Steve Bartman, Don Denkinger, and How a Moment is Remembered


You’re going to see it a few times tonight anyway, and likely a few times each playoff season. Ten years ago today, Luis Castillo lifted a harmless foul popup to the left side at Wrigley Field. Moises Alou approaches the fence to jump for it, and fans reach out, deflecting the ball from Alou’s glove.

It’s an incident that’s not much different from something that happened in Sunday night’s game at Fenway Park. Prince Fielder had a popup get away from him after a fan reached over to try to catch it and the Red Sox stayed alive, eventually winning the game on a single by Jarrod Saltalamacchia,

Oddly, we all know Steve Bartman’s name now, ten years after the Wrigley incident, but we don’t know anyone who got in Fielder’s way.

This time of year, the attention is honed on the few remaining teams. In a best-of-seven series, every game matters, so those moments that turn a game stick out. Bartman became the target of vitriolic fans when the Cubs fell apart, giving up eight runs in the inning after Alou’s failed attempt at the catch. What gets obscured is the walk that Mark Prior allowed to Castillo later in the at bat. Bartman gets the heat, but Alex Gonzalez committed an error on a fairly routine ball that could have been a double play.

Assuming they only get one out on the ball, though, that keeps Ivan Rodriguez from scoring, and a sacrifice fly that scored Miguel Cabrera from third would have been the last out of the inning. Along with that, two players who were intentionally walked ended up scoring. But all the attention lands on Bartman. Death threats. Stalkers. Seclusion. All because of one play that ended a seri–

But it didn’t end the series. That was only Game 6. The Cubs were still at home for Game 7 but lost after blowing a 5-3 lead.

But Bartman’s the story.

In Kansas City, we’re familiar with this power of one moment to overtake the events of a series. I’m referring, of course, to the call at first by Don Denkinger that ruled Jorge Orta safe in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. Some fans contend that this call turned the entire series and somehow nullifies the Royals eventual Series win.

Which, anyone who can read play by play will tell you, is hogwash. But it’s that call that sticks out. Orta was safe, thus the Royals got a gift victory.

Todd Worrell entered the game to hold a 1-0 lead. Orta pinch hits, knocks a chopper to first, and a poor throw from first baseman Jack Clark made Worrell reach behind to catch it and delayed his foot reaching the base. To be clear, Orta was out on the play, so my dispute isn’t with those who say he was out. It was a bad call by Denkinger.

But why does that stick out as the moment when other parts of that inning are ignored? Does anyone complain about Worrell being unable to put Steve Balboni away with an 0-2 count? Balboni singled, but only after Clark muffed a popup in foul territory to keep the at bat alive. Jim Sundberg tried to sacrifice to get both runners into scoring position, but Orta was thrown out at third. The one official out the Cardinals recorded was handed to them by the Royals. And Orta, the beneficiary of a bad call? The only out of the inning in the end.

It’s easy to gloss over the passed ball from Darrell Porter that moved pinch runner Onix Concepcion and Sundberg into scoring position. Hal McRae was intentionally walked and Dane Iorg connected for the game-winning hit as Sundberg slid into home. It’s an iconic moment in Royals history.

And what gets overlooked is the 11-0 drubbing in Game 7. The Cardinals melted down and were dominated by Bret Saberhagen.

The following year, Bill Buckner became the goat, just as Denkinger had drawn blame and how Bartman would later be blamed. The Red Sox had just taken a 5-3 lead in the tenth inning in New York and stuck with Calvin Schiraldi.

Everyone knows about the Mookie Wilson grounder that got past Buckner, but how many realize that Schiraldi retired the first two batters of the inning? Or that he gave up three straight singles, only to give way to Bob Stanley, who threw a wild pitch that allowed the tying run to score and put Ray Knight on second. Then, the Wilson grounder, the Buckner error, and a moment that overshadowed the rest of the events. And, as in the other two examples, there was still a Game 7 that the Red Sox could have won.

Yet rarely is Stanley to blame, or Schiraldi. Or Porter, or Clark. Or Gonzalez. The popular telling of these stories focuses on Bartman, on Denkinger, on Buckner.

Those incidents are still significant. They’re still historic. But to pin the fate of a series entirely on them ignores the full picture of how those games unfolded and the losing teams fell apart.

On this anniversary of the Bartman game, let me point you towards the ESPN documentary “Catching Hell” which covers that night’s events and the things Bartman went through after his brush with notoriety: