After the Chicago Cubs were silenced by the juggernaut Florida Marlins in Game 5 of the 2003 National League Championship Series in a 4-0 shutout, there was little panic around Chicago as the North Siders were still excellently positioned to make it back to the World Series for the first time in 58 years.
After dropping a back-and-forth heartbreaker in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series, the Cubs won three straight games against the Marlins, including an extra-inning affair in Miami Gardens in Game 3.
Heading back to Wrigley Field for Games 6 and 7 with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood on the mound, MLB's top two strikeout pitchers of 2003, it seemed that the Cubs would have a chance to win the NL pennant at home.
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Then, what was a magical season, one where the Cubs won their first division title in 14 years just a season after losing 95 games, came crashing down in what felt like the most Cubs way possible.
The 2003 Cubs did not enter Opening Day expecting to be serious contenders. With a slew of modest offseason additions such as Eric Karros, Mark Grudzielanek and Damian Miller along with a young pitching staff getting another year of experience under them, an improvement of five-to-10 games would have been considered a success.
Yet the Cubs found themselves right in the mix for the division crown in one of the league's weaker divisions that season, battling the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals down the wire to the end of the season.
While leading the division for much April, May and June, the Cubs found themselves as many as 5.5 games out of first place in late July, holding a 51-52 record at one point and spending much of July and August in third place.
Key to making up ground was a pivotal five-game set against the Cardinals to start off September, a series in which the Cubs took four out of five games, leaving them just a half-game out of first place by the time the series concluded.
The Cubs kept steady in September and won five of their final seven games to secure a berth in the postseason for the first time in five years, drawing a rematch with the Atlanta Braves.
Known season-long for a fiery, strikeout heavy rotation that was fortified by Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement beyond Wood and Prior, the North Siders relied on timely hitting for most of the season, ranking in the lower half of the National League in many offensive categories.
The lack of offensive firepower was addressed at the trade deadline, when the Cubs most notably acquired Aramis Ramirez, but also added Kenny Lofton and Doug Glanville for the playoff push.
The acquisitions paid off, as the Cubs upset the Braves in the NLDS, largely thanks to stellar performances from Kerry Wood in Games 1 and 5 of the series, both played in Atlanta.
Then after wins in three of the first five games of the NLCS against the Marlins, the Cubs had arrived at their golden opportunity: two of the best pitchers in baseball, starting at home, with a chance to go to the World Series.
Most of that Tuesday night game 20 years ago was no different than any other Mark Prior start in his dominant 2003. The Cubs got off to an early lead thanks to a 1st inning RBI double from Sammy Sosa, adding on a second run in the sixth inning thanks to a wild pitch.
Prior, on the other hand, was in complete control.
While his six strikeouts in as many innings did not represent the crazy strikeout numbers Prior had posted for much of the year, the 22-year-old righty was limiting hard contact and still baffling the Marlins despite not having his best stuff of the year that night.
Just as Dusty Baker had done all season, he continued to ride with Prior in Game 6. The Cubs' bullpen, while full of formidable veteran names like Mark Guthrie, Mike Remlinger and Antonio Alfonseca, was clearly still a weakness for the club.
Some of the worries about the remainder of the game were then put to rest when a Mark Grudzielanek RBI single knocked in another run for the Cubs in the bottom of the seventh inning, giving the Cubs a three-run lead with just six outs to capture.
The eighth inning started out smoothly, with Prior inducing a flyout from Mike Mordecai.
After surrendering a double to speedster and then-future Cub Juan Pierre, Prior was engaged in a lengthy battle with Marlins' second baseman Luis Castillo.
Then, this happened:
On Castillo's high flyball down the left field line, Moises Alou attempted to make a play on the ball for the inning's second out when a fan, later revealed to be Steve Bartman, leaned over the railing and interrupted the play.
Had this play happened in 2014 or later, a video replay review likely would have determined there to be fan interference on the ball, and Castillo would have been ruled out.
While umpires could still convene prior to video replay to discuss fan interference, the decision was entirely at the umpires' discretion, and there was no access to replay evidence to make such a decision.
Left field umpire Mike Everitt ultimately ruled there to be no fan interference, and play continued.
Alou was livid in the aftermath, and Castillo would go on to walk on a wild pitch that would allow Pierre to advance to third base.
