Alex Gibney on Catching Hell

Premiering tonight on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET is Alex Gibney’s Catching Hell, the latest installment of the 30 for 30 documentary series, about the Steve Bartman incident — in which, during the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, a Chicago Cubs fan tipped a foul ball away from Cubs left fielder Moises Alou, incurring the wrath of his fellow fans — and scapegoats in sports. Above, watch a clip from Hell. Below, Gibney explains the film in his own words.

“By the pricking of my thumbs
Something wicked this way comes…”

This is the line of the second witch as she senses the approach of Macbeth. She and her sisters know that Macbeth is man torn between good and evil who, with a little prodding, can be nudged him over to the dark side.

Well, I take their point.

In baseball, for any Red Sox fan, this must be the season of the witch. Just a few days before the end of the season, as the Red Sox stumble into what could become the worst collapse in baseball history, and certain victory seems destined to give way to defeat, I can feel the dark tide of recrimination rising in my blood.

I can’t really pay attention to what is going on around me. My wife and children talk to me but they sound a thousand miles away. Like an alcoholic waiting for noon, I am focused on when the first game with the Yankees will start, approaching that moment with thirst and dread, knowing that what’s about to happen is not going to do me any good.

Why, I wonder, am I so affected? It’s just a game, after all. And the Sox have recently won the World Series in 2004 and 2007. But I can’t seem to alter my body’s chemistry. As a fan, I’m addicted to what the witches knew was a desperate need for ambition. When my team wins, it’s great; the dark side disappears in glory. But on the verge of defeat, things aren’t so pretty. I start talking about of curses and looking for someone to blame.

It was with these feelings in mind that I approached Catching Hell, my film about the Steve Bartman incident. When I saw the footage of furious fans from the once Friendly Confines hurling beer and f-bombs at a meek young man trying to hide his face in a windbreaker shroud, I decided to make a film about the dark side of passion for a team. It was an ominous trait I recognized in myself. What happens, on the verge of joy, when things fall apart — inexplicably, disastrously. Why do we seek out one person to blame?

I saw it in 1986 with Bill Buckner. And some of that story is in the film. But Buckner was a player. What makes the Steve Bartman incident so fascinating is that the scapegoat — in the town cursed by a Billy Goat — was a fan. He was one of us. Yet we (I’m feeling Chicago’s pain now) managed to find in his actions — reaching for what every fan wants, a foul ball — a reason for what otherwise could not be so easily explained. How could the Cubs, up 3-0 and five outs away from the World Series, manage to lose 8-3? Did the players feel the expectation and the dread of its upending and so fulfill their fans’ darkest fears? And why was it that once that game six was lost, most of the fans in Wrigley — and even some of the players, as it turns out — were certain that they would lose the next day, as if the fates had decided to twist the knife in their wound?

In short, Catching Hell is a horror film.

Remember that line from The Fly: “Be afraid, be very afraid.”

Scientists tell us that even fruit flies — with whom we share so much neural architecture — can get nasty when the mood is wrong.

Well, as the wave of dread sweeps over me in these last days of the regular season, I think it may be a good time to look back.

By the bobbling of Steve Bartman’s thumbs
Something wicked this way comes …

Filed Under: 30 For 30, Movies, TV