Tragedy and Triumph: A History of Sports as America's Band-Aid

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Tragedy and Triumph: A History of Sports as America's Band-Aid

 

In the early fall of 2001, New York was rocked by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.  In one hour and forty three minutes, the tallest buildings in Manhattan had gone from glistening beacons of American achievement to a mass grave for three thousand innocent people. 

When the buildings fell, everything stopped.  The famous New York City Subway, which carries countless millions of people everyday ground to a halt, Times Square was evacuated and Central Park was closed for the first time in history.  Perhaps the least important thing that happened that day was Major League Baseball’s decision to indefinitely cancel all of their games. 

  At the time, no one realized just how much of an impact Major League Baseball was going to have in giving New York City a sense of normalcy again. 

New York City is known around the world for its museums, world class restaurants, breathtaking skyline and baseball.  Around the world, the word most commonly associated with New York is “Yankees.”  New Yorkers wait every year for opening day to renew the rivalries that have hibernated all winter while they watched the Knicks lose game after game. 

The summer of 2001 was no different. 

The Yankees coming off their third consecutive World Series victory were leading the American League East and the Mets were on a tear through the second half of the season coming from thirteen games back to just four games back on September 10th. 

Then, all of a sudden, the rivalries didn’t matter anymore. 

The NYPD and NYFD had taken unbelievable causalities and New Yorkers were worried about missing family members, not if the Mets would catch the Braves for that coveted first National League East title since the Braves began their run in 1991.  However, eleven nights later, the Mets, New York’s second team, brought the city what it most needed: baseball.

September 22, 2001 is a date that everyone has already forgotten, but no one has forgotten the picture of Mike Piazza effectively lifting the spirits of an entire city with a towering homerun in the eighth inning to give the Mets the lead in the first game since 9/11.  That was the same night, where Mr. Yankee, Rudy Giuliani ventured out to Shea Stadium and gave every New Yorker the sign that it was OK to be a fan again. 

In the previous eleven days, the restaurants had reopened, the subways began to rumble again, albeit not below Canal St, even planes had begun to fly, but what brought New York back in the biggest way was that first pitch. 

Sports are the only type of event that happens on a regular basis which can bring millions of people together.  If there is a concert at Radio City Music Hall, 7,000 people can see it and talk about it, but when the Mets played that game, 41,000 New Yorkers watched live and millions more watched on TV. 

  New Yorker’s rallied around the “second team” and for one day only, Yankees fans cheered along with Mets fans.  The greatest gift of that Mets game was the permanence that came with it.  Unlike a benefit concert that rocks Madison Square Garden for one night and then fades, the Mets were playing again the next night and the night after that. 

  That consistency is what gives sports the ability to be a band-aid in trying times. 

In the fall of 2001, every New Yorker woke up to the front page of the Daily News and the inevitable picture of a flag draped coffin.  However, the escape from that reality was plastered on the back page of the same paper.  The ubiquitous clever headline with a picture of a Met or Yankee underneath gave a grieving city a place to turn. 

The beauty of baseball that year was that fandom was not based on winning.  The Mets fought to the end of the season but as the Braves pulled away and continued their dominance of the National League East, the city was no less proud of the Mets for what they had done.  They had played every day with the enormous weight of 9/11 fresh on their minds.  That permanence of baseball seven days a week was as close to normal as New York got that fall.  Sports were the only event in New York that gave people a consistent reprieve from the sadness. 

The greatest lift that the City of New York got was still more than a month away.  The World Series, which would start in the Arizona desert, would fittingly return to a baseball Mecca in the Bronx, just eleven and a half miles from Ground Zero. 

A World Series game at Yankee Stadium is nothing new to the city of New York, but that fall, the World Series was exactly what the doctor ordered.  Game one of the 2001 World Series took place on October 27, 2001. 

That same day, New York buried two firefighters: Jonathan Ielpi and Michael Roberts, and one police officer, James Leahy.  The tragedy was not over in New York, but as it had on September 22nd , baseball was once again going to lift the spirits of the entire city. 

Although the Yankees lost the first two games of the series in Arizona, they returned home to a city undivided, everyone was a New York fan.  As game three approached, there was a buzz that New Yorkers had forgotten could even exist in this post 9/11 world.  Fifty five thousand New Yorkers packed Yankee Stadium and thousands more braved the cold to watch the game telecast on a giant screen set up in Bryant Park. 

  There was extra security at the Stadium that night but the enormous majority of Yankee fans had no idea why the security was really there.  President Bush had arrived in the Bronx to both show support for New York and reaffirm to the nation that it was ok to play baseball. 

  It was the most bipartisan moment I have seen in my lifetime, the chants of “U.S.A, U.S.A.” were louder than they had even been before and it was not about Democrat or Republican, it was about one complete country and its national pastime.  Bob Snyder of the Syracuse Post-Standard would write later that week in his column titled Presidential Pitch Sports Top Moment of the Year ,

“George W., standing out there, alone. Despite the greatest security ever at the House That Ruth Built, he was an unshielded target delivering a clear message: Here we are. Let the damn evil-doers take their best shot.”

 

 That first pitch started perhaps the greatest three game stretch of post season games the Yankees have ever played.  In those three games, Derek Jeter became Mr. October, fan Favorite Tino Martinez belted an upper deck home run and the Yankees mesmerized New York. 

The Yankees and Mets had both donated more than $450,000 dollars each to the relief fund for the fallen firefighters and police officers, but the Yankees gave New York the greatest gift of all during those three games, permanent distraction.  When the Yankees left for Arizona with a 3-2 lead, they took the hopes of every New Yorker with them. 

