The ‘Steve Bartman’ game, 20 years later: How the Chicago Cubs’ 2003 season played out — and what happened in Game 6

“Well, the stars seem to be aligned for the Chicago Cubs,” announcer Thom Brennaman said at the start of the broadcast for Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series against the Florida Marlins on Oct. 14, 2003, at Wrigley Field.

It is unfathomable — even now, 20 years after a loss that eliminated the Cubs from 2023 playoff contention — how a team that went 65-95 in 2002 could be one win from its first trip to the World Series since 1945.

Getting to this point hadn’t been easy.

At his introduction as the 16th Cubs manager in 20 years, Dusty Baker made no promises.

“My name is Dusty, not Messiah,” he told reporters on Nov. 19, 2002.

First he smoothed things over with Sammy Sosa, the Cubs’ best hitter who batted .288 with 49 home runs but also had 144 strikeouts in 2002. Then he brought some California sunshine to the Midwest by adding infielders Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek from the Los Angeles Dodgers in December 2002. Changes also were made to the bullpen lineup to support the Cubs’ young starting pitchers — Kerry Wood (26), Mark Prior (22), Carlos Zambrano (22) and Matt Clement (28). Yet as Tribune reporter Paul Sullivan forewarned, relying too heavily on this rotation could be “a recipe for disaster.”

These developments seemed promising, but Tribune reporter Phil Rogers cautioned as opening day approached:L “It will be a major surprise if Baker produces an instant contender.”

What happened during the 2003 season?

Surprisingly, they did. The Cubs moved to the top of the /National League Central Division by late April and remained there until early June. But a variety of injuries (Sosa’s toenail, Prior’s shoulder, Wood’s sore back and Corey Patterson’s ACL), oddities (Sosa’s corked bat, a gnat invasion at Wrigley Field and new Cub Randall Simon’s run-in with a sausage-race contestant in Milwaukee) and scuffles (Kyle Farnsworth’s football-style takedown and Antonio Alfonseca’s belly bump of an umpire) began to divert the team’s attention. They ended June by losing five of six and eight of 11.

Still, Baker remained optimistic.

“If I could have told the world that on June 29, the Cubs would be one game out of first place, I think most of (the fans) would have been extremely happy,” Baker said. “Are we happy where we are? No. But could it be a lot worse? The answer is that it has been a lot worse.”

When they were 4 1/2 games back on July 22, the Cubs traded for Aramis Ramirez and leadoff man Kenny Lofton, an East Chicago, Ind., native who played for Baker with the San Francisco Giants. The move filled two key holes in the team’s lineup — third base and center field (the latter due to Patterson’s season-ending injury).

The Cubs got angry and competitive once again. Baker sprinkled an unknown substance on Wrigley Field on Sept. 3, and the team soon regaining the division lead. The Cubs clinched the Central title on Sept. 27 — their first division championship since 1989 — with a doubleheader sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates, setting up a division series showdown with the Atlanta Braves.

What happened during the 2003 National League Division Series?

Wood pitched the Cubs to a 5-1 victory over the Braves in Game 5. It was the first playoff series win for the Cubs since 1908.

“I never imagined this would’ve happened in year No. 1,” Baker said. “But I’ll take it. I’m quietly subdued and happy and want to go back to the World Series.”

Baker would become the first manager to take two teams to the World Series in consecutive years if the Cubs could defeat their next opponent — the Marlins.

What happened in the first five games in the 2003 NLCS?

The Cubs had home-field advantage for the best-of-seven series against the Marlins.

  • Game 1: The Cubs staked Zambrano to a four-run first-inning lead with two triples, a double and a two-run home run by Moises Alou. But Zambrano couldn’t hold the lead, giving up five runs in the third inning, including three home runs. Ivan Rodriguez hit a three-run shot, and one out later Orlando Cabrera and Juan Encarnacion hit back-to-back homers. After Joe Borowski yielded two runs in the ninth, the Cubs tied it in the bottom of the inning on Sosa’s two-run homer run onto Waveland Avenue. But Mike Lowell hit a two-run shot off Mark Guthrie in the 11th to give the Marlins the victory. Final score: Marlins 9-8. Marlins lead series 1-0.
  • Game 2: Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez hit two homers, Ramirez hit one and Lofton and Simon collected seven hits between them as the Cubs finally rewarded pitcher Mark Prior with an easy night. The 23-year-old ace won his second game of the postseason, his 12th in 13 starts since the All-Star break and his 20th of the calendar year. He left in the eighth inning leading 12-2. Final score: Cubs 12-3. Series tied 1-1.
  • Game 3: Simon hit a two-run homer into the right-field seats to erase the Marlins’ 3-2 lead in the eighth inning. Doug Glanville, pinch hitting in the 11th, drove a triple to the wall in left-center field to score Lofton with the winning run. Final score: Cubs 5-4. Cubs lead series 2-1.
  • Game 4: Ramirez’s two home runs and an NLCS-record-tying six RBIs launched the Cubs, while Clement pitched 7 2/3 innings to earn his first postseason victory. It gave them not just a 3-1 edge in the NLCS but also a 6-3 record in October. Final score: Cubs 8-3. Cubs lead series 3-1.
  • Game 5: Josh Beckett pitched a two-hitter and struck out 11. Final score: Marlins 4-0. Cubs lead series 3-2.

