An Access Advertising EconBrief:
The Mentality of Emotional Entitlement: the Steve Bartman Incident Revisited
The legacy of wisdom left by Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek includes his observation that markets work not because participants are rational, but because the very act of participation itself tends to make us more rational. Since markets reward rational behavior, capitalist societies become more rational over time as successful members prosper and multiply.
When segments of society resist this evolutionary progress, it behooves us to wonder why. It took almost a century and a half for sports executives to adapt the economic logic of choice into a tool to improve the on-field performance of sports teams. In the last decade, that modus operandi has swept the industry like an antibiotic-resistant germ. The business end of sports obeys Hayek’s evolutionary dictum.
Sports fans are a different story; they resist economic logic as baloney rejects the grinder. The Oscar-winning film telling the story of “moneyball” was a success d’estime but a poor performer at the box office. Even more telling is their faith in the so-called “economic development benefits” conferred by a professional sports franchise on its host city. Study after study has found no incremental gain accruing from the lavish subsidies conferred upon sports teams in the form of stadium-construction and/or -repair subsidies, rent forgiveness and relocation bonuses. To the extent that they exist, the absolute size of the economic benefit from a sports franchise is comparable to that of a mid-sized department store, according to various estimates by economists. But when subsidy proponents cite ostensible “multiplier effects” from sports teams that would make even a Keynesian economist blush with shame, sports fans fall for it like eggs from a tall chicken.
To rationalize such arguments in the name of economics – the science of rational choice – requires industrial-strength chutzpah. Where does this come from? The answer is best provided by an illustration – the notorious Steve Bartman incident.
The Shame of a City and a Profession: the Steve Bartman Incident
In the 2003 baseball season, the Florida Marlins and Chicago Cubs competed in the National League championship series for the right to play in the World Series. For the Cubs and their fans, this was a climactic moment. The team had not played in the World Series since its 1945 loss to the Detroit Tigers. Their only World Series victory had come in 1908, over the Tigers. This 95-year championship drought was (and remains) the longest of any American professional sports team.
The Cubs whetted their fans’ appetites further by taking a 3-1 lead in games won before losing game five. In the sixth game, they led 3-0 going into the eighth inning. Now just six outs away from their first World Series appearance in 58 years, they could feel the taste of clubhouse champagne bubbling in their mouths. When the first Marlins’ hitter was retired, there were only five outs to go. The next hitter doubled, placing a runner at second base. That brought up Manny Castillo, who worked the ball-and-strike count to its maximum of three balls and two strikes. Then he lifted a fly ball down the left-field line to the edge of the grandstand.
Cubs’ left-fielder Moises Alou was an outstanding hitter but a rather poor outfielder. Nevertheless, he raced to the grandstand, arriving just as the ball reached the stands. As Cubs’ announcer Thom Brennaman called the play (and endless replays confirmed), Alou had to jump high in the air and reach backhanded over the grandstand rail to reach the ball, because the stands were elevated well above ground-level at that point in Wrigley Field . (Presumably, this progressive elevation proceeding farther towards the outfield is a deliberate construction device intended to improve sight lines for fans.)
Outfielder Alou wasn’t the only person reaching for the ball. Reconciling the various accounts, replays and photographs of the incident suggests that at least six fans reached for the ball and at least three fans were very close to it. We know the names of two of those fans. One of them was a man named Pat Conley, who later commented quite volubly about his attempt to catch the ball. However, the ball passed behind him, just beyond his reach.
As fate would have it, the ball came within a foot or two of the fan occupying Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113. The occupant was a 26-year-old man named Steve Bartman. He was a lifelong Chicago Cubs’ fan who attended the fame with a good friend and the friend’s girlfriend. Bartman had played baseball himself as a boy and was now coach of a youth team. The words “came down” should not be interpreted to mean that the ball descended directly to the floor of the grandstand. Although it was difficult to distinguish what happened in live action, slow-motion replays clearly show that Bartman extended his arms directly out from his body and touched the ball, interrupting its course toward Alou’s glove below. The ball bounced away into the grandstand, where it was picked up by another fan. It was simply a foul ball, and Castillo’s at-bat continued.
