A WRESTLER REMEMBERS THE HEALING POWER OF BASEBALL
I was headed out the door on September 21, 2001 – only ten days after the worst attack ever on United States soil. My wife called out to me, asking me to come back for just a moment before I took my two kids, ages 9 and 7, and a family friend to Shea Stadium, for the first major athletic event in New York since that terrible day when the towers fell, and the world as many of us knew it changed forever.
“Do you have to take both children”, she asked, her voice shaking, telling me, without actually saying it, that she was afraid of what might come next – that she would be a widow and the mother of no one by night’s end. Looking back on it, ten years later, it may seem like an over-reaction, but at the time, no one knew what to expect. Ten days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, asking me to leave one of my children at home seemed like a perfectly logical request, given the fear and uncertainty of the time and the place. I think just about all of us living in the US felt that another attack was just a question of “when”, not “if”, and New York’s Shea Stadium, on the night of baseball's return to the Big Apple was in no way an unlikely place for that inevitable next attack.
So I left out house with just one of my children, along with a friend of mine since middle school, weaving our way through traffic and uncertainty to take our place with the other 42,000 souls who felt strongly enough about being part of the delicate process of rebuilding a nation’s shattered psyche to celebrate the return of baseball to the big city.
The Mets have been good to me over the years, and they offered me the choice of sitting in pretty good seats in the loge section behind home plate, or sitting in the outfield with police and firemen from around the country – men who had left the safety of their own homes to sift through rubble around the clock, in the hopes of finding remains of those whose lives had been lost. For me, there didn't seem to be a choice at all. I wanted to be able to express my appreciation for the sacrifices so many had made down at Ground Zero. For many of these men, the game offered a first chance to relax since arriving in New York; a chance to press a figurative pause button on a seemingly never-ending real life episode of heartbreak and tragedy.
Under normal circumstances, I watch over my children like a hawk at these sporting events. But on this night, there was no malice to be found among the fans, no pettiness; despite the fact that the Mets were taking on their arch-rivals, the Atlanta Braves, there seemed to be no likelihood of drunken shenanigans or loutish behavior ruining the night. So as I mingled with the police and the firefighters, I let my son sit and enjoy the game without worrying too much about the little guy. No one was going to hurt him in those outfield seats; in an odd juxtaposition, on this dangerous night, with so much uncertainty surrounding all of us, my son had in some ways, never been safer.
Mike Piazza hit a towering home run to lift the Mets to a dramatic and emotional 3-2 victory that night, but for me, the most dramatic, most emotional moment of the evening took place one inning earlier - with the singing of “God Bless America”. Usually a seventh inning stretch and that old stretch stand-by “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” signals a massive exodus to the restroom; a chance to relieve the body of whatever fluids have been downed, before taking in the last few innings of play. But on this night, with “God Bless” filling in, the stretch became an opportunity for 42,000 to sing along in a way they probably had not previously, and likely never would again. It was powerful, emotional, real – and unfortunately, destined to be short-lived.
Ten years later, the stretch is far more likely to appeal to beer drinkers and urinal seekers, than it is to those seeking out the transformative powers of a mass sing-a-long during a time of national mourning. A nation brought together by tragedy was quickly strained by politics and posturing, leaving this wrestler/writer to wonder what could have been if the better angels of our nature had been allowed a little more time to roam freely, to seek out the things we had in common, instead of being led into focusing on those things that tend to push us apart.
I still sing “God Bless America” at the two or three ballgames I go to a year. My son is 19 now and he thinks I do it as a joke, as a way to embarrass him in public. Maybe I do sing it a little too loud, and maybe I do put a little extra “Leslie Nielson as Enrique Palazzo” zest into my rendition. But there’s part of me that sings it loud to make up for those who have departed for the beer stand or the urinal, or for who just don’t understand the role a simple song played in healing this particular American. Ten years after one of the saddest days in our nation’s history, I choose to remember that spirit of bother-hood and togetherness I found in the outfield of Shea Stadium – a special night, when I saw so much about what makes this nation great.