Prior, still in the game, then left an 0-2 offering to Ivan Rodriguez over the plate, with the Hall of Famer lacing an RBI single to left field and getting the Marlins on the board.
It was then the rookie Miguel Cabrera who stepped in for the Marlins, who aggressively swung at the first pitch and seemed to hit a tailor-made double play ball to shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who had made just 10 errors all season.
The door opened up from there.
It was at that point when unmitigated disaster became the theme of the evening at the Friendly Confines.
Derrek Lee, who would be traded to the Cubs the following offseason, then hit a two-run double to tie the game at 3, also leading to Prior's exit from the contest.
Righty Kyle Farnsworth came in to relieve the All-Star starter, and intentionally walked Mike Lowell before inducing a sacrifice fly from Jeff Conine, giving the Marlins a 4-3 lead.
Farnsworth then intentionally walked another then-future Cub, Todd Hollandsworth, to face Mordecai, who led the inning off with a flyout.
On a 2-1 pitch left over the plate, Mordecai ripped a ball deep to left field and cleared the bases, punishing the Cubs for two intentional walks while essentially putting the game out of reach, giving the Marlins a 7-3 lead.
Juan Pierre would follow with his second hit of the inning, an RBI single, completing the infamous 8-run eighth inning.
The Marlins unceremoniously finished the win, and left a fanbase in complete shock over seeing historic victory snatched from their hands at the brink.
While Game 7 still presented the same opportunity for the Cubs with Kerry Wood on the mound, the fanbase, and clearly the team as well, was dejected by the gut-wrenching defeat.
Bartman was eventually escorted away from his seat during the eighth inning of Game 6 for his safety, with fans throwing debris in his direction as security moved him away from the stands.
While the Cubs ended up battling back from an early 3-0 Game 7 deficit to take a 5-3 lead, largely thanks to an unforgotten Kerry Wood home run, the tables quickly turned for Wood and the Cubs by the middle innings, and the Fish didn't look back.
After the Cubs chased Mark Redman from the game after three innings and five earned runs, Marlins manager Jack McKeon opted to use two other starting pitchers to take him to the finish line.
After a perfect inning from Brad Penny, McKeon brought in Josh Beckett, who had dismantled the Cubs in a complete game shutout just three days earlier in Game 5.
Outside of a solo home run surrendered to Troy O'Leary, Beckett was perfect in four innings of work, one of his many postseason masterpieces.
The Cubs, who could have countered with former Marlin and starter Matt Clement, the winning pitcher in Game 4 who gave Florida trouble with a devastating hard slider, opted to use Farnsworth directly after Wood, who surrendered two earned runs of his own and put the game further out of reach.
The Cubs went on to lose Game 7 by a score of 9-6, and dropped the series four games-to-three after holding a three games-to-one lead.
The Marlins, despite being the Wild Card team, would go on to shock the New York Yankees in the World Series, defeating them in six games for their second championship in franchise history.
Though the Marlins are still without a division title and have only made the playoffs twice since 2003, both of their playoff appearances have been linked to the Cubs.
The Marlins swept the Cubs in a best-of-three Wild Card series in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and edged them out for a playoff spot in 2023, with the Fish earning the second NL Wild Card spot.
Much of the blame for the Cubs' series loss in the media revolved back to Bartman, though many fans pointed to Gonzalez's bobbled groundball as a turning point with several Cubs pushing back on the notion that Bartman was to blame.
"We had chances to get out of that situation. I hung an 0–2 curveball to [Ivan] Rodriguez that he hit for a single. Alex Gonzalez, who's a sure thing almost at shortstop, the ball came up on him... and things just snowballed. Everybody in the clubhouse and management knows that play is not the reason we lost the game," Prior said to reporters.
Doug Glanville went on to say that the Cubs lost momentum in the series in the previous game, when they were held scoreless against Josh Beckett on the road. In an article for ESPN in 2012, Glanville compared Beckett's Game 5 performance to that of Barry Zito's in the 2012 NLCS, the latter of which began a San Francisco Giants comeback from a 3-1 deficit to the Cardinals in an eventual run to the World Series title.
While there was no video board at Wrigley Field at the time, Bartman's appearance was noticed by fans on TV, leading for his information to appear publicly shortly after the game.
According to BBC, then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich floated the idea of Bartman entering a witness protection program, while then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush jokingly suggested that he can be given asylum in Florida.
