Mark Prior, sporting a graying beard and Dodger blue, leaned back in the leather chair as he thought back to the last postseason start of his dazzling but injury-shorted career.
“Twenty years went fast quick,” Prior told the Tribune earlier this year. “You still remember things like they’re fairly fresh. Obviously, everything is magnified down to the last two games.”
Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series when the Chicago Cubs fell apart five outs away from their first World Series appearance since 1945. One of the most defining plays in the loss — or the most, depending on whom you ask — is seared in the memory of fans over 40: left fielder Moises Alou leaping over the wall in foul territory but unable to make the catch as fan Steve Bartman, among others, attempted to catch the foul ball. An irate Alou slammed his mitt to the ground at Wrigley Field, and the Cubs let the game get away from them.
Prior couldn’t get out of the eighth as the Florida Marlins put up eight runs in an eventual 8-3 win. The next night, with Kerry Wood starting the decisive Game 7, the Cubs overcame a three-run first inning thanks to the right-hander’s game-tying, two-run homer in the second. took a two-run lead into the fifth, then the Marlins scored six runs over the next three innings en route to winning the pennant.
Two of the Cubs’ central figures in the drama, Prior and manager Dusty Baker, eventually earned World Series rings: Prior with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020 and Baker last season with the Houston Astros. The 74-year-old has the Astros vying for a repeat after advancing to the American League Championship Series.
But that Game 6 always lingers, especially this time of year.
During Prior’s mound visit in the eighth inning of the Dodgers’ NL Division Series elimination loss Wednesday to the Arizona Diamondbacks, TBS play-by-play announcer Bob Costas noted that “Prior knows about agonizing defeats, the one I’m about to mention maybe would rank ahead of this disappointment … ” before spending the next 45 seconds rehashing the misfortune.
“Once you get on the other side of it, fortunately here we’ve been in the playoffs in the last (six) years, as a player sometimes you don’t realize all the things that go into it and how all the things that have to line up for you to win is the best way to put it,” Prior said. “I don’t want to say it’s luck, but so many things have to happen.
“You realize how much work goes into getting your team through the course of a year to get to the playoffs and then how much work goes into the playoffs to try to win those series and how quick things can flip.”
While there are obvious parallels to the 2003 NLCS and specifically Game 6, Prior has experienced the highs and lows of those postseason game-changing moments on the coaching side too. He referenced two-strike pitches the Dodgers threw during the 2021 NLCS against the Braves that shifted the series Atlanta’s way and a couple of flares the San Diego Padres hit in the 2022 NLDS, both series the Dodgers lost to end their season.
“One little thing can flip an entire series,” Prior said, “and I don’t think I appreciated that as a player. They hurt. You remember them equally as painful whether they’re as a player or as a coach.”
Moe Mullins can’t remember whether he and his fellow Wrigley ballhawks were listening to the radio or had set up a TV to watch the game in 2003. But he remembers how he felt when Bartman went for the catch.
“Among the ballhawks, it was 100 %: He had done nothing wrong,” Mullins, 72, said. “The disgruntled fans, when the Cubs end up losing the game, they want to put the blame somewhere.”
Pinning the loss on Bartman became an excuse, he said. There isn’t a person on the planet who wouldn’t have reached for the fouled ball, Mullins said.
But the self-identified “king ballhawk” — who has caught more than 6,400 baseballs, 245 game homers and five grand slams — did have one qualm with the infamous fan’s actions.
“The only thing Bartman did wrong was he didn’t catch it,” Mullins said.
When Prior thinks back to the fateful 2003 NLCS, sifting through all the little moments that ultimately led to a nightmarish ending, the energy the Cubs experienced in Chicago during that run still sticks with him.
Every pitch was pressure-packed because of how loud it was at Wrigley and the energy coursing through the ballpark.
“The atmosphere was so intense to the point that you felt like you’re at the end of it, you had so much anxiety or anxiousness of what was going to happen like a thriller movie,” Prior said.
So many “what ifs” could be revisited from Game 6 and the Marlins’ eight-run eighth inning.
What if Alex Gonzalez, who led the National League in fielding percentage that season, handled the routine grounder for an inning-ending double play to keep the Cubs up two runs? What if Kyle Farnsworth, in relief of Prior, didn’t let Mike Mordecai, who had a .213 average and 58 OPS+ in 65 games for the Marlins, burn them with the bases-loaded, two-out, three-run double to put the Marlins ahead 7-3? What if Baker or pitching coach Larry Rothschild made a mound visit to give Prior a chance to regroup?
“I don’t question it, no,” Prior said. “Things were fine. It was a walk and a single, and it happened within, like, eight pitches. I felt great and fairly in control most of that game, so it wasn’t anything that was dictating, like, ‘Oh, he’s on a slippery slope the entire game.’
Prior’s experience as a big-league pitching coach, having just completed his fourth season in the position with the Dodgers, adds unique context to the mound-visit debate.
“As a coach, I get the same way,” Prior said. You get kind of caught in between: Do you go or do you not go? Do you go and try to calm him down or does that disrupt his rhythm even more? Now that I’ve been doing it even more so, I don’t question it because I still get caught in between.”
