King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

Free the fan down the line! The Cubs' monumental pratfall wasn't his fault, and you'd have reached for that ball too. Plus: Yanks play second fiddle.

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It was the black cat all over again, September ’69 in miniature. It was the Cubs being the Cubs, a collapse that made the first little pig’s straw house look like Fort Knox, the ’86 Red Sox like an unbeatable juggernaut.

Enron was a mere stumble, the Internet bust a hiccup. This was a debacle, a pratfall, a face-plant.

The champagne was chilling, the tarps were hung in the clubhouse with care and the typists were typing up their stories. Mark Prior, those stories were going to say, whose grandparents were young the last time the Cubs played in the World Series, turned the North Side of Chicago into bedlam with a pennant-clinching performance last night …

But it all came apart. It started with a bizarre play, in that way that these things always do. It ended with Cubs fans staring into the middle distance, as if remembering their wild cheering of an hour before and thinking, “Oh yeah. I’m a Cubs fan.”

Prior, the ace right-hander, was sailing along with one out in the eighth inning and a 3-0 lead. Chicago led the Marlins three games to two, so the Cubs were five outs away from their first trip to the Fall Classic since 1945. You may have heard that they haven’t won it since 1908. Fox announcer Thom Brennaman mentioned that Tuesday was the 95th anniversary of the day the Cubs won that ’08 World Series. A photo of the 1908 team was shown. Ironic foreshadowing had come to live TV.

Juan Pierre slapped a double down the left-field line, bringing up Luis Castillo. After working the count to 2 and 2, Castillo lifted a foul pop down the left field line. Cubs left fielder Moises Alou drifted over to the box-seat wall, put his right hand on it, leaped — and watched the ball clang off the hands of a fan, inches above Alou’s glove. Left field umpire Mike Everitt ruled that the ball had been over the stands, meaning it wasn’t fan interference. Even though Alou clearly would have caught the ball for the second out of the inning, if he’s reaching into the stands, fans have as much right to try to catch it as he does.

Watching the play, I thought Alou had reached into the stands and the umpire had made the right call. But the more times I watched the replay, the more I became convinced, and I remain convinced, that the fan, not Alou, reached across the barrier. Next time you see that replay, and you’ll see it hundreds more times, watch Alou’s glove hand, his left, in relation to the rest of his body. It looks to me like Alou’s glove is directly above his right shoulder, which obviously is on his side of the fence.



In the Associated Press photo that I’m guessing will become the definitive image of this play, look at the fan: He’s standing with his legs against the wall, his arms are extended straight out toward the field, and the ball is hitting his hands. The wall is only about six inches wide. Unless it’s an extreme trick of perspective, his hands have to be over the field.

Though Alou had conniptions, the Cubs amazingly didn’t argue. Manager Dusty Baker should have come out and raised a ruckus for no other reason than to give Kyle Farnsworth, who had just gotten up, time to warm up in the bullpen, because Prior was losing it. He walked the reprieved Castillo on a wild pitch, sending Pierre to third.

The next batter, Florida’s best hitter, Ivan Rodriguez, pulled a rocket foul on the first pitch, then singled home a run. Now wobbling badly but still leading 3-1, Prior got Miguel Cabrera to hit an easy bouncer to short, good for a force-out at second, but sure-handed Alex Gonzalez booted it to load the bases.

Gonzalez should send a Christmas present to that guy down the line every year for the rest of his life. If the Cubs don’t win Game 7 Wednesday, their fans will be talking for 100 years about how that guy interfered with Alou. They’ll add him to the list with the black cat that walked in front of the Chicago dugout at Shea Stadium just as the Cubs were gathering momentum in the nosedive that would take them from nine and a half games up in mid-August 1969 to eight games out at the end of September. They’ll put him right behind the Leon Durham error that opened the door for the Padres to come back and win the 1984 NLCS, the last time the Cubs were one win away from the World Series. Good thing for Gonzalez, because it’s his error that should go on that list.

