Baseball’s Best Grudges and Why Fans Never Forget

Mitch ‘Wild Thing’ Williams recently appeared on the “Dan Patrick Radio Show” and thanks to Dan’s blogger Andrew ‘McLovin’ Perloff; Williams could not escape the usual round of questions about a high outside fastball to Toronto’s Joe Carter that has haunted him for more than a decade.

Wild Thing cost his team a World Series win and fans have never let him forget it. Sports is the one place where irrational grudges are not merely carried on, they are encouraged. Here’s a look back at some of the greatest irrational grudges in baseball history.

Boston hates Bill Buckner

There will never be another year quite like 1986. The New York Mets run to the World Series was marked by arrests, clubhouse in-fighting and general media mayhem. Just when it seemed that all would culminate in a loss of the World Series to the long suffering Boston Red Sox a slow rolling ground ball trickled past the glove of Boston’s usually reliable first baseman Bill Buckner.

In the aftermath of the loss of the’86 world series Boston fans booed Buckner mercilessly during spring training. The Zahim Bunker Hill Bridge was nicknamed the ‘Buckner Bridge’ because cars pass easily through the bridge’s Y shaped struts. Buckner was released by the Red Sox midway through the 1987 season.

Billy Buck’s story has a happy ending. Buckner was brought back by the Red Sox in 1990 and given a standing ovation upon his return to Fenway Park. He retired soon after that return but received an even bigger ovation when he threw out the first pitch on opening day 2008 at Fenway, the season following the Red Sox 2007 World Series win, their second since breaking the 86 year Curse of the Bambino in 2004.

Bucky ‘Freakin’ Dent

Red Sox fans know how to hold an irrational grudge better than any other fans on the planet; there are still Red Sox fans holding on to a grudge against former team owner Harry Frazee who sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees and he’s been dead for more than 80 years.

Bucky Dent was a not bad but far from legendary shortstop for the New York Yankees on the Yankees back to back world championship winning teams in 1977 and 1978. The main reason anyone remembers that fact is because the light hitting shortstop did the unthinkable and beat the Boston Red Sox with a tie breaking, bottom of the 9th inning, home run in a playoff game to decide the 1978 Eastern Division Championship.

Even after breaking the curse that Red Sox fans long blamed for their team’s 86 year run without a World Series Championship, fans cannot say the name Bucky Dent without adding an unwelcome and not so family friendly middle name to Bucky’s name. The cleaned up, PG-13 version is the title of this entry on the list; Bucky ‘Freakin’ Dent.

Hitler, Stalin, Garvey

If there is one ballclub in the world that can hold an irrational grudge half as well as Red Sox fans it is undoubtedly Cubs fans. I know this because I am a Cubs fan and to this day I still hate Steve Garvey. It was the bottom of the 9th and the Cubs were just a win away from going to the World Series when up to the plate stepped Steve Garvey.

The Cubs had every advantage in this moment. Garvey was getting old, in his 15th major league season. The Cubs closer, arguably one of the great closers of all time, Lee Smith was on the mound and there were two outs in the inning. Then, seemingly out of nowhere Garvey hit a weak line drive over the right field fence and forced a game seven.

The Cubs would go on to lose the decisive 5th game of the series thanks to an error by first baseman Leon Durham; an error eerily similar to the error Buckner would make two years later. But the lingering hate filled memory is Garvey with that arrogant smirk and that arm pump around second base that remains the focus of the ire of Cubs fans to this day. If you don’t believe me, check out this 2008 headline from a Cubs fan writing for Hardball Times “Hitler, Stalin, Garvey.”

Woe is Steve Bartman

Talk about irrational grudges, Steve Garvey is only the second most hated Steve in Cubs history. Poor Steve Bartman, just like any other Cubs fan, all he wanted to do was see the Cubs clinch their first World Series trip in more than 50 years.

If Steve Bartman had only stayed in his seat no one but his family and friends would know who he is today. Instead, Bartman is the focus of the ire of a nation of fans that he was once part of. Bartman may indeed still be a Cubs fan; no one can be sure because he has dodged the spotlight after allegedly being hounded out of Chicago by angry fans.

The hatred of Bartman is by far the most irrational of all sports grudges because it really wasn’t Bartman’s fault. It all started in the bottom of the 8th inning in the 2003 National League Championship Series. The Cubs were a mere five outs away from a trip to the World Series.

With Florida’s Juan Pierre at second base and one out Luis Castillo stepped to the plate against Cubs ace Mark Prior. Castillo hit a fly ball into the left field corner that looked as if it would be playable for Cubs left fielder Moises Alou. Just as Alou was jumping to attempt the catch Steve Bartman reached over the railing next to his seat and the ball bounced off his hands into the seats.

It’s unclear whether the ball was really playable for Moises Alou but his angry, anguished reaction had sealed Bartman’s fate. Bartman was escorted from Wrigley Field that night by security as fans hurled four letter words and loaded cups of beer in his direction.

The Cubs blew the 3 to 0 lead they held at the moment of the Bartman foul ball and they went on to lose game six 7 to 3 and then lose game seven in nearly as dramatic a fashion, blowing a 5 to 3 lead with fireballer Kerry Wood on the mound. The Cubs are now in their 101st year of World Series ineptitude.

Why Cubs fans don’t hold shortstop Alex Gonzalez in equal contempt for his error shortly after the Bartman play or erratic reliever Kyle Farnsworth for his inability to get a much needed out is anyone’s guess. Bartman was and is a very easy scapegoat. In the ensuing years Bartman has not offered any kind of defense that might spare him the blame.

In 2007 out of guilt or simply with the maturity that comes with time, Moises Alou told reporters that it was not Bartman’s fault. Fans that still hold a grudge against Bartman now readily acknowledge the irrationality of the grudge we have held against Steve Bartman for nearly eight years but the grudge remains.

Like I said, sports invite this type of irrationality. Passionate Bills fans still can’t hear the name Scott Norwood or the words ‘wide right’ without wincing. Michigan fans get a tiny pull in the back of their throats every time the team runs out of timeouts late in a game as memories of star Chris Webber’s errant time out call still feels a little raw.

It’s one of the quirky things about sports, the way it can get into your blood and infect you with feelings you would reconsider for real villains in your life.

What’s your favorite irrational sports grudge?