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.