Bartman released a public statement two days after the game, saying he was "deeply sorry" and said he was so locked in on the ball that he did not notice he was impacting the play until the instant it happened.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Bartman and his family changed their phone number to avoid harassing calls while making an effort to stay out of the public eye in the months following the game, declining endorsements and refusing to make an additional statement after the ball involved in the incident was blown up at Harry Caray's Restaurant.
The Tribune also reported that Bartman received telephone calls from both MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and Cubs President Andy MacPhail in the aftermath of the incident.
Bartman later declined to appear in a 2011 ESPN documentary about the game and continued to live a private life.
What was next for the Cubs?
95 years after their most recent title, it seemed to be destiny for the Cubs, who suffered perhaps their most gut-wrenching losses in franchise history in that NLCS.
The Cubs significantly upgraded their offense heading into 2004, trading for Derrek Lee and acquiring catcher Michael Barrett, while hoping to maintain their dominant pitching for another season, a hope enhanced by the acquisition of Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.
Though the 2004 Cubs did indeed feature a significantly more potent offense, the injury-riddled pitching staff failed to live up to expectations.
Kerry Wood and Mark Prior both battled injuries in 2004, leading to a drop in performance and durability, with the two making a combined 43 starts in 2004 after combining for 62 starts the previous season.
Though Carlos Zambrano helped fill the void, posting a 16-8 record with a 2.75 ERA, the Cubs were not nearly as prolific of a strikeout staff in 2004.
The difficulties came alongside two vastly improved rivals in the Astros and Cardinals, both of whom would eventually finish above the Cubs in the division, keeping the North Siders out of the playoffs despite a one-game improvement on their regular season record.
While the Cubs would make it back the playoffs with back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008, they were swept out of the NLDS in both seasons by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers respectively.
The Cubs then rebuilt, changing ownership and front offices before eventually making it back to the postseason in 2015, winning the NL Wild Card Game in what was the team's first playoff victory since Game 4 of the 2003 NLCS.
Though the Cubs would fall in the 2015 NLCS to the New York Mets, Bartman received renewed attention in 2016 as the Cubs finished with the best regular season record in baseball and were once again on the verge of a World Series berth.
After defeating the Giants three games-to-one in the NLDS, the Cubs would go on to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in the 2016 NLCS before topping Cleveland in seven games to win their first World Series in 108 years.
Though fans had petitioned Bartman to be involved in the first pitch of the World Series at Wrigley Field or the eventual victory parade in some way, he communicated through a spokesperson that he didn't want to be a distraction to the team's accomplishments, according to USA Today.
In July 2017, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts gifted Bartman with a 2016 World Series ring on behalf of the organization, hoping it would provide "closure on an unfortunate chapter of the story that has perpetuated throughout our quest to win a long-awaited World Series."
Steve Bartman released the following statement after being given the ring:
"Although I do not consider myself worthy of such an honor, I am deeply moved and sincerely grateful to receive an official Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series Championship ring. I am fully aware of the historical significance and appreciate the symbolism the ring represents on multiple levels. My family and I will cherish it for generations.
Most meaningful is the genuine outreach from the Ricketts family, on behalf of the Cubs organization and fans, signifying to me that I am welcomed back into the Cubs family and have their support going forward. 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.
My hope is that we all can learn from my experience to view sports as entertainment and prevent harsh scapegoating, and to challenge the media and opportunistic profiteers to conduct business ethically by respecting personal privacy rights and not exploit any individual to advance their own self-interest or economic gain. Moreover, I am hopeful this ring gesture will be the start of an important healing and reconciliation process for all involved.
To that end, I request the media please respect my privacy, and the privacy of my family. I will not participate in interviews or further public statements at this time. Words alone cannot express my heartfelt thanks to the Ricketts family, Crane Kenney, Theo Epstein, and the entire Cubs organization for this extraordinary gift, and for providing the City of Chicago and Cubs fans everywhere an unforgettable World Championship in 2016. I am happy to be reunited with the Cubs family and positively moving forward with my life.
While the Cubs have won a World Series and moved on to yet another new era of the franchise in the past 20 years, the emotions of Oct. 14, 2003 will forever run high for a fanbase that was the hungriest in all of professional sports for generations.
Though many be reliving some of the pain and anguish of seeing a magical season come to an end, Cubs' fans can always look back at another moment that will forever mean so much more.