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WRIGLEY FIELD, CHICAGO
OCT. 14, 2003, 10:15 P.M.
Five outs. Five outs between the most star-crossed franchise in major league sports and a chance to end a record of futility that stretched back almost a century. For most of the 39,577 fans jammed into the 89-year-old ballpark, the unseasonably warm afternoon—57° in mid-October—was a promise that this time would be different. This time, unlike all those other times, the fates had decreed that the Chicago Cubs would be spared the near misses, the heartbreak, the despair.
Look what had brought them to this point: Far from repeating the swoons of 1969 and '73, the Cubs had won the National League Central Division by sweeping a doubleheader against the Pirates on the next-to-last day of the regular season. Rather than duplicate the postseason catastrophe of 1984—in which they lost three straight games and a World Series ticket after leading the Padres 2--0—they had won the Division Series 3--2 by defeating the Braves in their own house on a masterful performance by Kerry Wood. And now, in the League Championship Series, the Cubs led the Marlins three games to two after dropping the opener, an 11-inning 9--8 nail-biter, then crushing the Marlins in Game 2 and going to Miami and winning two straight. Even a Marlins victory in Game 5, a two-hit shutout by that kid Josh Beckett, had been good news of a kind. It meant the Cubs would win the National League pennant in Chicago.
And they were going to win it. Mark Prior, the 6'5", 225-pound boy wonder with the 18--6 record and 2.43 ERA, was throwing a three-hit shutout, as dominant as he'd been against Atlanta when he outpitched Greg Maddux with a two-hit complete game. Prior, who had just turned 23, was getting stronger as the game went on, setting the Marlins down 1-2-3 in the sixth and seventh. He induced a fly out to leftfield to lead off the eighth, but then centerfielder Juan Pierre broke the string with a double. Not to worry; Prior had two strikes on second baseman Luis Castillo.
Castillo was tenacious, though, staying alive through seven pitches. Then he sent the eighth twisting down the leftfield line, near the seats, a sure foul, but leftfielder Moises Alou told himself, I can get it, I can get it....
He was 26 years old, a Notre Dame graduate who worked as a human resources consultant, resided with his parents in Chicago's northern suburbs but lived and died with the Cubs. As a boy on school breaks he had gone with his parents to visit the team at its spring training home in Mesa, Ariz. Tonight he was sitting in aisle 4, row 8, seat 113, the seat angled away from leftfield toward home plate but flush against the wall. A glance to his left and he would have seen Alou racing right toward him, but Steve Bartman wasn't watching Alou, he was watching the flight of the ball, and he was doing what generations of baseball fans have done: risking life, limb and wardrobe for a chance to catch a piece of history. There were other arms stretching out, but Bartman was right there against the wall, reaching up as Alou strained to make the critical second out....
For Tadeusz (Taj) Pulaski, it was sheer instinct. Or maybe it was three generations' worth of muscle memory. Pulaski was a 37-year-old usher at Wrigley Field, assigned to the leftfield club boxes. He had spent most of his working life in the ballpark. His grandfather, Kasimierz, had been a hot dog vendor at Wrigley back in 1945, when Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, was told by Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley that he couldn't bring his pet goat into the park for Game 4 of the World Series because the animal's aroma was too powerful, and Sianis supposedly responded, "The Cubs ain't gonna win no more. The Cubs will never win a World Series so long as the goat is not allowed in Wrigley Field." Taj's father, Boleslaw, worked the turnstiles and told him bedtime stories about the day in 1969 that Mets fans at Shea Stadium let a black cat onto the field, the cat crossed in front of Cubs third baseman Ron Santo in the on-deck circle and then ran straight into the Chicago dugout, and Chicago then blew a nine-game Eastern Division lead. Taj himself was four years into his job at Wrigley when the Cubs lost the last three games of the '84 NLCS. So when he saw Castillo's foul drift toward the leftfield line, saw the sea of hands extended, saw the guy with the Cubs cap and the headphones reaching up, Pulaski leaped across the seats, grabbed Bartman around the waist and threw him into a nearby seat ... as the ball dropped into Alou's glove.
Prior struck out Pudge Rodriguez on three pitches to end the inning. He struck out Miguel Cabrera to open the ninth. He gave up a single to Derrek Lee. And then, with almost 40,000 fans on their feet, screaming, weeping, praying, Mike Lowell hit a wicked grounder to the left of second. Alex Gonzalez, the best fielding shortstop in the league, speared the ball and flipped it to Mark Grudzielanek, who stepped on second and threw to Eric Karros for the double play that put the Chicago Cubs in the World Series for the first time since 1945.
Bartman, briefly hospitalized with a fractured left wrist and a bruised cheekbone, laughed when asked if he would sue the Cubs. "I'd have taken a bullet for the team," he said. He and Pulaski appeared together on The Late Show with David Letterman, reading a list of Top Ten Secret Strategies to Beat the Yankees ("Number 6: When Yanks are at bat, block the base paths with squeegee men"), and Bartman was given tickets to the Series games at Wrigley in the same seat he'd occupied on that pennant-winning night.