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The Sporting Life

By Tom Scocca | Posted 9/26/2001

Here's how it went for me on Sept. 17, the Day Sports Came Back: I turned on the TV and, since the Orioles were off, I took a look at an inning or two of the Braves-Phillies game. The score was tied, 2-2. It was good to see people pitching and swinging, catching and throwing again. It felt as if things might someday return to normal.

I went off and did other stuff. When I glanced at that channel again, a while later, the little score box in the corner said it was 5-2 Phils in the ninth. "Oh, yeah!" I said.

In that moment, I was not thinking, Ah, despite our dreadful crisis, life is going on. I was not thinking, Dadgumit, our National Pastime will not yield to terrorism! This is what I was thinking: Yeah, Phils! Stick it to those goddamn Braves!

I do not feel ashamed about this. In the numb and haunted days after Sept. 11, as sportswriters struggled to fill sports sections, there was much fretting about the insignificance of sports. We have lost the Proper Perspective, the sports world agreed. Our games mean nothing, in the grand scheme of things.

Who really needed to be told that life is bigger than sports? Life has always been bigger. I have no idea what the Orioles did on my wedding day, or who had the best record in the NFL when the Berlin Wall fell. The evening of Sept. 11 was clear and lovely, but who could have wished, even briefly, to be at the ballpark just then?

Yet that thinking can be taken too far. I didn't much feel like cooking or eating that day either, but that didn't mean the concept of pork roast had been discredited. Almost any hour or deed is trivial, alone; together, the hours and deeds are everything we have. Five or six thousand people are dead, shockingly and terrifyingly, and nothing is going to bring them back. At some point, even their grieving families will want to eat a good meal. And by the end of last week, even the firefighters in the ruins of Manhattan were telling reporters they wanted to see the Giants and Jets play football again.

Some soul-searching is sensible and overdue. It's good to hear writers and coaches swearing to lighten up on the sports-as-war clichés, to shut up about "foxhole guys" and "warriors" and how a game was won "in the trenches." But it's absurd when people vow to stop calling athletes "heroes," out of respect, they say, for the real heroes, the firefighters and police officers who gave their lives in the collapsing towers, the passengers who fought back against the hijackers. This is real heroism.

And of course it is. But why do we have to be invidious about it? Thomas Edison and Mark Twain never pulled anyone out of a burning skyscraper. Susan B. Anthony never wrested the controls of a jetliner away from a knife-wielding terrorist. Neither, if we're keeping score here, did Hercules. Take it up with the ancient Greeks.

So Barry Bonds, for instance, is no less heroic than he was three weeks ago. He still embodies the human ability to surpass known limits, to achieve things that have been thought impossible. Is this as morally important as rescuing people? Of course not. Does that make him an ordinary guy? Ordinary guys don't get jobs in the major leagues, let alone hit 60-plus home runs. He is doing a difficult task at an extraordinary level of accomplishment. What's the word for that, "banana"? He's a hero--a sports hero.

Sports is a story we tell ourselves, a narrative strung through and alongside our lives. The games don't matter more than the events around them, but they can, on their own terms, transcend the times. The 1968 World Series is remembered not because of Vietnam and civil rights, but because of the pitching; 1918 stands as the year the Red Sox last won the World Series, independent of being the year the Allies won the First World War. When history does impinge on the sports world, we raise winning athletes to historic figures: Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, the 1980 U.S. hockey team.

The sports stories needed to stop for a while after the 11th, just as so many other things did. The NFL was right to skip a week--not just out of respect of the dead, but because the league depends on secure logistics, on being able to fly teams in and out of 30 cities. The risk of botching things up, of deepening the mood of crisis, was too great.

But when the panic passed, the stories resumed. And they thrilled: Bonds passing 65 homers, North Carolina routing Florida State, the O's taking two of three from the Yankees. There was the worst team in pro sports, the Bengals, sticking it to the World Champion Baltimore Ravens. There was Calvin Pickering going 6-for-8 in his first two starts with the Red Sox. And there were the Phils, the lowly Phils, clawing their way back into NL East race.

None of which undid, or even diminished, the calamity. We are in awful times. But we are still alive, and we still count on living. If that changes--if the day comes that the Visigoths are sacking our cities, and the water and power are cut off, and cholera blooms in the streets--then, yes, spectator sports will seem to have been a silly fixation. As will chamber music and art-house movies and the American novel. Then we will tell nothing but war stories, and count ourselves all among the dead.

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