CHICAGO -- As the baseball climbed into the dark October night and began making its way toward Wrigley Field's left-field corner, Pat Looney had no doubt. The ball was his.
He had caught a pop foul once before, reaching high above the fans sitting around him to snag a ball he later handed to a kid sitting nearby. This play felt the same -- as if the baseball gods had targeted his hands as the final resting place for a memorable souvenir. But this ball, from this game, wouldn't be going to any stranger. His wife had recently learned she was pregnant, so this ball would go to his first-born child.
"It was coming right at me," he says.
They say baseball is a game of inches, life a game of chance. A few more inches here, five more seconds there, and everything is different. The lightning strikes someone else's house. The swerving car just misses the deer. The lottery ball comes up one digit away from the number on your ticket. These are the twists of fate that fill our lives, most of the time going completely unnoticed.
The story of Pat Looney is one of these tales. When the most famous foul ball in baseball history went up for grabs in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, no one reached farther and tried harder to take that ball home than Looney. But he missed -- by two inches. Instead, the man standing next to Looney was the first to touch the ball -- and to catch everything else that came with it. As fate would have it, the quiet, unassuming man in his blue Cubs hat, green turtleneck and black headphones would become a household name. His life would become a nightmare. For Looney, there were death threats, and interview requests from as far away as Japan. But life eventually would return to normal. All because he came up two inches short.
"The truth is, I should have caught that ball," Looney says. "I should have been Steve Bartman."
The fateful foul ball should have come with a warning label. Something like: "Caution: Handle With Care." Or: "Warning: Contents Flammable." But who could have known then that a play that initially seemed so innocent -- a lazy fly ball into the left-field corner -- would wind end up nearly ruining the lives of the men who came closest to it.
That night, who would have predicted that ball would fetch $100,000 at an auction and later be blown up on national television? Who would have guessed that a 5-ounce ball of string would come to represent a century of Cubs futility? And who could have known that the ball would polarize Chicago and become the central figure in one of the ugliest nights in Wrigley Field history?
"If I would have known then what I know now, there's no way in hell I would have gone for that ball," Looney says. "No f---ing way."
But with one out in the eighth inning that night, when Luis Castillo lifted that ball in Looney's direction, the only thought on his mind was a souvenir. At the time, he and the three friends he went to the game with were doing the same thing as every other Cubs fan around the world -- counting outs until a celebration that was sure to rival Carnival. Six outs to go, five outs to go. The Cubs hadn't been to a World Series since 1945. They hadn't won it all since 1908. Up 3-0 on the Florida Marlins, baseball's lovable losers stood five outs from the sport's grandest stage.
In anticipation of the party that was about to commence, Looney and his friends lined up a dozen beers at their feet. Although last call had come an inning earlier, these guys were prepared.
"Our thinking was, 'If they win, we'd just hang out and celebrate,'" Looney says. "We had the perfect spot."
Growing up three miles west of Wrigley, the five Looney kids had little choice when it came time to pick their favorite baseball team. Their parents emigrated from Ireland in the 1960s, and sports dominated the Looney house. As a boy, Pat played hockey and basketball. An ultrapopular teacher's pet in the classroom, he was a hothead on the playing field.
"He didn't like losing," his sister Deirdre says. "He was always so serious. I remember in grammar school, he would get kicked out of basketball games. He'd go nuts. It was hilarious. Yet away from sports, he was never in trouble. He always did the right thing."
Pat's competitive instincts often clicked in when it came time to catch a foul pop at a Cubs game. His wife, also named Deirdre, remembers a game when Pat almost knocked her over in pursuit of a ball.
"He nearly gave me a black eye," she says.
Responds Looney: "I'm not sure what to say. When there's a foul ball around me, I like to go for it. What's the big deal?"
And on the night of Oct. 14, 2003, that's exactly what Pat Looney was thinking -- What's the big deal? From the moment the ball left Castillo's bat, Looney didn't take his eyes off it. His friend Gene Heidkamp, sitting to Looney's left, immediately got out of the way. "I'm not a foul ball guy," Heidkamp says. "It's not me."
When Heidkamp moved, Looney shuffled along the brick outfield wall, stretching out his arms as the ball approached. Bartman was seated in the row behind Looney, four seats to his left. But because of the angle of the seats, Bartman, like Looney, was also along the wall. When the ball finally came to earth, three men had a chance to catch it -- Looney, Bartman and Cubs left fielder Moises Alou, who was jumping from the field below.
