It was cold out there, late on that October night in Chicago, when Miguel Cabrera hit a chopping ground ball to Alex Gonzalez’s right side. The 30-year-old Chicago Cubs shortstop had been waiting for this type of moment his entire career, pedestrian as it was, and he had made this play a few thousand times before. A step or two right, plant the feet, backhand the ball, open up the hips, and sidearm it to second. Cabrera hit it slowly, but if Gonzalez made the turn quick enough, it might start a routine 6-4-3 double play that would get the Cubs out of the eighth inning and move them within three outs of their first trip to the World Series since 1945. At least there would be two outs when the Marlins’ go-ahead run came to the plate.
Just minutes earlier, some fan — Gonzalez and all of Chicago would later learn that his name was Steve Bartman — may or may not have interfered as Moises Alou tried to catch a fly ball near the left field stands, but none of that was going to matter now, because here was this ground ball that was going to get the Cubs out of the inning. A thousand times Gonzalez had made this play.
Except this time he didn’t.
Maybe it was the Billy Goat thing, or maybe it was just the weight of an entire city on his shoulders, but whatever the cause, the ball hit Gonzalez in the heel of his glove and squirted back to the ground. Everyone was safe, and all the sudden the World Series that had seemed so close a half-second ago never felt farther away. It’s painful to watch even 10 years later.
It’d only get worse. The Marlins, down 3-0 when the inning began and 3-1 when Gonzalez booted Cabrera’s routine chopper, played merry-go-round on the basepaths for the next 10 minutes or so, putting up eight runs and all but ending Game 6. The Fish would come back and win Game 7 the next night, and Cubs fans, only a select few of whom were alive the last time their team won the World Series in 1908, were waiting ’til next year all over again.
They haven’t come close since.
Give it up for Cubs fans, though. They haven’t turned Gonzalez into their version of Bill Buckner. He wasn’t showered in beer as security escorted him from the field. He didn’t need a security detail to get home that night, and he wasn’t even the focus of the nightly news. He didn’t become the symbol of everything wrong with Cubs baseball. And nobody, especially not some guy who owns a local restaurant, went out and paid more than a hundred grand for the ball so he could blow it up in a controlled explosion meant to rid the Cubs of their demons forever. He didn’t have to flee the city and watch Game 7 in exile. He wasn’t chased down — stalked even — years later by an ESPN reporter who ambushed him in a parking lot to try to get him to talk about that one night in October when his life came crashing down. He never became the subject of an ESPN documentary. Hell, it’s hard to even find stories about the incident, much less anyone marking the 10th anniversary of it all. Gonzalez went on to play three more seasons in the Major Leagues, and be honest, you haven’t thought much about him since.
No, Cubs fans and the sports world were gracious toward Gonzalez that night. Maybe they’d seen how years of hatred had done in a guy like Buckner, himself once a Cub whose life changed when he misplayed a simple grounder in the World Series. Maybe they realized that Gonzalez’s error was really only one ugly play in a series of them for the Cubs, that even after the error, Chicago had a chance to work itself out of the jam and protect its lead. Maybe they understood that the Cubs could have come back and won Game 7 — or that they should have, given that manager Dusty Baker was sending his ace to the mound. Maybe they realized that their century of suffering wasn’t all Alex Gonzalez’s fault, that he was only one guy who made an unfortunate mistake on a routine play at the worst possible time.
Whatever it was, Cubs fans understood the pain Gonzalez was probably putting himself through, and they didn’t pile on. And thank God they didn’t, because it would have been a shame had they turned the man into the city’s number one pariah — everything wrong with the history of Cubs baseball, even — simply because he made a mistake during the biggest game of his life.