Alex Gibney remembers watching Game 6 of the 1986 World Series as a young man in Los Angeles. Late in the game, a friend turned to Gibney, a Red Sox fan, and said, "Looks like they're going to do it."
They didn't do it. Protecting a two-run lead with none on and two out in the bottom of the 10th, the Red Sox bullpen allowed three-straight singles and a wild pitch before Boston first baseman Bill Buckner allowed New York Mets' outfielder Mookie Wilson's slow grounder to trickle through his legs and Ray Knight jubilantly crossed home plate with the game's winning run. Predictably, the Mets beat Boston two nights later in Game 7 to take the series.
Twenty-five years later, Gibney's latest documentary, "Catching Hell," examines Buckner's boot, along with the infamous Steve Bartman play in the 2003 National League Championship Series, as case studies in the unscrupulous art of scapegoating.
"It's not just about scapegoats," Gibney said. "It's about sports and the fans' zeal. They care about the team, and there is a mystery when teams fail. They are perplexed into finding a single reason for failure."
For Red Sox and Cubs fans, no figures over the past 25 years have drawn as much ire as Buckner and Bartman, who famously interfered with a playable foul ball in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS between the Cubs and the Florida Marlins. What would have been the second out of the top of the 8th inning never happened, and Florida went on to score eight runs in the inning and turn the tide in the series.
Gibney recognizes that neither the Buckner nor Bartman play decided the series, nor even occurred in the deciding game. He uses the film to figure out just how these plays allowed the opposition to gain momentum.
"In one interview with the opposing team, the Marlins, (third baseman) Mike Lowell remembers he said to a teammate, 'Let's go out and make this kid famous.' Do these plays have an impact? Do the fates conspire or do the players internalize? They get the jitters, the yips."
In "Catching Hell," Gibney is able to catch up with Buckner, but Bartman did not participate. Gibney draws parallels between the two incidents, including the fact that both the Red Sox and Cubs also blew leads in their respective deciding Game 7's.
"With this common theme, I had to in a way examine our own issues, ask why people are so obsessed," Gibney said.
But there is one important distinction between Buckner and Bartman.
"Buckner signed up," Gibney said, "Bartman was just a fan."