Alou leaped and pivoted away from the grandstand, gesturing back toward the fans who had reached for the ball and grimacing in dismay and disapproval. At first, the fans in the stadium seemed unaware of the exact source of his annoyance. But in the Fox Television broadcast booth, announcer Brennaman told his viewers “that was a Cubs fan that tried to make that catch.” Broadcast partner Steve Lyons volunteered his reaction: “Why? I’m surprised that someone hasn’t thrown that fan onto the field.” Cell phones throughout the stadium began to ring as fans received calls from friends and acquaintances telling them that a Cubs fan had prevented Alou from making the catch – and identifying the fan by describing his clothing and the headphones he wore. Bartman, it seems, was such a hard-core fan that he brought his radio to the game to listen to the play-by-play even while watching on-site.
Very soon, resounding chants of “Asshole! Asshole!” filled the air and Bartman became the focus of attention both within the stadium and on camera. Stadium security guards arrived at his seat and surrounded him as a protective measure. Meanwhile, the game continued as follows: Castillo drew a walk, with ball four being a wild pitch that allowed the runner on second to advance to third; the next hitter singled, driving in the Marlins’ first run; the next hitter slapped an easy ground ball to star-fielding shortstop Alex Gonzales. According to most accounts, it seemed to be a made-to-order double play ball that would have ended the eighth inning with the Cubs ahead by two runs. But Gonzales fumbled the ball, leaving the bases loaded. The next hitter doubled, driving in two runs and tying the game, 3-3. With men on second and third, the next Marlin was walked intentionally. Jeff Conine hit a sacrifice fly that scored the Marlins’ go-ahead run while the inning’s second out was recorded. (Had Alou caught Castillo’s foul ball, this would have been the third out of the inning – assuming that everything subsequently would have happened the same as it did, in fact, happen.) The throw to the infield was not cut off, allowing the runners to advance. Another intentional walk was followed by a double that drove in three more Marlin runs, followed by still one more run-scoring single. Manny Castillo returned to the plate and ended the inning with a pop-up and the Marlins now ahead 8-3. This became the game’s final score.
But Steve Bartman never got to see the inning through to completion. As the fans’ chants grew louder and their threats more menacing, the guards escorted him away from his seat. As Bartman entered the tunnel leading outside the stadium, he was pelted with beer, cups and other debris. One fan tried to assault him; another fan tried to restrain the assailant and ended up in a fight for his pains. Bartman was eventually accompanied to the home of one of the security guards, as it was felt he might not be safe in his own home. His name and address had been obtained and callers to sports-talk shows that night proposed to organize expeditions to his home in order to kill him.
In the seventh and deciding game of the National League championship series, the Cubs trailed 3-0 but came back to take a 5-3 lead. They could not hold the lead and lost, 9-6. In two subsequent playoff series, they also failed to reach the World Series.
The furor over Bartman did not abate with the end of the game or even the end of the series. It was plain that substantial segments of the public blamed Bartman for the Cubs’ loss. This was so despite official statements by the team, the National League and the Commissioner of Baseball deploring the actions of fans and the persecution of Bartman and denying his effect on the game’s outcome. Several Cubs players insisted that they, not Bartman, bore sole responsibility for the loss. Bartman himself later issued a two-paragraph statement in which he apologized for his actions (“I’m truly sorry”) and stressed his undying loyalty to the Cubs. Replying to those, notably sportswriters, who criticized his failure to yield the right of way to Alou, he explained that “I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moises Alou, much less that he may have had a play.”
The magnitude of public obsession with the Bartman incident can be gauged by the fate of the ball that Bartman and Alou failed to catch. It was retrieved by a Chicago lawyer who sold it at auction for $113,000. But the ball was not retired to a glass case. The buyer arranged for its public detonation (!), with the steam generated by the explosion being piped off and infused into a special batch of spaghetti sauce (!!). This ritual was promoted as a kind of exorcism of the evil spirits that were supposedly thwarting the Cubs – and, by extension, the hopes and dreams of their fans.
Bartman did not lack for defenders. Sportswriters professed to be appalled by the fans’ behavior. They found the announcers’ actions questionable. Over time, they admired Bartman’s unconditional refusal of all monetary compensation for appearances, promotions or first-person accounts. But their support for Bartman has been strangely reserved and conditional. They have stressed his apology, as they would for a criminal who has paid a debt owed to society and now deserves to be let alone. They have hedged their conclusions by admitting that Bartman was at least partially at fault for his own persecution – the reasons vary from not “try[ing] his best to get out of the way, even if he wasn’t of a mind to see Alou approaching” to sitting silent and looking guilty before being led away from his seat to not being vigorous in his own defense. At least one writer sees no benefit to the team in urging Bartman to appear at Wrigley Field to receive a public apology, believing fans would “rip him to pieces.”