After the error it went like this: Two-run double by Derrek Lee to tie the game and chase Prior; intentional walk to Mike Lowell by Farnsworth to load the bases again; sacrifice fly by Jeff Conine for 4-3; intentional walk to Todd Hollandsworth; bases-clearing double by Mike Mordecai to chase Farnsworth and make it 7-3; run-scoring single by Pierre off of Mike Remlinger for 8-3.

The last time a great evening in Chicago turned so sour so fast was when John Dillinger turned to his two dates and said, “Nice movie. Let’s get outta here.”

That’s what security said to our friend down the line, who was pelted with beer and unkind words as the Cubs skidded out of control. He was led away with a jacket over his head like some kind of CEO, the poor guy. He probably won’t be able to show his face anywhere near Sheffield and Waveland avenues for years. And it isn’t fair.

Angry Cubs fans and self-righteous commentators are already bloviating about how the guy should have cleared out of the way and let Alou make the catch for the vital second out. How can a Cubs fan — the guy was wearing a Cubs hat — put his own foolish desire for a souvenir ahead of the quest for that first pennant in 58 years?

It’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer to it, but I do know that I’ve never, ever seen a fan of the home team get out of the fielder’s way in that situation, and I’m pretty confident I’m never going to see it. All those people throwing beer at the guilty fan would have done the exact same thing if they’d been in that spot.

The Cubs can still get to the Series by winning Game 7 Wednesday night, and all nonsense talk about curses and 1908 and 1945 aside, they still have a fighting chance with Kerry Wood going against Mark Redman. Sure, it’s disheartening to lose a heartbreaker like the Cubs did Tuesday, and the parallels are obvious to the 1986 Red Sox, who lost the gut-wrenching Game 6 of the World Series to the Mets, the game that featured Bill Buckner’s famous error at first base. The Red Sox lost Game 7. But we need go back only as far as the Red Sox’s previous World Series appearance, in 1975, to see the opposite. The Reds lost a heartbreaker to the Sox in Game 6 on Carlton Fisk’s 12th-inning home run, but came back the next night, on the road yet, to win Game 7.

And anyway the Cubs haven’t not been to the World Series since 1945. Baker was in the World Series last year with the Giants, and so was center fielder Kenny Lofton. Alou won the ’97 Series with the Marlins. Prior has only not been to the World Series since his big league debut last year, Wood since 1998, and so on. It really won’t matter on Wednesday night that the Cubs went south in ’69, or that they were so bad for so long in Ernie Banks’ day.

What will matter is that the Marlins know how to win games. And as they showed Tuesday, the Cubs know how to lose them.

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Meanwhile, at Fenway [PERMALINK]

The amazing thing about the two League Championship Series is the way the Yankees have been relegated to an opening act by the national popularity of the Cubs.

Tuesday’s Game 5, in which the Yankees beat the Red Sox 4-2 to take a 3-2 series lead, was played in the daytime because it was a makeup for Sunday’s rainout. But the LCS schedule called for the two leagues to play on the same day four times, and the Cubs got three prime-time spots, last Wednesday, Saturday and this Wednesday. The only time the Cubs were scheduled in the afternoon and the Yankees at night was Sunday, when the Yanks were washed out.

And the Yankees are playing the Red Sox in a postseason renewal of a rivalry that’s been widely and debatably hailed as the greatest in American sports.

Saturday’s beanball rhubarb got the ALCS some attention, but since then the series has buckled down to a fairly Spartan display of Yankee pitching superiority while the National League has provided firepower in the form of Josh Beckett’s two-hit gem Sunday and the Marlins’ eight-run rally Tuesday. The record-setting Red Sox bats have failed to materialize, and suddenly the Bostons, absent from the Series for 17 years and the winner’s circle for 85, find themselves needing two wins in the Bronx to advance.

It’s a tall order.

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