For four years, MLB has exploited all the in-season holidays – Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day – plus on many occasions 9/11, by having all players wear special caps. Today, caps with an American flag patch stitched on the back, to the left of the inviolable MLB logo, were worn by all clubs and all players.
So, in New York, where in 2001 first the Mets and then the Yankees honored the fallen members of – and the heroic and selfless acts of – the New York Police Department, the New York Fire Department, New York EMS, Port Authority Police, New York Sanitation, and several others by wearing their caps during the games of the weeks after the attacks, Major League Baseball denied the Mets the opportunity to wear those caps again, just for tonight’s anniversary game, the only one being played within a thirty minute ride to the World Trade Center.
According to team Player Representative Josh Thole, the Mets players debated violating the dictum and wearing them anyway. Thole told reporters shortly thereafter that the league was adamant and it was a “no-go.” It is meaningful to realize that only three current Mets were even in the majors a decade ago: Miguel Batista, Willie Harris, and Jason Isringhausen. Evidently the Commissioner’s representative reminded them that the punishment – a heavy fine – would be meted out on ownership, not them (and for all we know, a major fine might cause this team to go out of business before noon tomorrow). For his part, David Wright wore a Police cap on the bench, but even he resisted the temptation to wear it on the field and incur the wrath of the Bean Counters in the Commissioner’s Office.
Those bloodless MLB individuals have been down this path before. Ten years ago, Bud Selig’s initially ruled the Mets and Yankees could not wear the caps during games. The Mets ignored the threat, and MLB decided to give them a pass for a game or two, and then the Mets kept wearing them, and MLB wisely backed off their nonsensical decision. Tonight’s ruling reminded everybody that at the moment of the nation’s greatest grief, MLB’s money-making instinct was unhindered by the blood and destruction and fear.
At least in 2001 the sport was smart enough to shut up. Not this year. MLB first blocked the Washington Nationals from wearing military caps in tribute after a disaster in Afghanistan last month. Then came this decision, complete with in the kind of stupidity that would make a megalomaniac proud: they blamed it on MLB Vice President Joe Torre, the native New Yorker who wore these caps at the end of the 2001 season. So if it hadn’t been shameful already, pinning it on Torre made it doubly shameful.
As an aside, I should note that I actually got a tweet from an idiot who wondered why I thought wearing the NYPD/NYFD/PAPD/EMS caps was somehow “patriotic.” It never crossed my mind. It has nothing to do with patriotism. 343 firefighters and paramedics died that day. 23 New York policemen did. And 47 from the Port Authority Police. This is about remembering them – and acknowledging what all those who survived did for this city and the wounds they still have. For me, as the grandson of a New York fireman, and the descendant of several others, and many NYPD and regional PD, this is something deeper than patriotism.
CitiField is, of course, ringed with commemorations and in particular the “We Shall Not Forget” logo placed in the ad right behind the batter’s box. And it has all been rendered utterly hollow because of the crassness of the decision about the NYPD/FD/EMS caps. If you still haven’t figured out why MLB is permitting this public relations disaster to happen; why Commissioner Bud Selig didn’t get on the phone and tell the Mets they could wear those caps right away and damn the consequences, the answer is to be found here.
In case you don’t want to follow the link, here’s your answer: this is available as of tonight directly from MLB for just $36.99.
I guess we should be happy it has an American flag, and that MLB just didn’t sell the space to the highest bidder.
When the anniversary was a week and not a decade, baseball resumed, and as with everything else about the game, it began to cover itself both in glory and shamelessness. Even on this very day MLB is to some degree — apparent or not — selling its role as national healer in the wake of the nightmare here in New York.
It is an exaggeration to say baseball healed the country, or helped heal it – let alone the city. Any true healing has come through love, and friendship, and counseling, and faith, and heroism, and public service. After the World Series ended, the longest winter in the history of New York began, it wasn’t any shorter because games had resumed on September 18, 2001.