In 2011, Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney’s documentary on the Bartman incident, Catching Hell, was shown on the ESPN network after making the rounds of the festival circuit. The documentary gathers the relevant archival materials on the case and utilizes the contemporary quick-cut, soundbite editing technique of presentation. Its most shocking feature is its presentation of fans and commentators critical of Bartman, such as the one who blandly maintains that Bartman’s headphone-wearing, deadpan presence was an insufferable provocation to fans and viewers. The fan did not provide a rationale for this stance or say how Bartman should have behaved.
Although Catching Hell was clearly intended as a tacit condemnation of the persecution of Steve Bartman, it hews to the party line in refusing to absolve Bartman of blame for his own crucifixion. Its closing lines express regret that Bartman couldn’t “have sacrificed his dream of catching a foul ball and pulled his hands away to allow Alou to catch that ball.”
According to friends, Bartman continues to avoid going out in public – particularly to Wrigley Field – for fear of being recognized. He refuses interviews; when tracked down by a reporter, he deferred responses pending consultation with his “legal team.” He is employed by a financial-consulting firm in the Chicago area.
As recently as 2013 – ten years after the Bartman Incident – the New York Times characterized Steve Bartman as “the most infamous fan, perhaps, in the history of American sports.”
It is time to lay the myth of Steve Bartman to rest once and for all.
The Truth About the Steve Bartman Incident
The most efficient way to reveal the truth about the Steve Bartman Incident is to isolate its individual components and uproot the axioms planted in each one.
The Cubs would have won game six if Moises Alou had caught Manny Castillo’s foul fly ball. This is perhaps the most deeply planted axiom of the entire episode. It explains the otherwise inexplicable persistence of the widespread antagonism toward Bartman. (However, it is not the source of that antagonism, as we shall see.) Apparently, there are thousands of people in the Chicago metropolitan area who are convinced that destiny had decreed a Cub victory that was derailed by Steve Bartman.
This is pure conjecture. There is no logical basis for believing or doubting it. It belongs to the same historical category as “what would have happened if John Wilkes Booth had not shot Abraham Lincoln in April, 1865.” The uncertainty derives from the fact that the counterfactual (Alou’s catch, which we are now assuming but that didn’t actually happen) changes the past and makes subsequent events indeterminate. If we were to assume that all subsequent plays unfolded exactly as they did in reality, then the second out of the inning – Jeff Conine’s sacrifice fly – would in fact have become the third out of the inning with the Cubs leading, 3-2. (Castillo, who scored the Cubs’ second run, would have been an out rather than a baserunner.) But that is a conjectural assumption on our part. For example, the runner on first who cautiously advanced only to third base with only one out on the Marlins’ game-tying double might well have tried to score with two outs. Why? Because the chances of scoring from third on an out with one out argue against making a risky try to score, while the chances of scoring with two outs are much less and justify taking more baserunning risk to score the tying run.
To grasp the importance of conjecture, contrast the actual situation in that playoff game with a different hypothetical case. Suppose that there had been two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Cubs leading. Now it would be certain that the Cubs would have won if Alou had caught the ball. (There are no “subsequent events” subject to conjecture.) Of course, that would still leave the most interesting questions unanswered, but at least this question would be settled. In the actual case, though, the question “what would have happened if Alou had caught the ball” is unanswered and unanswerable. It does point to another relevant question – and another planted axiom.
Alou would have caught the ball if Bartman had not interfered with the play. This is another axiom that is buried deeply in the soil of Wrigley Field – and should be exhumed for study. Virtually everybody takes it for granted. Ironically, Alou himself was quoted as follows by the Associated Press in 2008: “You know the funny thing? I wouldn’t have caught it anyway.” This would seem a rather astonishing admission, since it renders moot virtually everything said since the conclusion of the game. To muddy the waters even further, though, Catching Hell interviews Alou in a contrary vein: “I’m convinced 100% that I had that ball in my glove” if not for Bartman.