For whatever reason -- the wind, the backspin, the beers Looney had been drinking that night, his belief that he pulled his hands back at the last second -- Looney came up short. We all know what happened when the ball landed. It ricocheted off Bartman's hand, deflecting it away from Alou's open glove. The ball fell to the ground; Alou reacted with a profanity-laced temper tantrum; and the spark was lit for the Cubs' season to go down in flames.
"I knew it wasn't good," Looney says. "Alou was looking right at me. But I never imagined it would be this big turning point in the game. My concern was getting kicked out."
Before he could sit down, Looney's cellphone began to ring. And ring. And ring some more. The first few calls, he answered. But then it was too much. Friends and family were watching the game that night, and they all saw Looney go for the ball in his oversize gray sweatshirt. Within minutes, his voice mail box was full with messages like, "Nice catch, a--hole" and "I can't believe you f---ed the Cubs like that."
A few blocks away, Looney's father and two sisters watched the play on a television inside an Italian restaurant. They couldn't believe it, either. "As soon as I saw it, I said, 'That f---ing guy in the gray sweatshirt,'" Deirdre says. "'He f---ed it up.' And then my dad goes, 'You know, that guy in the gray sweatshirt looks an awful lot like your brother.' I refused to believe it. There was no way."
Then Deirdre's brother-in-law called from California to ask Looney's sister, Siobhan, if she had seen Looney on television. They all laughed. It was him. But two batters later, when shortstop Alex Gonzalez booted a potential double-play ball that could have ended the inning, no one was laughing anymore. The Marlins would go on to score eight runs, turning a 3-0 deficit into an 8-3 lead. And the national television broadcast kept going back to the replay of the foul ball.
Inside Wrigley, neither Looney nor his friends said much of anything. They just sat there. The people around them began throwing pizza, pretzels, popcorn and beer at Bartman, Looney and everyone else in the general vicinity of where the crime had occurred. The entire stadium started chanting "a--hole." Two of Looney's friends became so upset that they left. A security team surrounded Bartman, ushering him into the Cubs' offices. It was the last time he'd be seen in the public eye.
When the game ended, Looney and his friend Dan McCarthy finished drinking the beers that had been left behind. They didn't run. They didn't hide. Looney knew he hadn't touched the ball. In his mind, he had seen Alou out of the corner of his eye and pulled his hands back at the last second. As the media descended on the crowd, Looney pondered what to do next.
"Everybody was scared. Nobody wanted to talk," Looney says. "I'm like, 'Screw it.' I stood up and said, 'You're in the wrong spot, guys. You should be at Alex Gonzalez's locker. He lost the game for the Cubs.'"
But none of the reporters listened. They wanted names, and one in particular -- the guy with the turtleneck, glasses and headphones. The guy who had touched the ball Looney didn't catch.
"I told them, 'We don't know the guy. And even if we did, it's not his fault,'" Looney says. "'He did the same thing I did, the same thing anybody would have done. Go talk to Alex Gonzalez.'"
When the reporters asked Looney for his name, he jokingly said, "Dan McCarthy." That's when McCarthy came running down the aisle yelling, "No, no, no. His name is Pat Looney. He's a fireman."
"At that point, I remember thinking, 'Oh boy,'" Looney says. "'This isn't going to be good.'"
Spectators talk about their natural reaction to a foul ball coming their way.
Later that night, Bridget Looney couldn't stop moving, couldn't stop crying. She just kept pacing back and forth, tears streaking down her cheeks. Her body shook in fear.
It all began with a phone call, a strange voice asking on the other line whether Pat, her youngest son, was home. But Pat had moved out years ago. When Bridget explained this to the caller, he responded with a statement that felt like a knife in her chest.
"Tell him he's a goner," the voice said. "A f---ing goner."
The Looneys had lived in the same house, with the same phone number, for more than 40 years. And now everyone knew Looney was a firefighter. Hiding would be impossible.
Bridget had been watching the game on television and knew there was some sort of controversy but, not being much of a sports fan, struggled to understand what it all meant. However, as the phone kept ringing, it became clear -- somehow her son was involved.
As the phone continued to ring, Bridget heard a bold knock at the door. She didn't answer. The knocking grew louder. She still didn't answer. That's when three men started jumping on the cars in front of her house, yelling "Looney Curse! Looney Curse! Looney Curse!"