What happened in Game 6?

The night of Oct. 14, 2003, was cool and damp with a temperature of 57 degrees and a wind blowing 21-mph from left field to right. The temperature was expected to drop into the low 40s during the game. “The field is very wet — especially the outfield,” Brennaman said during the broadcast.

Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein realized the song blaring at Wrigley Field while Prior was warming up was Van Halen’s “Jump,” which came from the band’s album “1984.”

“Yeah, 1984, the year the Cubs blew three chances to win the pennant in San Diego,” he wrote.

What follows are observations of what happened that night, inning-by-inning.

Jump to an inning

1st inning

<u>Top of the inning</u>

Prior, who had been named National League pitcher of the month for August, delivered the first pitch to Marlins center fielder Juan Pierre at 7:18 p.m. in front of 39,577 fans.

Earlier in the season, Prior told reporters the language in his contract prevented him from undertaking a variety of activities — from surfing to wood-chopping — but it didn’t mention pitch-count limits. The rookie threw more than 120 pitches in a game 10 times and more than 130 four times during the regular season and playoffs. From his first start in September through Game 2 in the NLCS, his pitch counts were 131, 129, 109, 124, 131, 133, 133 and 116. Yet again, Baker expected Prior to settle in for a long outing. (It was revealed in spring 2004 that Prior had been pitching with a sore Achilles tendon down the stretch and during the playoffs.)

Still, he was firing strikes. Prior’s first five pitches crossed the plate from the knees to the waist. Pierre, who would be traded to the Cubs in 2005, hit a popup that Gonzalez caught for the first out. Prior’s sixth pitch, also a strike, was deposited into left field by Luis Castillo.

Rodriguez, whom Baker had hoped to bring to the Cubs before admitting “You can’t sign everybody,” was walked by on a high 3-2 curve to put runners on first and second. Rookie Miguel Cabrera swung on the first pitch he saw, hitting it sky-high to center. Lofton caught it for the second out. Future Cub Derrek Lee, who was 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position during the postseason, struck out swinging on a hellacious slider.

<u>Bottom of the inning</u>

Lofton lined a pitch off his shoes into right and took second on a perfect bunt by Grudzielanek. Sosa, a .455 lifetime hitter against Carl Pavano, put together a terrific at-bat. He went with a 1-2 slider off the outside corner, dropping it down the right-field line to score Lofton.

Ramirez hit a liner to left that was caught. Simon hit a rope to deep right, causing the crowd to cheer before Cabrera caught it.

Score: Cubs 1-0.

2nd inning

<u>Top of the inning</u>

Jeff Conine hit a one-out rope to first that Simon tried to stab with a leaping grab. But he couldn’t make the play. It hit off his glove, then his shoulder. He flipped to first base, where Prior should have been, but the base was vacant. Prior made up for it by inducing a pair of groundouts.

<u>Bottom of the inning</u>

With one out, Paul Bako hit a grounder to short. Alex (no middle initial) Gonzalez (Yes, there are two players named Alex Gonzalez in this game — one on each team — and they both play shortstop) slipped on the wet grass, which gave Bako a free pass. Prior tried to advance him with a bunt but couldn’t. With two strikes, Prior squared around. Then he pulled back the lumber but didn’t swing. Strike three.

Score: Cubs 1-0.

3rd inning

<u>Top of the inning</u>

Pierre hit a soft grounder up the middle that Grudzielanek grabbed on the run before firing to first. The throw was low and went right through Simon’s legs. That was an error on Grudzielanek.

Castillo took a high fastball that bounced off Bako’s glove for a passed ball. Pierre moved to second. Ramirez made a diving grab on Castillo’s bunt down the third-base line. After Rodriguez grounded out, Cabrera hit a pop into shallow center. Lofton fell to his knees for dramatic effect but made the catch. The Cubs got out of the inning.