Two decades later, an inescapable question remains: What if Cubs fans and the media hadn’t made Bartman’s life hell?
“I felt badly for Bartman. I did,” Baker told the Tribune. “I always said, when he left home that morning he was the biggest Cubs fan in the world and had no idea it was going to change his life that day. That puts life into perspective. You can leave home instantly and get in a car wreck or anything.
“That completely changed his life, that one day and that one play. I really wanted to win the next year, because we came close the next year too.”
David Strauss, who was practically raised in the Sluggers Bar his father owned, saw the Bulls win five championships at the classic Wrigleyville drinking hole. But the bar’s intensity for those paled in comparison to the 2003 NLCS.
He saw the wave of emotions as a 23-year-old bartender.
“At first it was confusion,” he said. “No one knew what had happened. Then anger. People wanted to point their finger. Then just deflation.”
When fans saw Alou get mad at Bartman, things spiraled out of control.
“Being a little drunk, everybody wanted to go kill the guy,” Strauss said.
Still, Strauss wasn’t entirely sad: The loss meant one more fan-luring playoff game for the bar run by a family who are “definitely Sox fans but also Cubs fans too.”
The Wood home run early in Game 7 led to the loudest moment in the bar’s history, Strauss said. But when the Cubs lost, the gravity of the Game 6 gaffe and the blown 3-1 series lead emerged.
“The hopes and dreams of generations of people were totally shattered,” Strauss said, adding it was the saddest he ever saw the place.
Baker has been part of hundreds of games at Wrigley between his 19 seasons in a major-league outfield and 26 years at the helm in the dugout. He said he doesn’t remember seeing many baseballs land near the infamous spot, which has seen the seat number change over the years because of grandstand renovations.
“It’s so close, most times it’s way up in the stands,” Baker said. “They don’t have much foul territory there. I think they probably had the least foul territory of damn near anybody in baseball, especially the closer you get down in that corner.”
Baker’s limited sightlines from the Cubs dugout prevented him from getting a clear view of the Game 6 sequence at the wall. Alou had a shot at making the catch because of how close he was positioned to the left-field wall near foul territory, all because of the scouting report on the Marlins’ left-handed-hitting Luis Castillo, who was known for slashing singles and knocking extra-base hits down the line.
“You really shade him to the left,” Baker explained. “You shade him damn near on the line.”
The Cubs did not want the Marlins’ top two hitters in the lineup — Juan Pierre and Castillo — to get burned by their slashing swing types. Prior remembers Cubs outfielders playing them more shallow to prevent bloops from falling.
“The one thing about Moises is he always took live balls during batting practice, so he had a pretty good feel where guys were going to hit the ball or at least have a better idea of where to be positioned,” Prior said. “(Castillo) was one of those guys we’re just hoping you try to get the ball up, try to get it a little bit more elevated. We got that part. It just didn’t stay in the stadium.
“Off the bat, I remember I didn’t know if it was going to be like 10 rows deep (foul) or if it was going to be on the foul line initially, but I thought, OK, we got him in the air, we’ve got a chance because I knew (Alou) was playing in.”
Baker didn’t see a replay of Alou’s attempted catch until later that night, and when he finally saw what transpired, Alou’s visceral pissed-off reaction when the ball went off Bartman’s hands was the first thing Baker noticed.
Prior isn’t sure whether a more calm, routine reaction from Alou would have quelled fan reaction and attention on the play.
“I guess if you didn’t react, maybe people don’t react,” Prior said. “It’s hard with all the energy that was going through you as players, it’s hard to say, ‘Don’t react.’ It was a tough situation, but it was also weird because I don’t feel like we truly, at least I don’t remember, truly understanding the magnitude of what was going on.”
Although Prior heard about the scrutiny surrounding Bartman in the 10 days after the game, he said the magnitude of everything that took place in the aftermath didn’t hit him until he watched ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “Catching Hell” that aired in 2011.
“I mean, that was part of it (the reason they lost). Part of it was because I trusted my starters more than I trusted my bullpen,” Baker said. “Who could I have brought in better than Prior or Wood or (Carlos) Zambrano? We were scuffling in the bullpen. The guys they got me in that (July trade) shot us into contention, and we only won like 88 games that year, and usually you don’t get there (with 88 wins).”
The July 23, 2003 trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates goes down as one of the best in Cubs history: third baseman Aramis Ramírez and outfielder Kenny Lofton for infielder José Hernández, minor-league pitcher Bobby Bruback and a player to be named later (infielder Bobby Hill). Lofton, 36, hit .327 with a 120 OPS+ in 56 games, and the former Gold Glove winner provided plus defense in center field. Ramírez became one of the best to ever play third base for the Cubs, slugging 15 home runs at 25-years-old over 63 games in 2003. He finished with 239 homers and a 126 OPS+ in seven seasons in Chicago.