By all measures, Pat Looney is a good man. He stayed out of trouble, had a lot of loyal friends and was the first member of the family to graduate from college. Not only was he a Chicago firefighter, he also was the general manager of the family-owned Abbey Pub. He was a man without enemies. Now, all of a sudden, he found himself as one of two men the city of Chicago was angrily looking for.
"It was scary. I was hysterical," Bridget says. "I just kept thinking, 'If all these people are this mad, what if somebody sees my son on the street? He's going to be beaten terribly.' I was so, so scared."
Meanwhile, after talking to the media, Looney had left Wrigley and tried to find refuge at the fire station across Waveland Avenue. Bad idea. Rather than help hide Looney, the guys in the house that night -- many of them Looney's friends -- began yelling to the crowd, "There he is, there he is. That's the guy."
"They turned on me," Looney says. "They were probably joking, but it was clear they weren't going to help me."
By now, Looney's father and two sisters were walking toward Wrigley in hopes of finding him. They had called his cellphone some 20 times but were unable to get through. As they got closer to the ballpark, they could feel the anger and hatred that permeated the air. People were swearing, screaming, yelling. Some said they wanted to kill the man in the hat and headphones. Others blamed the guy in the gray sweatshirt. Outside the ballpark, the Looneys ran into Steve Ford, one of Pat's friends who had left the game early. He sat on a stoop outside Wrigley, crying.
"He was freaking out," Deirdre says.
"I had gone to the firehouse," Ford says. "I had told them, 'You might want to escort your fellow fireman out of trouble. It's getting ugly.' And they were like, 'That son-of-a-bitch? No way.' I don't know fireman humor. I thought they were serious. And that's when I got scared. If the firemen didn't want to help Pat, then what were the people who didn't like him going to do?"
It was at this point that normally stoic Tom Looney, Pat's 63-year-old father, began to worry. Tom Looney's mother died when he was 2. Growing up in Ireland, he bounced from family to family. The experience taught him to control his emotions, to never get too high or too low. But on this night, in this situation, he panicked.
"He turned to Siobhan and me and was like, 'Girls, this isn't funny anymore,'" Deirdre says. "'This is serious. We have to find your brother. These people are going to hurt him.'"
Eventually, Deirdre got her brother on the phone. She says he told her he couldn't talk because he was hiding under a car. Looney disputes this.
"That's bull----," Looney says. "I wasn't under a car."
"I don't know," Deirdre says. "That's what he told me. And it was crazy enough out there that I believed him."
The family met at Goose Island, a brewpub just down the street from Wrigley where a friend of Looney's is the manager. The manager handed Looney a pullover and a baseball cap to help conceal his identity. And then he led him to a television where, for the first time, Looney saw with his own eyes exactly what had happened.
"I looked at the TV, and I was like, 'Holy s---,'" Looney says. "'Holy s---.'"
Spectators talk about Moises Alou's response to not being able to catch the foul pop fly.
The phone rang at Tom and Bridget's house shortly after 5 the next morning. By 7, four television trucks sat outside the Abbey Pub.
The night before, a reporter had called a family friend looking for Looney. Puzzled, the woman said, "You mean Pat Looney from the Abbey Pub?"
Combined with McCarthy's comments from the night before, the media knew everything they needed to know to find Pat Looney. They knew his parents. They knew he was a firefighter. They knew he worked at the Abbey Pub. Shortly after 8 a.m., Bridget called her son and implored him to go to the bar and clear his name.
"I was worried somebody might do something to him or do something to the bar," Bridget says. "We had to get this all cleared up."
At the same time, Pat's wife was on her way to work when she stopped to buy a newspaper with a photo of the play on the cover. "The lady behind the counter points to the picture and says, 'I blame the guy in the gray sweatshirt,'" she says. "I just turned around and walked out."
At this point, Steve Bartman's name had not yet been revealed. Everyone knew the hat, the turtleneck and the headphones. But not the name. In fact, for a short time, several Chicago television producers thought Bartman's name was actually Pat Looney.
"I get to the bar, and they're all like, 'Who are you? You're not the guy with the headphones and glasses,'" Looney says. "And I'm like, 'No, I'm not. I'm the guy next to him.'"
For now, that would do. Looney answered questions, then sent the TV trucks away. But it was only the beginning. Through the course of the day, more than 80 media organizations would call the pub looking for him. CNN. Fox News. The BBC. Peter Jennings. Ellen DeGeneres. Dan Patrick. Calls came from Europe and Japan. Reporters showed up at Looney's fire station, prompting a high-ranking official in the Chicago Fire Department to approach Looney about transferring to a different firehouse.