<u>Bottom of the inning</u>

Grudzielanek flied out, Sosa struck out and Alou was thrown out at first.

Score: Cubs 1-0.

4th inning

<u>Top of the inning</u>

Lee hammered Prior’s first pitch into center. The ball, however, was buried in the wind, prompting Lee to shake his head. Lofton settled under it and caught it for the out.

Lowell, whom the Cubs had considered acquiring in the offseason, struck out.

Conine walked, then Gonzalez took a swipe at a Prior curveball. He missed. It was Prior’s third strikeout.

<u>Bottom of the inning</u>

Ramirez led off with a single. Simon swung at the first pitch he saw, a fastball a few inches from the dirt, which landed in Marlins shortstop Gonzalez’s glove for an easy double play. Cubs shortstop Gonzalez then walked. The inning ended when Bako hit a grounder that Castillo easily scooped up and threw to first.

Score: Cubs 1-0.

5th inning

<u>Top of the inning</u>

Pavano stared at a two-strike curveball. Then Pierre lined a single to right. Pierre tried to steal second base on a 2-2 fastball, but Bako got the ball to Grudzielanek in time to apply the tag. One out. Prior pumped his fist.

Castillo hit a flare toward the third-base line. Alou and Ramirez converged, but Gonzalez dodged left-field umpire Mike Everitt to make the grab.

<u>Bottom of the inning</u>

The Cubs were helpless against Pavano. They went down swinging three times. Grudzielanek was victim No. 3.

Score: Cubs 1-0.

6th inning

<u>Top of the inning</u>

Prior was dealing. He jumped ahead 0-2 on Rodriguez, then buzzed him with a fastball before coming back with a 2-2 curve. Pudge had no chance. Prior struck out Cabrera on a slider that bounced into a different ZIP code. Lee flew out harmlessly for the third out.

<u>Bottom of the inning</u>

Sosa shattered his bat on an inside pitch, and the barrel skittered out near second base, but he beat out the grounder to third. Alou followed with a single to left. Ramirez grounded into a 6-3 double play.

With Simon due up, Marlins manager Jack McKeon replaced Pavano (who had thrown just 86 pitches) with lefty Dontrelle Willis. Willis had been a Cubs prospect but was traded to the Marlins with three other players in exchange for Alfonseca and Clement in March 2002. He was left off the National League roster by Baker, the team manager, in the All-Star Game earlier that season.

Willis couldn’t find the zone. His 3-1 pitch to pinch hitter Eric Karros was a slider in the dirt and way inside. It skipped past Rodriguez, allowing Sosa to score from third. And the crowd went wild.

Score: Cubs 2-0.

7th inning

<u>Top of the inning</u>

The Cubs retired three Marlins with three fly balls — one to left field, the next to center and the last to right. Prior let out a visible sigh of relief. Six outs remained.

If there were a precursor to the disaster that awaited in the eighth inning, then it might be attributed to the seventh-inning stretch. Comedian Bernie Mac — a lifelong White Sox fan — screamed “Let’s go, champs!” before leading the crowd in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” He altered the words from “root for the Cubbies” to “root for the champs.”

<u>Bottom of the inning</u>

Bako hit a leadoff single and moved to second on a Prior sacrifice bunt. After Willis struck out Lofton, McKeon did another odd thing — he pulled Willis in favor of right-hander Chad Fox, who was last seen giving up a two-run homer to Simon in Game 3. Fox allowed an RBI single to Grudzielanek, making the score 3-0. Then Sosa roped one to right. The threat ended, however, on Alou’s flyout.

Score: Cubs 3-0.

8th inning

“It was on this date in 1908 — 95 years ago today — that the Cubs defeated the Detroit Tigers, 2-0, to wrap up their second straight World Series championship,” Brennaman told viewers when the broadcast returned from a commercial break.

<u>Top of the inning</u>

Prior had been dominant, retiring the eight previous hitters and throwing a three-hit shutout.

Mike Mordecai (who Brennaman notes shares the same name as Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, a member of the Cubs’ last championship team) hit a high pop fly to left field, to start the inning, which was caught by Alou. One away.

“The Marlins are beginning to run out of outs,” Brennaman told viewers. “Four of the five Marlins wins they’ve had this postseason have been in come-from-behind fashion.”

Pierre hit a double to the left-field line. Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild made a call to the bullpen to get reliever Kyle Farnsworth to start warming up and that’s the last thing that happened before, well, you know — the play that Cubs fans talked about and analyzed until the team won the World Series in 2016.

