs fan. But he should've said, 'I believe I did something every single fan would've done if they had been sitting in that seat.' It would've made all the haters stop and say, 'It's not his fault. It's just another bad luck thing for the Cubs.'
"That doesn't work in every case. Tiger Woods couldn't say, 'A lot of people cheat on their wives.' But in this case, it was a honest mistake."
Try telling that to Mike Lebowicz. Standing outside Wrigley Field on a recent rainy day, the lifelong Cubs fan, who had just toured the park for $25, said he's still "frustrated" by Bartman's decision.
"He was totally oblivious," Lebowicz says. "He had headphones on. He should've known the situation."
Lebowicz's son, Ari, who watched Game 6 live at 3 a.m. while in Israel, offers that most fans would've reacted how Bartman did. Any fan who carts a baseball glove to a stadium, pounding it in anticipation, can relate.
"Well, he does have a legacy for now like the goat and the black cat," counters Mike, referring to other infamous Cubs curses. "But maybe when the Cubs win it all, it will be forgotten."
That's what Grant DePorter says he aimed for when he purchased the ball — ultimately snared by a lawyer — in an online auction for $113,824.16 in December 2003. Two months later, in a surreal scene covered live by national news outlets, the president and managing partner of Harry Caray's Restaurant Group blew up the ball, which remains on display in his downtown restaurant.
"To be in the tent, you had to be pro-Steve Bartman," DePorter says of the event that Bartman declined to attend. "Harry would've got a hold of the ball, let the fans be a part of it and then move on. If people believe in the curse and this ball is cursed, blow it up. Then maybe the curse is gone and people can think of other things."
Bartman, apparently, moved on long ago. DePorter sent him a book he wrote in 2008 with autographs from Ernie Banks and Ryne Sandberg expressing their support. He got no response. Another time, DePorter said then-Cubs President John McDonough sat next to Bartman's boss at a dinner. Bartman turned down those entreaties as well.
"Most people would've gone the other way and tried to make a fortune," DePorter says. "He became invisible."
Not entirely.
Bartman, in part to honor Ron Santo's struggles, identified the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation early on in his nightmare to benefit from the random donations he would receive from sympathetic fans. DePorter, who followed Bartman's lead, says some of the most touching of the 20,000 emails he received about the ball blow-up were from young kids battling diabetes.
Amy Franze, then a senior executive at Illinois' chapter of JDRF, held a fundraiser.
"Steve Bartman came up to her," DePorter says. "He had a hat on. He just said, 'Do you know who I am?' She said, 'No.' He said, 'I'm Steve Bartman and I wanted to thank you.' She said it was a nice conversation."
And then Bartman was gone again.

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