"I was laughing at the guy," Looney says. "'Are you serious?' Not that I'm a tough guy, but who's going to do something? Everybody can say whatever they want, but it's a rare nut job that's actually going to put something behind those words."
Later that day, Bartman's name was revealed by the Chicago Sun-Times. Two days later, Bartman released his only public comments on the play in the form of a 185-word statement. Since then, aside from a brief encounter for a 2004 ESPN.com feature, Bartman has all but disappeared. He has refused numerous interview requests and turned down thousands of dollars for everything from public appearances to commercials.
As for Looney, all you need to know about the firefighter is that he agreed to go on the Dan Patrick radio show the day after the game only if a producer could secure a limo to take him to Wrigley for Game 7. Months later, when Looney heard Bartman had been offered $10,000 to appear at a baseball card show, Looney contacted the promoter and offered his services for a couple of thousand.
"I figured it was worth a shot," he says.
"There are few words to describe how awful I feel and what I have experienced within these last 24 hours.
"I've been a Cub fan all my life and fully understand the relationship between my actions and the outcome of the game. 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.
"To Moises Alou, the Chicago Cubs organization, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, and Cub fans everywhere I am so truly sorry from the bottom of this Cubs fan's broken heart.
"I ask that Cub fans everywhere redirect the negative energy that has been vented towards my family, my friends, and myself into the usual positive support for our beloved team on their way to being National League champs."
Had Looney touched the ball first, everything would have been different, he says. He would have opened a bar called "Foul Ball" and pitched himself to Southwest Airlines for one of those "Wanna Get Away" commercials. There would have been a book, a movie, all of it.
"I would have whored myself to anyone and everyone who was interested," Looney says. "People would have been sick of me. And they would have written me off as a total idiot."
Of course that's easy to say now, especially given that, the moment the Sun-Times printed Bartman's name, nearly all the focus shifted to Bartman's parents' suburban home. But Looney believes his out-there-and-available approach would have defused the situation, even that night at Wrigley Field.
"I wouldn't have been walking around with a towel over my face, put it that way," Looney says. "Look, he was an easy target, and it's unfortunate. But these guys walking up throwing a beer, how tough are they? Guys like that, talking all that s---, they're probably a bunch of p---ies. I wouldn't have let people throw stuff at me and talk all that s---.
"I would have apologized. I would have thrown my hands up and said I was sorry. And I would have felt terrible. But I also would have defended myself. You have to remember, this was a tough ticket. The people at that game are either a season-ticket holder or somebody with money. It's not a bunch of gangbangers. What are they going to do? Throw some kung fu on me?"
Looney's confidence is the reason he had no qualms about going back to Wrigley the next night for Game 7. Kerry Wood, his favorite Cubs player, was on the mound, and Looney believed the Cubs were going to win. After the Marlins scored three runs in the top of the first, Wood hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the second to tie the score at three. Looney cried.
"It was an emotional night," he says. "I felt there was so much riding on that game. If the Cubs lost, I knew everyone was going to look back at that play."
That's exactly what happened. Florida won the game 9-6 and, two weeks later, defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series. While everyone in Chicago was left to wonder what might have been, one of Looney's friends refused to talk to him for some time.
"I was pissed off after Game 7 and how it turned out -- and Pat was a good person to blame," says Jeff Kent, one of Looney's college friends. "It was what he reminded me of. What he was a part of. So he wasn't on my speed dial for a few months after that."
The fire was knocked, as firefighters like to say, meaning the flames were under control. It was Friday, Oct. 17, two days after Game 7, and the foul ball couldn't have been further from Pat Looney's mind. He and several other firefighters had spent much of the evening fighting the flames of a dangerous blaze on the 12th floor of the 35-story Cook County Administration Building.
But now, with the fire put out, Looney became the target of his fellow firefighters from across the city. The Cubs fans all wanted to know what the hell he was thinking going for that ball. And the Sox fans congratulated him on ruining the Cubs' chances to reach the World Series.
"I hated the Sox before that," Looney says. "But after that, I really hated the Sox."
A bit later, as Looney and the other firefighters were back in the building doing mop-up work, Looney received a call to take the elevator he was operating to the 21st floor. There, a group of firefighters had found six bodies, workers who had been trapped in a stairwell.
The deaths prompted an independent investigation that revealed flaws in fire department and building security procedures, as well as in the building's design. But Looney couldn't get over the fact that, while he and his fellow firefighters were talking Bartman, innocent people were dying.
