I recently watched Alex Gibney’s Catching Hell, which was excellent. Linking together two unjust scapegoats — Buckner and Steve Bartman — it perhaps belabors the point about the fake “curses” that surround both organizations too much, but the point is a good one. The curses serve the same function as scapegoats, inside sports and without — giving people with power a pass. See, it’s not that the Red Sox didn’t win because their (Hall of Fame!) owner was substantially more committed to white supremacy than winning, and once they started to accumulate real talent entrusted it to sixth-rate hacks like Don Zimmer, John McNamara and Grady Little. No, it’s because some guy wanted to finance No, No Nannette during the Harding administration.
I was interested that the movie implicitly makes a point I’d like to make more explicit about Game 6. The general point that making Buckner the goat is irrational, since by the time of his error the Red Sox had already blown the lead and were facing a better team on the road with no good pitchers left, is by now well-known. To me, even worse than the failure to replace Buckner with Stapleton was what Gibney correctly portrays as a panic move — replacing Schiraldi with Stanley. Chris Jaffe’s empirical analysis found that the hapless McNamara had the worst bullpens of any modern manager with any kind of long-term career, and this is Exhibit A. Stanley was nearly done and having a less-than-mediocre year — lefthanders hit .338 off him. And while this tends to be forgotten, Scharaldi had pitched extremely well. I would certainly never argue that you shouldn’t consider whether a pitcher has it on a given day, and if Schiaraldi was nibbling or giving up line drives I might get him out of there even if it meant bringing in the Steemer. But he wasn’t. He was throwing strikes, and none of the singles was particularly hard hit (with the Knight opposite-field jam shot that drove him from the game actually being the least authoritative.) Classic panic overmanaging, and Stanley’s wild pitch was the most important play off the game. To top it off, Gibney shows priceless footage of the gutless Stanley throwing Buckner under the bus after the game. (Sox fans can help me out here, but IIRC Stanley also tried to blame Gedman for the wild pitch, although he couldn’t have caught it with a net.)
Buckner, at least, did make a mistake that made it impossible for his team to win. Making Bartman the scapegoat is even worse, not only because he didn’t do anything wrong but because the Cubs only needed 5 outs with a three run lead even after “the Bartman play.” The real goats were Alex Gonzalez and Dusty Baker, the latter of whom displayed the same fetishes for leaving starters in to get beat up and irrational intentional walks that Don Zimmer (there’s that name again! Amazing how curses follow the guy around, isn’t it?) showed in the 1989 NLCS. The most remarkable part of the film shows the atmosphere in Wrigley, which focused solely and angrily on Bartman, leaving him in real fear for his life. (Speaking of lazy sixth-rate hacks, he also has footage of the Kornheiser and Wilbon throwing gas on the fire the next day.) It may be true that Cubs fans don’t care about Bartman now, but at the time they sure made him the focal point of a loss he bore no responsibility for whatsoever. It’s a remarkable and chilling sequence.