Alou can hardly be viewed as a neutral witness, but his opinion is really irrelevant since this belongs in the same category of conjecture as the preceding premise. We simply don’t know whether Alou, left to his own devices, would have caught Castillo’s foul ball or not. What we do know is that it would have been a very difficult play and that Alou was a poor outfielder. More precisely, Alou would have had to make a leaping, backhanded catch while coming to an abrupt stop after a long run and while leaning over a barrier. As baseball players of all ages know, catching a baseball while undergoing bodily strain can cause a player to reflexively close his gloved hand prematurely, leading to a missed catch. There is also the difficulty of following a spinning foul ball under windy conditions to consider.
Once again, Alou’s catch is a conjectural possibility rather than a presumed certainty. If he would have missed the ball anyway, then Bartman’s role in the episode is irrelevant. This, in turn, leads to another contention that many people have taken for granted.
Castillo should have been called out because Bartman’s actions constituted “interference” with Alou according to the rules of baseball. Two lawyers who are also Cubs’ fans tried to make this case in a “brief” they wrote as a public service. Their claim was based on the fact that still photographs taken from some angles seemed to show that Bartman’s momentum had carried his arms across the (imaginary) vertical plane separating the playing field from the grandstand.
Unfortunately, Bartman has a conclusive defense to this charge. The same combination of replays and photographs shows with absolute certainty that Alou had to leap up and reach backhanded across the grandstand wall in order to position himself for the catch. Thus, the locus of the play itself was on the grandstand side of the imaginary plane, not on the playing-field side. Bartman may have penetrated the imaginary plane if his forward momentum placed his arms slightly across the plane, but this was irrelevant to the question of interference because that penetration occurred after the ball was disturbed on its downward path toward Alou’s glove. Presumably, this explains why the umpire did not invoke the interference rule and call Castillo out.
Like many laws or rules passed by people anxious to dispose of a problem, the interference rule works well enough in ordinary situations. This was one of the proverbial “hard cases that make bad law.” The logical solution to the problem of interference is for baseball-team owners to prevent it, either by building solid grandstand walls thick enough to prevent fans from reaching players or by placing barriers on the outside of the grandstand walls to achieve the same effect. It is inherently illogical to make fans, the paying customers to a sports contest, bear responsibility for insuring the integrity of that contest.
And this, in turn, leads us to the biggest planted axiom of all.
Practically everybody who has spoken publicly on the episode, including Bartman himself, assumes that Bartman did something wrong. But if the outcome of the game was conjectural even if Alou had caught Castillo’s ball, if we cannot even be sure that Alou would have caught it, and if Bartman cannot be adjudged legally guilty of interference according to baseball rules, exactly what did Steve Bartman do wrong? The fine print on the back of tickets sold by major-league baseball teams contains a disclaimer of liability for injuries incurred by causes such as foul balls and accidentally released or splintered bats. If teams are not responsible, it follows that fans must have the absolute right to protect themselves while within the confines of the grandstand.
Everybody seems to take it for granted that Steve Bartman acted deliberately to catch Manny Castillo’s foul ball as a souvenir. He may or may not have, but that is a non sequitur; every fan has the inherent right to self-protection. A foul ball such as the one hit by Castillo travels with sufficient force to fracture bones, even a skull. In a recent case now in litigation, a fan lost an eye to a line drive. In very rare cases, such injuries can be fatal; Little League players have suffered cardiac arrest when struck in the chest by a thrown baseball.
Sportswriters have sometimes suggested that Bartman should have evaded the Castillo’s fly ball to allow Alou to make the catch. This suggestion is utterly fatuous. Consider the implied logistics. The elapsed time of Castillo’s foul fly ball has been estimated at four seconds. In principle, there is only one person who should have to take such evasive action – the person whose seat is the ultimate destination of the ball. But at the time the ball is hit, nobody can know which person that is because nobody has the power to precisely determine where the ball will land. Even when the ball begins its downward trajectory, its true destination is still in doubt; that is why so many people were recorded reaching for it. At most, Steve Bartman had perhaps a second of realization (give or take a few fractions) during which he knew that the ball was heading for him. In an episode of the old Twilight Zone television series, he might have snapped his fingers, frozen time for everybody and everything at the stadium except him, looked around to assess the situation, glanced downward at the field and saw Moises Alou nearing the grandstand, and moved a safe distance away – then snapped his fingers to starttime rolling again. Alas, he did not operate in Rod Serling’s world of imagination.