I’m being this brutal for a purpose. I have never been comfortable with baseball’s insistence that it provided this role of healing, especially because in fact it provided something more enduring and even useful. This isn’t to single out the sport, or any sport: the then-Commissioner of the NFL Paul Tagliabue insisted he was postponing the games of September 16-17 out of respect for the victims, when he’d been told by the airlines and the FAA on a conference call that the resumption of air traffic would be so chaotic that no power on earth could guarantee him that all his teams could get to all their destinations (or back) on time.
There is no shame in not being “the healer” of 9/11. If you were healed by baseball, a) you probably weren’t in New York, and/or b) you probably weren’t that wounded. I came no closer to personal loss than having two college acquaintances lost in one of the buildings, and a professional friend on each of three of the four airplanes – and my experiences as a radio reporter covering the scene for the first 40 days – and baseball has been part of the fabric of my being since 1967, and I’m not yet “healed” from 9/11. A friend just sent me an mP3 of one of my stories today. It was the first time I had been able to gather the strength to listen to the piece since 2001.
Baseball didn’t “heal” any of us. What it did – far more importantly, I feel – is provide continuity at a time of total derangement from routine. Games outside the city provided Americans elsewhere to hold up “We Are All New Yorkers” signs – a spirit that quickly dissipated but which was of great value in the first week. Players, especially those of the Mets and Yankees, provided extraordinary public service in the days after the attacks and were of unique support to the first responders. It’s almost never stated but there were people who left New York, some forever. Not one of the athletes did – and it is imperative to remember that the assumption here was that we would be attacked again (as we were, though clearly separately, with the anthrax mailings).
There was great courage in this. And the same credit extends to the fans, at a time when public gatherings of 50,000 people in hard to control public venues like Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium seemed the easiest target for terrorism. We are talking about a time when a smoke bomb causing absolutely no damage could have started a stampede with untold consequences, and yet by the time of an interfaith prayer service at Yankee Stadium on September 23, the Mets and Braves drew a larger crowd at Shea.
As somebody who was at the first game back at Shea, and at all of the World Series games, and who had his press pass grabbed by a police captain who looked at it and me and said a little too excitedly “They could kill him, steal this, and get inside,” I thought that Sunday Mets’ attendance was a wonderful sign. People were picking up their lives and remembering to enjoy themselves again.
What baseball was providing was not healing but sameness. In saluting the victims, baseball and its players were not just reminding us how much had been lost, but also how much, much more remained. Baseball was essential not for magic curing powers, but because it is our primary link to whatever simpler or better or just younger days have gone before, and it can be our connection to those who have passed, and because of the unstated symbolism of our place in the crowd: our place as part of humanity. The crowd, in a way, is mankind.
But ultimately, in simple words requiring very little interpretation, baseball’s role after 9/11 – indeed its role after any tragedy, national or personal – was eloquently expressed on the morning of September 18. I had been downtown at the crack of dawn to cover the eerie reopening of Wall Street, and the juxtaposition of men and women in expensive suits, tracking through streets covered by this awful paste-like coating of debris from the Trade Center and the still-burning pyre, marching like prisoners past police and national guard with machine guns.
It had been a long, long morning and I was preparing to go home for awhile, when I was approached by a policeman who obviously knew me from my ESPN days. “This is something,” he said as we stared at the giant American flag hanging from the Stock Exchange, still occasionally obscured by gusts of smoke coming from the Ground Zero fire. I agreed with him. “But I’ve got one question for you.” I braced myself. “Do you think the Mets can do it? Can they come back and win the Division? They were really getting going till last week.”
I remember freezing for a moment and then giving him some poorly-devised and no doubt self-contradicting answer. Then I asked him how, given all he’d seen, given what he’d be seeing the rest of that day, and all the days and months to come – how it could possibly matter.
“It doesn’t, not really,” he admitted without hesitation. “But I’ll tell you what. All day today, all weekend, I’ve been thinking, ‘At 7 O’Clock on Tuesday night I can put up my feet and watch the Mets in Pittsburgh and pretend for a little while that none of this has happened. So, that way, it does matter.”
And that – not healing – was baseball’s gift and baseball’s role, and what baseball can rightfully claim as the part it played.