Sports had long provided Looney with an escape from the horrors he dealt with on the job. But now the two worlds had come together.
"There were a lot of things that went wrong that day, communication issues, a lot," Looney says. "Talking about that play wasn't the reason those people died. But it didn't make it any easier. It was sobering. Everybody was making such a big deal out of this Bartman thing when something serious happened."
The next day, when a reporter called Looney to ask about the foul ball, he snapped. "I didn't want to hear it," he says. "Not one bit."
Director Alex Gibney discusses the film "Catching Hell." He also appears on the B.S. Report with Bill Simmons.
At his father's 71st birthday in August, Pat Looney relaxed in a chair outside the house he grew up in while older brother Tom popped open a celebratory bottle of champagne. The cork shot straight up in the air, and Tom snagged it with his right hand.
"Better hands than your brother," somebody joked.
Everybody laughed, Looney included. But it wouldn't have been as funny had Looney covered those last two inches and gotten his hands on the baseball that would have made Looney -- and not Bartman -- the name Cubs fans would never forget.
"The thing about it is, we wouldn't have deserved it, and Bartman didn't deserve it," Tom Looney Sr. says. "Things just got blown way out of proportion. The whole thing is ridiculous. It still is."
Who's to blame for the public's obsession with the Bartman ball depends on whom you ask. There are those who point the finger at Alou for creating an air of negativity with his temper tantrum. There are those who wonder whether Bartman is to blame, whether his silence all these years has actually turned the story into a bigger saga than it deserves to be. And there are those who criticize the media, saying they're the ones to blame for everything from outing Bartman to never letting the story go.
Few have any idea what Bartman went through in the days, weeks and months after that night. Fewer still know what he is up to today. After the ball hit Bartman's hands, it fell into the stands, where attorney Jim Starack picked it up. He later sold it at auction for $100,000. (Starack did not respond to numerous interview requests for this story.)
As for Looney, who never laid a finger on the ball, the play has never gone away. He's been recognized on cruises and in airports. When he meets somebody new, he knows the time eventually will come when they realize he was the man in the gray sweatshirt that night, the man who could have been, and perhaps should have been, Bartman. The response is always the same: Damn, you're lucky. But Looney doesn't see it that way.
"I honestly don't think it would have been the end of the world," he says. "I know it's easy to say that because the ball never touched my hand. But I truly believe that, if it would have been me, somehow, someway, it would have turned into a different thing."
Those who know Looney best tend to agree. "He would have been the best person to have that happen to," his wife says. "He should have been Bartman. He would have taken it in a completely different direction."
Nearly nine months after that fateful night, Deirdre gave birth to the couple's first son, Ciaran Patrick Looney. Friends and family showered the boy with the only gifts that seemed appropriate. "Everything that everyone got him had Cubs on it," Bridget Looney says. "Everything."
Today, on the floor of Pat's and Deirdre's dining room sits a dust-covered picture of the play that nearly changed their lives. Looney planned to hang the picture on a wall but has never gotten around to it. Instead, Pat, Deirdre, Ciaran and his twin little brothers, Shane and Ryan, walk by the print every day and think nothing of it.
Until earlier this month, that is, when Pat and Deirdre were preparing to attend the Chicago premiere of "Catching Hell," the ESPN Films documentary about that night. The buzz around the film left a 7-year-old boy asking questions and a 42-year-old father searching for answers.
Looney briefly explained what had happened that night, while showing his three boys the photo they had previously ignored. They said very little. And then the other night, as the Looney boys were preparing for bed, Dad began asking questions to see whether his boys had been paying attention.
"Do you see your dad in this picture?" Pat asked, pointing to himself in the framed print.
"Yeah," Ciaran said. "You're right there. You're trying to catch the ball."
"And you missed it," Shane added.
"So what happened?" Looney asked.
""The truth is, I should have caught that ball. I should have been Steve Bartman." -- Pat Looney
"The guy next to you knocked the ball away," Ciaran said.
"That's right," Looney said.
Before he could say any more, the kids scurried to the kitchen, where their mother indicated that it was time to get dressed for bed. For now, the conversation about the play was over. But Looney hopes that, down the road, his boys can learn from what happened that night.
"I want them to know that, if you make a mistake, you should stand up for yourself," he says. "You face it, deal with the consequences and you move on. And that's OK. Mistakes are OK. We all do it. But the people who meet it head on and apologize are always 100 times better off than those who don't."
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