In reality, his own account dovetails exactly with rational expectation. Bartman, the former player and current youth coach, did exactly what he taught his players to do – he followed the flight of the ball. He had no reason to think that Alou had a play on the ball because of the elevated seating and because he could not predict exactly where the ball would land. By the time he knew where the ball would end up, he had about a second to react. Instinct took over, as it would with anybody else in his position. He may have been partly trying to catch the ball – his father said that he “taught Steve to catch foul balls whenever he could” – but the chances are that he was just trying to get his hands on the ball to fend it off, the normal avoidance reflex toward approaching harm. The accounts describing the incident often say that Bartman “deflected” or “knocked” the ball away from Alou – these are not synonyms for “caught.”
Bartman didn’t simply let the ball go because he was instinctively concentrated on making contact with it. Until the last fraction of a second before the ball reached him, he couldn’t tell if it would hit him or miss him by a foot or so, so he followed his instinctive “plan” to catch or deflect it.
Should Bartman have ducked down at the last second to avoid the ball? Sometimes people do this when the last-second realization of the baseball hurtling at them and their lack of a baseball glove makes them bail out. But in this case Bartman had no place to go to and would probably have run into Alou instead of deflecting the ball. And somebody else reaching for the ball would have moved in to occupy his space and deflect or catch it instead.
Bartman paid for his seat. He had no legal or moral obligation to leave it unless that would improve his chances of self-protection. If everybody who thought the ball might come close to them when the ball was first hit were to get up and run to a new location, this would mean that a whole vector of ticketholders would be up and running simultaneously. This would produce chaos and the likelihood of injuries and wouldn’t improve the chances of avoiding interference even if other fans could be prevented from simultaneously moving toward the area. No, the avoidance idea is just plain silly. Besides, Bartman didn’t have time or reason to think of it.
Because fans like to fantasize, the catching of foul balls has acquired a kind of cachet. It seldom happens because struck baseballs are hard enough to catch with a baseball glove and because the partial contact between bat and foul ball imparts spin that increases the difficulty of a catch. But this cachet gave people the pretext they needed to blame Bartman. He was selfish, out souvenir-hunting, not thinking of his team – of their team – the way a loyal fan should.
This issue is a non sequitur, a red herring. Bartman had a legal and moral right to catch the ball in self-protection, keep it as a souvenir, sell it or give it away to charity. He was not obligated to avoid the problem or anticipate it.
Bill Buckner played first base for the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series. His fielding error cost them the sixth game, prolonging a supposed “curse” that had frustrated the team since pitcher Babe Ruth had helped secure its 1918 World Series triumph. Buckner sums up the inherent logic of the Steve Bartman incident. “To get crucified the way he did is mind-boggling. He didn’t do anything. Take a major-league ballplayer and sit him in that seat and he would have done the same thing. I would have done the same thing.”
Why Did Fans React As They Did to the Steve Bartman Incident?
Baseball was been America’s national pastime for over a century. Passions and loyalties have run hot for the game. But no episode as ugly and wide-ranging as the Bartman Incident comes to mind. In past years, Americans might have disapproved of Bartman’s actions. But they would have restrained themselves from behaving as savagely as Cubs’ fans did that night. They would have reserved judgment before behaving hurtfully to Bartman.
We began by noting an observation by F.A. Hayek. Hayek also made a critical distinction between freedom and power. The Cubs’ fans were not exercising their freedom of speech or action that night because they did not have the right to behave as they did. A right is only valid if its exercise does not deprive somebody else of their rights. The fans deprived Bartman of his personal safety, liberty and pursuit of happiness by assaulting and persecuting him falsely. At least one announcer incited fans to commit a criminal act.
The fans felt entitled to assert power over Bartman because their emotions were so strongly aroused by their loyalty to the Cubs and by the vicarious investment they held in the success of “their” sports team. A theory of just entitlement, such as a property right, implies a logical grounding to that entitlement. But the fans had no logic on their side, as we have just demonstrated. The strength of their emotions was their only argument. Thus, they operated on the basis of an implicit theory that we can call a theory of emotional entitlement. Their emotions were so strongly engaged that they immediately sought validation from the flimsiest of pretexts. This same mentality of emotional entitlement closes fans’ minds to the case against professional sports as an engine of economic development.
The modern entitlement society is an artifact of the welfare state. Its hold is even stronger in the rest of the world than it is here in the United States. It is therefore no coincidence that soccer riots involving dozens of deaths are an occasional feature of life in those foreign countries. The Steve Bartman Incident is a low-level version of this same descent into nihilistic decadence, where the Rule of Law gives way to the sway of emotional entitlement.