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Film probes baseball scapegoat who keeps mystique

By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney sought escape from his previous work on war, torture and high financial crimes when he decided to make a film about baseball.

Yet like a successful batter who eventually returns to home plate, Gibney found his way back to the darker side of the American psyche while examining a notorious chapter in the national pastime.

In 2003, Chicago Cubs fans turned on one of their own, the mild-mannered Steve Bartman, blaming him for the team's failure and their own crushed dreams.

"Catching Hell," which premiered at New York's Tribeca Film Festival, has its humorous moments. It also portrays how a random act fell upon Bartman, followed by the execration of an entire city. The events drove Bartman into a seclusion from which he has yet to emerge.

Gibney won the Oscar for best documentary in 2008 for "Taxi to the Dark Side," about U.S. detention of war prisoners from Iraq and Afghanistan. Two years earlier, he was nominated for "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," about the collapse of the energy company after fraudulent accounting.

War and financial ruin have been repeat topics for him.

"I thought I was going to have some fun (this time), and then the darkness intervened once more," Gibney said in an interview. "It's dark but it's also absurd. I don't think there's any contradiction between being serious and funny at the same time."

The Cubs have been baseball's lovable losers for a century, last winning the World Series in 1908. In 2003, they were one win from returning to the World Series, holding a 3-0 lead late in a playoff game against the Florida Marlins, when the path of a foul ball off the bat of a Marlins hitter lofted toward Bartman's seat along the rail in short left field.

Like all the Cubs fans crowded around him, Bartman, then 26, instinctively reached for the ball at the same time Cubs left-fielder Moises Alou did. If Alou catches the ball, the Cubs are one step closer to glory. But the ball smacked Bartman's hands first and bounded away, depriving a furious Alou from making the play.

Had the Florida rally died, all would have been forgotten, but the Marlins went on to score eight runs while the crowd directed increasing anger at Bartman, who slumped in his seat taking abuse -- and cups of beer -- that were thrown his way.

With the Cubs losing 8-3, Bartman needed a security team to escort him out of the ballpark. Apart from a written statement expressing regret for inadvertently harming his favorite team, he has remained silent and out of public view.

The Cubs lost the series, turning Bartman into the ultimate scapegoat.

"Scapegoating really is an ancient ritual and deeply hardwired in the human psyche," Gibney told the audience after the premiere.

Bartman chose never to cash in on his fame and like others before him, Gibney tried and failed to land an interview.

But he tells the story through interviews with players, journalists and fans sitting near Bartman, augmented with multiple replays and recreations. The story is further humanized by an interview with Bill Buckner, a former Boston Red Sox player who was the scapegoat of the 1986 World Series.

In one ironic segment, the film shows disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich saying he would never grant a pardon to Bartman. The Tribeca audience burst into laughter, knowing Blagojevich is on trial on corruption charges.

The Blagojevich figure is contrasted with that of Bartman, who one sports writer comments is the only person in the whole episode to maintain honor.

Gibney said he dreamed the Cubs finally win the World Series one day and throw a parade for Bartman, saying they forgive him. In the dream, Bartman declines to show up. It is Bartman who must do the forgiving.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; editing by Jill Serjeant)