Friday, August 25, 2017

Steve Bartman, Eglah Arufah and Collective Responsibility

It was October 14, 2003, Game 6 of Major League Baseball’s National League Championship Series. The Chicago Cubs were playing the (then) Florida Marlins at Wrigley Field. The Cubs led the series 3-2. With one out in the top of the 8th inning, the Cubs were 5 outs away from winning their first National League pennant since 1945. Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo was at bat, and he hit a foul ball to the left side. Left fielder Moises Alou seemed poised to catch the ball in foul territory, but a man wearing headphones and a Cubs hat reached up to grab the foul ball. 

That man’s name is Steve Bartman. As a result, Alou was unable to make the play. Cubs fans fed off of Alou’s response and began showering Bartman with abuse. Ultimately, Steve Bartman had to be escorted out of Wrigley Field that night by security, for his own safety. . The Cubs ended up blowing their three-run lead and losing Game 6. When the Cubs went on to lose Game 7, people began to point to that fan’s interference as the turning point that led to the Cubs meltdown.  

People continued to threaten Steve Bartman until very recently. Alex Gibney, writer and producer of an ESPN film about the Bartman episode, notes that things did not have to be that way. Fans could have let the episode go. They could have turned their attention to cheering on their home team, instead of focusing on the foul ball. Instead, the irony was that Cubs fans went to a really dark place at the stadium known as “The Friendly Confines.”

Last month, the Cubs gave Steve Bartman a 2016 World Series Championship ring. In explaining the gift, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said:
We hope this provides closure on an unfortunate chapter of the story that has perpetuated throughout our quest to win a long-awaited World Series. While no gesture can fully lift the public burden he has endured for more than a decade, we felt it was important Steve knows he has been and continues to be fully embraced by this organization. After all he has sacrificed, we are proud to recognize Steve Bartman with this gift today.”

In accepting the ring, Steve Bartman issued a statement, which read in part:
I am relieved and hopeful that the saga of the 2003 foul ball incident surrounding my family and me is finally over. I humbly receive the ring not only as a symbol of one of the most historic achievements in sports, but as an important reminder for how we should treat each other in today's society.”

In this week’s Parsha we read about the mysterious mitzvah of Eglah Arufah. There is an unsolved murder outside the city limits. The elders of the closest cities come together for a ceremony in which they declare that (21:7) “our hands did not spill this blood.” Do we really think that these distinguished leaders had anything to do with the murder?

From this mitzvah we learn the importance of collective responsibility. The elders do not say, “we didn’t do it, it’s not our problem.” Rather they declare that an unsolved murder is a problem for everyone, and everyone must do their part to address the problem.

For a long time Cubs fans scapegoated Steve Bartman. They engaged in magical thinking, fooling themselves that Bartman’s alleged interference caused them to lose, instead of assigning the blame to where it rightfully belonged (or not assigning any blame and just moving on with life.) I am glad that when the Cubs won a championship, team officials took responsibility for the behavior of their fans, and tried in some small way to make amends.

As a community we need to live the lesson of Eglah Arufah and collective responsibility. Even if we are not personally impacted by a problem, we must be sensitive, aware and prepared to address these challenge to the best of our abilities. 

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