War coverage overtakes big sports weekend in city

October 08, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

ON SATURDAY night, I stood in the press box at Camden Yards and watched the final game of Cal Ripken's glorious career, watched the night sky light up with fireworks and 48,000 fans radiate both joy and sadness as a city said goodbye to a beloved sports legend.

A little over 12 hours later, as I settled in to watch the Ravens play the Tennessee Titans, we were in a shooting war in Afghanistan, and the night sky over that sad, desperate country was lit up with tracer rounds and anti-aircraft fire.

Suddenly, the usual parade of anchors and talking heads were back on TV, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw and Christiane Amanpour and the rest, telling us that U.S. and British bombers had hit al-Qaida terrorist camps and Taliban military positions 26 days after the attacks on this country.(There was, I suppose, good news for hard-core Ravens fans: Coverage of the game continued uninterrupted on CBS! Hey, when you finally get your offense untracked and your defense is swarming around Eddie George like a school of piranhas, who wants to be pre-empted for a little thing like a war?)

So the long-awaited retaliation against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime finally arrived, and for me, it was all so surreal.

It was surreal because if you were at Camden Yards on Saturday night, it was possible to think that the world - or at least your little slice of it - had somehow returned to normal.

Here was the greatest Oriole of them all, with his pretty wife and two All-American kids and his loving mom at his side, basking in the affection of an entire city, and by proxy, the entire nation.

In a moving pre-game ceremony, they showered him with gifts and trotted out teammates and managers and broadcasters from his past to tell us what a swell guy and terrific ballplayer he was.

They talked about his love for the game, his dedication to his craft, his work ethic. When he finally took the field to play ball, they trotted out the entire starting lineup from the first major league team he ever played on - Al Bumbry and Rich Dauer and Gary Roenicke and the rest, most looking great, and maybe he thought they'd all been cryogenically preserved in some lab in Baltimore.

Then they played a baseball game - Cal went 0-for-3 and the Red Sox won and nobody cared - and after that there was another stirring tribute to No. 8 in the darkened stadium and finally a speech from the great man himself, who is no William Jennings Bryan as an orator, but has always spoken from the heart.

By yesterday, though, Cal was an afterthought for many of us.

Suddenly, the whole country was talking about B-1 and B-2 and B-52 bombers, of Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from submarines, of power outages in Kabul and Kandahar.

Suddenly, seemingly every retired lieutenant general in the country was back in front of the cameras dissecting Middle East air base access and the logistics of getting at Taliban training camps in support of the Northern Alliance.

I found it hard to think about Cal after watching that chilling videotape released by bin Laden, in which the terrorist leader vowed there would be no peace in the United States until there was peace in Palestine.

A friend called to rant that, with Cal gone and longtime teammate Brady Anderson possibly to follow, watching the Orioles next year would be like watching 25 guys plucked off a street corner in Pittsburgh.

But it was hard to concentrate on what he was saying. By now, I had switched to CNN, where Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, was reading a statement in halting English decrying the "brutal attacks" on his country and vowing that Afghanistan would rise above the "new colonialists."

Whew. So much for the world returning to normal.

On and on it went, this bizarre, sobering afternoon.

Oh, the Ravens eventually won, and WJZ came on with its post-game show, and maybe you could get lost for a few moments in an interview with a beaming Elvis Grbac, the team's efficient new quarterback.

But right after that, the station finally switched over to coverage of the U.S. retaliation, with a somber Dan Rather, under a graphic proclaiming "America Fights Back," delivering details of a second wave of attacks near Kabul.

Food and leaflet airdrops were taking place in Afghanistan, the network reported. The White House was "shut down" for the night amid heavy security.

The vice president had been moved to a new location for security reasons. And leaders of Congress had issued a joint statement approving of the U.S. attacks.

By the time night fell, it was hard to remember much of what Elvis Grbac had said.

And Cal Ripken's last game as an Oriole - and that wonderful night at Camden Yards - seemed so very long ago.

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