Why does Gonzo get a pass?

If I’m Alex Gonzalez, the one shown on the card above, I would consider myself an extremely lucky man. Without the widely known–and tragically unfortunate–interference event that happened during the top half of the eighth inning of Game six of the 2003 NLCS, Gonzalez would be as renown as Bill Buckner for the error he made in the 1986 World Series.

Perhaps Gonzalez would not be quite as well-known to the general public, since the stage in 2003 wasn’t exactly the World Series. Cubs fans, however, would still know his name. And they would point to a play he failed to make as the reason for the Marlins’ comeback victory that evening. But instead, the Cubs fan that everyone knows about takes the heat. The game even has his name attached to it, as if he were actually on the field that night. I somehow feel the need to explain that this was not the case.

I’ve written about that game before here and here. I haven’t used the fan’s name in either post, but not for the same reasons that I couldn’t use the recently-departed reality mother’s name. With this guy, it’s different. He didn’t seek the notoriety he has, and his split-second reaction is something that has haunted him enough already.

If I asked fans on the street to tell me what happened to the Cubs in 2003, they might use the names “Prior” or “Baker” or even “Alou” in their descriptions. Marlins players like “Lee” or “Rodriguez” might be in their descriptions as well. But everyone would use the name of the fan in the stands, who wasn’t a ballplayer, and was just a paying customer like everyone else in the ballpark that evening. And few, if any, would use the name “Gonzalez.”

The stage needs to be set just a little bit. With the Cubs ahead 3-1 in the eighth inning, and runners on first and second with one out, Marlins rightfielder Miguel Cabrera hit a bouncer at Gonzalez, who was the Cubs’ shortstop. The back of the baseball card above indicates that Gonzalez “shines at shortstop,” and so a bouncing ball should have been an automatic double play. Field the ball, throw to second, and then watch as the second baseman “makes the turn” over to first. Automatic. Cabrera had grounded into 12 double plays that season, and one in Game four of the series, so there’s no reason to believe he was getting to first base very quickly.

But Gonzalez booted the ball. It hit his glove, fell to the ground, and by the time he picked it up, the bases were loaded. That play had to be made, if the Cubs were to have any chance at getting out of the inning and winning the pennant. Not only did it give at least one more out to the Marlins, but it put the go-ahead run on at first base. The tying run was in scoring position, and there was a runner on third, too. But Cabrera–who should have never reached base to begin with–now represented the lead run at first base. It should be pointed out that the incident between Alou and the fan didn’t actually put a runner on base.

The Cubs proceeded to self-destruct that inning, and I don’t want to run down all of the gruesome details here. At the end of it all, that 8-spot the Marlins put on the Cubs effectively crushed any chance for a comeback. But Cabrera’s run was the one that counted the most, and Gonzalez made it possible when he botched the double play ball.

So why does the fan get all of the attention, including ESPN’s documentary that will pull the scab off the wound all over again? I can think of two reasons: First, it gives everyone the iconic, snapshot image that all of the papers put on their front pages the next day. If the foul ball hadn’t occurred, and the Cubs still lost the game, maybe there would be a picture of the booted double play ball on the front pages. Or perhaps there would have been an anguished Mark Prior, or a dejected fan, or some other shot for the readers to look at instead. We’ll never know this for sure, either.

But secondly, the everyday fan can relate to another fan in the stands before he or she can relate to the players on the field. We know nothing about where these players come from, how hard they have to work to get where they are, or what their lives must be like, travelling from city to city and being paid very handsomely in the process. Alex Gonzalez made $4.5 million in 2003, and upwards of $30 million over the course of his playing career. And as much as I would like to relate to that, I can’t do it.

The fan in question was closer to most of us. He loves the game–and even coached it if I remember correctly– but since he wasn’t blessed with extraordinary natural skills, he had to get up in the morning, go to work, sit at a desk, send and answer emails to his colleagues and supervisors, and do all of the things that we do in the daily course of our lives. We can’t relate to what he’s gone through since that night, of course, but up until that instant, he was one of us. And he’s still one of us, even if he now has to keep himself out of the public eye at all costs.

There was a story that the fan in question was recently offered a substantial sum of money to show up at a baseball card show in Chicago and sign one autograph. To agree to that would have been like walking into a lions’ den, since angry Cubs fans would also be there to give him some of their frustrations over how it all turned out. And that’s truly unfortunate.

My guess is that he probably just wants his old life back, but the lingering misperception that his reaction cost the Cubs the pennant that year has made it all but impossible. In a way, he’s already served eight years to life, and hopefully Cubs fans, and the media, will let him out on parole someday. At least, that’s what I’m advocating for here.

As I’m getting ready to watch the ESPN documentary this week, I remember how, on that awful night back in 2003, I didn’t pound the floor in frustration when Moises Alou missed a ball that was already out of play. I certainly did pound the floor, however, when Gonzalez made his incredibly costly error. There’s a real difference between these two moments, and I hope ESPN doesn’t gloss this over. We’ll find out soon enough.

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