'Catching Hell' explores Bartman saga

CHICAGO -- As he lay in bed one night last week and contemplated what the audience would take away from his upcoming film about Steve Bartman, Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney fell asleep and began to dream.

He said he pictured a parade filing through the streets of downtown Chicago in which everyone was dressed the same: Cubs hat, green turtleneck, navy sweatshirt and a pair of headphones. In other words, exactly what Bartman was wearing that fateful night. The parade wouldn't be held to mock Bartman, Gibney said, but rather to provide the city a chance to forgive, forget and harmoniously come together as one.

"I hope Chicago gives Steve Bartman a parade," Gibney said. "And I hope he doesn't come."

It's been 7½ years since Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, when a foul ball left the bat of Luis Castillo and tracked its way into the outstretched arms of Bartman, transforming an anonymous, meek 26-year-old Little League coach into the human target for a century of Cubs frustration.

Gibney's new film, "Catching Hell," which is scheduled to premiere Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, probes the question of why. Not why did Bartman reach for the ball or why did Moises Alou act like a bratty 9-year-old when he failed to catch it, but why did Cubs fans choose Bartman as the target of their rage that night?

"Should Cubs fans forgive Bartman?" Gibney asks at one point in the film. "No. Because, really, it's up to Bartman to forgive Chicago."

In "Catching Hell," which is scheduled to air on ESPN this fall, Gibney explores all the ingredients that created a cauldron of hatred that night, from the wind speed to Alou's reaction to the not-so-carefully chosen words of Fox broadcaster Steve Lyons. Gibney interviews fans who were seated around Bartman as well as security guards who helped escort the fan out of Wrigley Field as he was being showered with beer, pizza, pretzels and death threats.

"Here's a story that seemingly had been done to death," Gibney said. "But there are so many things that were unreported or just unknown. I couldn't believe how extreme things were. The first time seeing that footage of him getting pelted with stuff and the entire stadium chanting 'a--hole, a--hole' … it's just really intense."

Through his lawyer, Bartman declined to participate in the project. But the film is less about Bartman and more about fans. Why do we feel the need to point blame at one individual? Why can't we let go? To help find the answers, Gibney, who grew up in Boston, interviews former Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, another legendary baseball scapegoat. But while the Red Sox have won two World Series and Buckner has been long forgiven at Fenway Park, Bartman is still waiting for his day.

His story is one that, despite the pleas of many, never seems to go away. Six years ago, I wrote a piece for ESPN.com in which I stalked Bartman outside his parents' home and followed him to his place of work to ask for an interview. In my 11 years at ESPN.com, I've received more email about that story than any other story I've written. The comments range from the ridiculous -- "Your writing reminds me of Hemingway" -- to the truly ridiculous -- "I hope your children are born with birth defects." Not a month goes by without someone emailing to ask whether Bartman's legal team ever got back to me. (It did not.)

Gibney said the reaction to "Catching Hell" has been equally polarizing.

"I had a lot of people who wanted to know: Do we need to keep going after this Bartman?" said Gibney, who also directed "Taxi to the Dark Side," "Enron" and "Client 9." "I searched long and hard within myself as to whether or not I was just doing this for kicks or there was actually something meaningful here."

In the end, Gibney is confident he found meaning and ended up with a film that will prompt people to look at events of that night -- and, by association, at Bartman -- with an entirely new perspective. Even if he never does get a parade.

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com.