Another Note on the Permeable Membrane

The Chicago Cubs, who have not won the World Series since 1908 and who have not competed for it in the past 58 years, were five outs away from returning when Florida's Luis Castillo hit a foul ball down the left-field line. As it drifted into the bleachers, Chicago's Moises Alou had a chance to make the play when a Cubs fan reached for the ball at the same time and knocked it away from Alou's glove. Castillo then proceeded to walk, and the Marlins, who entered the top of the eighth with a 3-0 deficit against Cubs ace Mark Prior, went on to score eight runs in the inning and win 8-3 to force Game 7 in the NLCS.

Naturally, the fan became the lightning rod for the loss, despite the fact that there were at least two other errors during the Marlins' offensive outburst: an error by Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez, and questionable decision making by manager Dusty Baker. Nonetheless, it is far easier to blame an anonymous fan than two heroes of the sportocracy for the disastrous turn of events.

But the fan did not stay anonymous for long. His name is Steve Bartman, and he was "outed" by the Chicago Sun-Times, his hometown newspaper. He didn't show up for work on Wednesday, and has already disconnected his home telephone. He has already received death threats, which are certain to intensify if the Cubs lose Game 7.

Two things are interesting about this story: the first is the continuing social "debate" regarding the permeability of the membrane between spectator and participant. In this case, Alou felt perturbed that he was unable to catch the ball and make the out — despite the fact that the ball was clearly over the wall and into the crowd. MLB rules state that if a fan reaches into the field of play and prevents a catch by touching the ball, the umpire can rule fan interference and declare an out. On the other hand, if the ball travels over the wall, then the ball belongs to the fan — though an out can still be made. That the fans sided with Alou even though Bartman was clearly in the "right" as a fan is testament to the confusion surrounding the membrane.

The second interesting aspect of the story is how quickly it spread through the collective consciousness of the social body. The electric technologies of television, radio, weblog, newswire, etc., took the meme of The Fan (aka Steve Bartman) and thrust it to the top of the sporting mind, thus thrusting Bartman into the sportocracy's panoptic gaze. While Warhol famously declared that television made everyone famous for fifteen minutes, the time horizon is shrinking: Bartman's fame/infamy, although intense, will be much more fleeting.

The question is whether Bartman can survive his time in the panoptic gaze, and I am asking this quite literally. Professional athletes learn to grow up in front of the camera so that eventually they can perform on the biggest stage. 26-year-old consultants that coach Little League have no such training, however, so when they are dropped into the gaze — nay, the glare — it can be quite terrifying. If the Cubs lose Game 7, Bartman will need to survive his time in the glare; physical violence or suicide are quite possible outcomes to this sad, yet predictable story.

Update: Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood just cracked a full count 3-run homer in the bottom of the second inning to deadlock the game at 3 apiece. Somewhere, Steve Bartman hopes …

Update No.2: The Marlins won the game 9-6, and knock the Cubs out of the playoffs. Stay tuned …

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