With a 3-2 count on the eighth pitch of his at bat and Prior’s 113th pitch of the night, Castillo popped one up along the left-field wall. Alou, a former Marlin who won a World Series ring with the team in 1997, ran toward the stands to make the catch but never got the chance. A fan wearing a Cubs hat, later identified as Steve Bartman, was among those who prevented Alou from snagging the ball. No one was able to hold onto the ball, which then bounced into the seats. Furious, Alou appeared to slam down his glove in anger. The crowd began to boo. Prior and other Cubs players appealed to left field umpire Mike Everitt, saying the play was interrupted by fan interference, but Everitt ruled the ball out of play.

After the game, Alou took pains to say it was not the fan’s fault, but the replay was shown over and over and over.

It all must have been déjà vu for Alou. During a May 2003 game against Colorado at Wrigley Field, a fan interfered with a foul ball near the same spot, angering Alou in another game the Cubs lost. A photo of the fan interfering with the ball appeared in the Tribune the next day, though that fan was not identified or verbally abused. That controversy was quickly forgotten.

This gaffe, Sullivan wrote, had already entered Cubs lore “alongside the black cat that crossed the Cubs’ path during the 1969 collapse and the ball that squirted through Leon Durham’s legs during the 1984 NLCS.”

In a statement released a few days later, Bartman described what happened from his viewpoint: “I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moises Alou, much less that he may have had a play. Had I thought for one second that the ball was playable or had I seen Alou approaching, I would have done whatever I could to get out of the way and give Alou a chance to make the catch.”

When play resumed, Prior walked Castillo with a wild pitch that got away from Bako, which also allowed Pierre to advance to third base.

With two on and one out after the walk to Castillo, Prior had a conference on the mound with Rothschild, his infielders and Bako. On an 0-2 pitch to Rodriguez, Prior hung a curve that was ripped into left field for an RBI single (and also tied the NLCS record of nine RBI set by San Francisco’s Matt Williams in 1989). Pierre scored, making it 3-1.

“Mostly people keep asking me what happened or how was it,” Prior said. “For me it’s tough because I do replay that (eighth) inning occasionally over in my head and wonder if I should’ve done something different, or if I should’ve buried that curveball.”

What curveball? Prior was referring to the 0-2 pitch he threw to Rodriguez with runners on first and third and one out.

Cabrera hit a ball toward Cubs shortstop Gonzalez, who led all NL shortstops in fielding percentage, but Gonzalez let it hit off the heel of his glove while trying to backhand it. The bobble foiled the potential double-play grounder to load the bases. Gonzalez earned an error. Castillo moved to third and Rodriguez was on second.

Future Cub Lee was 0-for-3 in the game and 3-for-25 in the series when he swung at a 95-mph fastball on Prior’s first offering, lining it over Ramirez’s head for a game-tying, two-run double. It was also Prior’s final pitch. The Wrigley crowd was stunned into silence.

Farnsworth intentionally walked Lowell before Conine hit a go-ahead sacrifice fly to right, which scored Cabrera. Sosa, who caught Conine’s ball in right field, threw home instead of to second, allowing Lowell to advance. This became important after Baker ordered an intentional walk to Todd Hollandsworth.

Mordecai’s three-run double off the left-field wall made it 7-3, killing the Cubs’ comeback hopes. Farnsworth was history after Mordecai’s double, replaced by Mike Remlinger.

Pierre plunged the dagger a bit deeper, adding an RBI single off Remlinger.

In all, the Marlins scored eight runs in 27 minutes.

It had to be a haunting reminder for Baker. The previous October, his Giants took a big lead into the late innings of Game 6 of the World Series, but wound up losing the game and series to Anaheim.

<u>Bottom of the inning</u>

The Cubs went three up, three down against Ugueth Urbina.

Score: Marlins 8-3.

9th inning

<u>Top of the inning</u>

Alfonseca gave up one hit in a scoreless inning.

Bartman, the fan, had to be escorted from his seat by security and fans hassled him as he exited.

“It’s not his fault,” Brennaman says during the broadcast.

<u>Bottom of the inning</u>

The Cubs, seemingly stunned and lifeless, went down 1-2-3 to end the game.

Fox got the win and Prior took the loss. The comeback by the Marlins forced a Game 7.

Final score: Marlins 8-3.


“It has nothing to do with the curse,” Cubs manager Dusty Baker insisted. “It has to do with fan interference and a very uncharacteristic error by Gonzalez. History has nothing to do with this game, nothing.”

The Marlins went on to win Game 7 and then to defeat the New York Yankees in the World Series.

The Cubs were upset again by the Marlins in the 2020 Wild Card Series, losing the series in a two-game sweep.

Sources: Tribune archives and reporting; AP; MLB; Baseball Reference

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