“I wanted them to trade for a top reliever,” Baker said. “Jim Hendry was trying hard, too, and so was Andy MacPhail. But then everything had to be cleared by the Tribune. Jim Hendry had asked me about Joe Randa. I said I like Joe Randa, but I think we can get better. Then we ended up getting Aramis and Kenny Lofton and (later) Randall Simon. That really showed me how a late-season major move like that can really give a shot of adrenalin.”
The Cubs went 34-21 during the final two months to finish one game ahead of the Astros to secure their first division title since 1989.
Cubs superfan Ronnie “WooWoo” Wickers said he knew Bartman. They even talked before the fateful game, he claimed.
“We talked, took a picture, said enjoy the game,” Wickers said.
The bleachers at Wrigley Field erupted when it happened, Wickers recalled: “Get outta here you bum!” he remembered people shouting.
The attempted catch was just a reaction, Wickers said. But it was a reaction that probably cost the Cubs a World Series appearance, he added.
But as Wickers shook hands with fans outside Murphy’s Bleachers in mid-September this year, the man wearing a custom uniform shared a seemingly unshakable faith that the Cubs would right history by making it to the World Series this year.
“Let bygones be bygones,” he said. “Enjoy today, enjoy this moment.”
Any World Series hopes were dashed by a dreadful 7-15 stretch to end this season, dropping the Cubs out of wild-card position and keeping them home again in October.
How the Cubs’ 2003 season ended didn’t negate what that team meant to fans and the city, with the promise of a bright future built around the young trio in the rotation that ultimately only featured Zambrano the next time they reached the postseason in 2007.
With Prior (22 years old), Wood (26) and Zambrano (22) to lead the pitching staff and Ramírez (25) in the middle of the lineup joining veteran Sammy Sosa, the Cubs had key pieces to build around. They won 89 games in 2004 but lost seven of their last nine and finished three games out of the wild-card spot.
The Cubs finished under .500 the next two years, tallying 96 losses in 2006 to end in the final season in Chicago for Baker and Prior. The Cubs nontendered Prior in Dec. 2007 after structural damage was found in his right shoulder, causing him to miss most of the season. Following multiple shoulder surgeries, Prior spent 2008-14 trying to get back to the majors through independent ball and four major-league organizations, but Game 6 represented his final big-league postseason game.
“Maybe I was naive to it, I was still pretty young, but I don’t remember us being, ‘Hey, watch out for this team’ (in 2003), so it was kind of cool,” Prior said. “Obviously with Dusty coming in and started changing the way our mindset was about, let’s think more about how to win games and winning series and winning months and stuff like that. The team just started to come together.”
Time can change perspective. Ten years ago, the Cubs were two seasons into the Theo Epstein era and coming off a 96-loss campaign as a follow up to the organization’s first season with at least 100 losses since 1966.
“The longer the mystique of not winning, the more pressure builds up, but when all these long droughts or whatever are finally eliminated and they’re moved on, I think that’s good for everybody,” Prior said with a laugh. “I was happy for everybody involved.”
The Cubs won the division twice since their championship season and reached the postseason three times. However, the organization has struggled to recapture the magic of their four-year run. Playoff appearances in 2018 and 2020 ended in the wild-card round. It’s postseason or bust in 2024 as manager David Ross enters Year 5, and the scrutiny will only increase on president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer if the Cubs fall short again.
As a lifelong Cubs fan, Jaye Weiss is well-acquainted with pain. She suffered through decades of losses, all the way back to the black cat-bested 1969 team — the one she still insists should have won the whole thing.
But none of it prepared her for 2003. She doesn’t pin the NLCS loss on Bartman. She even feels bad for him.
“How would you like to be in his shoes? And was it his fault? No,” Weiss said.
Regardless of where the fault lies, her Cubs still lost. She was distraught. It broke her heart.
“For nearly six months, I was in a daze,” Weiss said. “I went on with my life, but I wasn’t really there.”
She withdrew from the team, but it wasn’t as if she could stop being a fan. After all, there were countless memories with her dad and son tied to Wrigley. But she couldn’t let herself get hurt like that again.
She has attended an occasional summer game, always holding something back. Then in 2016, she felt a familiar knock on her heart as the wins mounted.
“I was cautious, because, for me, it was very … I guess I don’t want to use the word, traumatic,” Weiss said.
She went to a few player meet-and-greets, all the while not letting herself fully go. She kept a wary eye on the team’s playoff progress but refused to say “World Series.” However, she was lured in enough for a conditional commitment: if the team got the “The Big One,” as she called it, she would be in the ballpark, whatever it took.
A picture of Anthony Rizzo is her phone’s screen saver now. She proudly showed it off ahead of a mid-September game. She wore blue-red-blue “Go Cubs Go” tube socks, a “W” necklace, a “W” shirt and a blue fleece jacket.
After the World Series win, Weiss returned to Wrigley to write a chalk message on the ballpark’s brick wall.
She drew a heart. “Dad, this is for you,” she wrote.Two days later, the chalk wall was cleaned.
The signs of Cubs fans’ past were washed away.
Tribune “In the Wake of the News” columnist Paul Sullivan and Tribune reporter Jake Sheridan contributed.