Games help light our way in darkness spread by 9/11

Commentary

September 12, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

AT THE BALLPARK yesterday, a story was told about Sept. 11. It helped answer the question:

Do we do the right thing by playing games on this still raw, still infant and forever horrible anniversary?

It was from the New York Yankees, whose coaches and players were in lower Manhattan four days after the terror attacks. It was Saturday. Smoke in the air. Planes grounded.

Confusion and shock reigned. The Yankees had been asked to visit with families at the armory, which served as a morgue for victims and a gathering place for friends and families.

The carload of Yankees sat outside. Ballplayers in the middle of a catastrophe no one could fathom. The players wondered what the hell they were doing.

"The guys said, `We shouldn't be here. We don't belong here,'" Yankees spokesman Rick Cerrone said.

"It was so awkward, so I asked one of the officials who had asked us to come whether we shouldn't just leave and he said, `No. They need to see you.' Even when we walked in, it was so eerie, like we were part of this war, this disaster," Cerrone said.

"There was this kid who came up to Paul O'Neill and said, `I hope your foot gets better.' Paul couldn't believe it. Here's this kid waiting to hear about his father and he wanted to tell Paul to get better," Cerrone said.

The Yankees understood their role early.

"Families just kind of gravitated toward us. We represented New York and served as a distraction to the people who were suffering," manager Joe Torre said.

Soon, other players, other teams, other sports followed.

Three years later, Sept. 11 was Game Day in America. It's good to ask if we did the right thing.

Out on the field at Camden Yards, the grass was painted red, white and blue: We Shall Not Forget. Then, the first pitch.

The Orioles and Yankees have marked the anniversary of Sept. 11 before. It's the natural ebb of the baseball season. Two American League East teams facing each other in mid-September, pennant races to be decided - at least for the Yankees.

No matter how many times this age-old plot revives itself, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is a major preoccupation for millions up and down the eastern seaboard.

Still, with Curt Schilling pitching the Red Sox to within inches of the Yankees, the drama has its limits - if you can only imagine that.

From South Bend, Ind., television images showed Notre Dame fans decked in Irish green singing the national anthem - with tears rolling down their cheeks.

Nothing is quite as hallowed as game day in South Bend, with the talk of Touchdown Jesus and the Four Horsemen and when the Irish will return to prominence.

Normality in this church of college football had been talk about how an upset win over Michigan would take some pressure off Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham.

As if, in the scheme of things, this is real pressure.

There is reality, which is the world where wars and politics and terror reign. Then there is this other place we the people like to go. A place called sports, which used to be considered an escape from reality but is now something a little more noble:

Affirmation of our freedom, our way of life, our "normalcy."

Having stood in a stadium in Seattle the timid, strange night that major league baseball games resumed after the attacks on Sept. 11, it's tough to argue that point.

At first, it felt weird, embarrassing, wrong to indulge in such a thing as a baseball game. Then, after the first inning, and after the first series of downs or the first drives off the tee, when the familiar rhythms of the games started to beat inside us again, it felt right.

It felt like the first steps along the path to all right.

Yesterday, three years later, being normal was again a statement: We remember but we will not stop living.

That it was a Saturday meant that for the first time America spent the anniversary of Sept. 11 engaged in twin activities.

Remembering: "Three years ago seems like yesterday, but at the same time, it feels like it's been with us our whole life," said Torre, who woke up and thought about the Yankees employees who lost children in the World Trade Center.

Rooting.

All across the country, everywhere you looked yesterday, games.

In Illinois, with UCLA in town, the orange uniforms of the Fighting Illini were stitched with red, white and blue embroidery - patches of American flags.

So were the hats of the Cubs and Marlins, who took the National League wild-card race to the field at Wrigley, where Nomar Garciaparra and Sammy Sosa may not be enough to get the Cubs where they yearn to be - the World Series.

Maybe for a few moments, when "The Star-Spangled Banner" was sung there, the decades-long agony of Cubs fans was put in perspective. Maybe some people even thought about Steve Bartman. Was it ever worth vilifying that poor guy for trying to catch that silly foul ball?

Three years ago, no games were played on the first Saturday after 9/11. Anything other than that response would have been crass, dishonorable, wrong.

The NFL had already learned its lesson after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. There is a time to pause, to make it clear that games are secondary to the nation's security and suffering.

Well, yesterday, the Titans and the Dolphins went about their business.

It's good to question what's the most appropriate way to remember this bitter day. Game day at first felt awkward, wrong.

Until that first pitch, that first pass. Then it felt acceptable. Then it seemed right.

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