How baseball, 'Curb' saved a man's life

Catalan's attendance at Dodgers' game, filming for comedy show coincide for alibi

October 10th, 2017

NEW YORK -- Here he was among the multitudes that had assembled in Yankee Stadium on this wet October night. He was an outcast, perhaps, in his Dodgers hat, considering it was the Yankees and Indians on the field below. But Juan Catalan was as relevant a representative of the ideals that allow us to freely congregate and celebrate as you could hope to find.
To Catalan, baseball is no longer the pure diversion it once was. His relationship to the game is forever altered by the alibi that bought him back his freedom and quite likely saved him from the death penalty. Thanks to an assist from the sport and another unusual source -- the HBO comedy series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- Catalan was free Monday night to take his seat in Section 327, to watch Game 4 of the American League Division Series presented by Doosan and to reflect on his life's wild plot twists that make even postseason baseball seem simplistic, by comparison.
"Once your freedom gets taken away," Catalan said, "you really recognize how lucky we are to be American citizens."
Back in 2003, Catalan was arrested for a murder he did not commit. He was spared a death sentence because he and his lawyer, Todd Melnik, were able to prove that at the time the crime was committed Catalan was not at the murder scene but at Chavez-Ravine -- for a May 12, 2003, game between the Dodgers and Braves. The convincing proof was provided by outtake footage from Larry David's hit sitcom, which just so happened to be filming in Catalan's section on that May day.
This is a story that might involve Hollywood, but it's not one you could concoct with your imagination. That's why it is told in the Netflix documentary "Long Shot," which Catalan and Melnik were in town to promote.
"We used all kinds of things --- Hollywood TV shows, modern technology and good, old-fashioned detective work -- to piece together things to determine where he was," Melnik said. "Now here he is standing here. My friend."
The film covers the drive-by shooting of 16-year-old Martha Puebla, a witness in a gang-related murder case in which Catalan's brother was a co-defendant. Catalan was arrested for Puebla's death in August 2003, and he maintained his innocence, telling prosecutors that he had taken his 6-year-old daughter to the Dodgers game on the night of the murder.
Though Catalan could produce ticket stubs and offered to take a lie-detector test, real proof that he was in attendance was unavailable. The FOX Sports TV feed and the Dodgers' in-house video and security feeds did not include shots of his section with a high enough resolution to reveal him.
But the key to the case was when Catalan remembered someone in his section making mention that "Super Dave Osborne" -- otherwise known as actor and comedian Bob Einstein, who plays Marty Funkhouser on "Curb" -- was in attendance. From that small clue, Melnik got the help of the Dodgers' media relations department to find the production company that filmed at Dodger Stadium that day. A phone number was listed in the log. Melnik called it, and the person on the other end answered, "HBO."
Within days, Melnik met with David and the show's producers to go through outtake footage from the filming of the "Car Pool Lane" episode that would air the following spring. Sure enough, there was a shot of Catalan and his daughter returning to their row after getting some snacks at the concession stand.
"I really did jump out of my chair," Melnik said. "I pointed at the screen and said, 'That's him right there! Roll that tape back!'"
That video evidence, combined with phone records that showed Catalan's cellphone pinged a tower near Dodger Stadium at 10:12 p.m. -- 31 minutes before the murder took place, roughly 20 miles away -- was enough to get Catalan acquitted. After six months in jail, he was freed and later awarded a $320,000 settlement for police misconduct. Four other men were eventually found guilty of the murder.
"My life has changed immensely and for the better," Catalan said. "The experience I've had, the people I've met, the places I've gone, it's actually all come from this, which is something crazy to think about. It was such a bad experience, and to have all this good come out, I just feel blessed."
Though embarrassed to admit he had no idea who David was before this ordeal, Catalan is certainly a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" fan now. And as always, he's a baseball fan.
"As a kid, I watched Fernando Valenzuela pitch," he said. "That's where my love for the Dodgers grew."
Who knew that love would one day save his life? As David might say, baseball has been pret-tay, pret-tay, pret-tay good to Catalan.