  If there were ever a year where the Yankees deserved to be World Champions it was this one. 

The Yankees would lose the series in the ninth inning of game seven when Luis Gonzalez blooped a Mariano Rivera fast ball just over the leaping Derek Jeter and in that instant the dream was over.  The distraction that had carried New York through all the funerals and the recovery efforts had ended. 

All it took was a silly white ball dropping from the air to the grass and it was over.  The Giants and Jets would play on that fall but New York had pinned its hope to those Yankees, much in the way that five years later, New Orleans would pin its hopes and its recovery to the bottom feeder Saints of the NFL.

At 8:14 AM on August 29th 2005, the New Orleans office of the National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes, citing a levee breach at the Industrial Canal.  The weather service predicted that three to eight feet of standing water would result from the breech. 

Tragically the weather service vastly underestimated the amount of damage to the levee wall and in the ensuing days, New Orleans would bear the brunt of one of the greatest natural disasters in American history.  Many neighborhoods, most notably the Lower Ninth Ward were completely devastated and those residents with nowhere else to go, waded through rising water to the Superdome. 

The Superdome, when it was built in 1975 was heralded as the “largest fixed dome structure in the world.”  The Superdome’s white roof became the crown jewel of the New Orleans skyline and much like Jazz or the French Quarter, became a symbol of the city. 

However, the team that occupied the building quickly became synonymous with losing and mediocrity.  The Saints or the “Aints” as they were lovingly referred to had won one playoff game in twenty one years when the hurricane hit, but when the NFL, along with owner Tom Benson, confirmed that the Saints would indeed return to the Superdome for the 2006-2007 season, they instantly became the symbol of the rebuilding process in the Big Easy.

 The Saints did everything right in the 2006 offseason, they signed quarterback Drew Brees and drafted prolific USC running back, Reggie Bush. 

As the city eagerly anticipated the return of football, its newest celebrities threw themselves into the community.  Brees and his wife purchased a house in Uptown, a wealthy New Orleans neighborhood and Bush donated $36,000 of his own money to help resurface Tad Gormley Stadium where many of New Orleans’ high schools play their football games. 

This commitment to the city and its revival, further accentuated the unique bond that the New Orleans developed with its Saints. 

In fact, all the Saints, who had played “home” games in New York, San Antonio and Baton Rouge the previous season, did their part to raise money for the rebuilding process. 

Wide receiver Joe Horn, who is best known for making a cell phone call in the end zone after a touchdown, said, “We can give them some stability, hope.” 

Much like New York after 9/11 the best gift the Saints could give to their city was simply playing again. 

The rebuilding process in New Orleans was slow.  The normally vibrant French Quarter had been reduced to a gathering spot for locals and many of the downtown store fronts were still boarded up nearly a year after the storm had made landfall.  New Orleans had hosted benefit concerts and money had been raised to rebuild but the citizens needed more than money. 

The return of the Saints, was the first real sign to many that the city was “normal again.” 

  Calvin Ellis, a New Orleans resident whose home was destroyed by the storm, described the sentiment of the entire city when he said, “It’s an uplifting thing.  It’s excitement.  I want to see something from New Orleans come back.”

For many Americans, football is something of a religion.  In the city of New Orleans it was just that. 

People drove for hours to see the Saints play their home games and the games encapsulated the city.  On game days, Jazz bands played outside the dome and Creole cuisine replaced hot dogs and burgers as the official tailgate fare for Saints games. 

  It was this combination of everything that was New Orleans which was why only the Saints could have done what they did for the city.  The Saints were unique, in that unlike a benefit concert or a festival, they did not focus on what had happened.  The Saints were focused on winning and moving forward.  For three hours every Sunday, the Saints faithful could focus on the game. 

It was always there for them and the Saints were always there for the city. 

When the Superdome re-opened its doors on September 25th the world watched to see if New Orleans was once again open for business.  The Superdome’s journey from devastation to once again assume its position as the crown jewel of the New Orleans skyline was a Herculean undertaking.  However, when 75,000 Saints fans packed the dome, it was as if nothing had ever happened.  The dome was louder than it had ever been and the Saints rose to the occasion walloping their division rivals, the Atlanta Falcons. 

The win might have been bittersweet as much of the city was recovering but it wasn’t.  The jubilation that followed that win was the purest form of human emotion. 

Season ticket holder, Beverly Broussard described the Saints return with “It’s the beginning for New Orleans to come alive again, it’s a celebration of life, back in our city.” 

  The following seven home games at the Superdome were just like that first one and as the Saints surged into the playoffs, the city of New Orleans surged with them. 

The Saints would get to the NFC Championship game before losing to the Chicago Bears, but what they had done for their city was bigger than even a Superbowl appearance.  Their dedication to the city helped prove to everyone that New Orleans would recover. 

  Sports have that power to heal because they are so revered.  Athletes are put up on pedestals in our society and now and again, they are called upon to provide faith that things will get better.  Unlike many of the other onetime events that were created to raise money and lift spirits in The Big Easy, the Saints created a permanent sense of euphoria in a city that desperately needed it.  

 In trying times, people turn to different things to give themselves an outlet from their harsh realities.  Sports have a few qualities that enable them to provide such an outlet.  Sports are inherently normal. 

The Mets, Yankees and Saints were all playing before the respective tragedies so their returns to the field become a step in the rebuilding process.  This sense of rebuilding is clearest in New Orleans where the Saints enjoy a cult like following. 

  When the Saints returned to the Superdome, they created a stir in the city that no other event could.  Football fans and non football fans alike packed the dome because the game became the symbol of the cities rebirth.  

 In addition to the sense of normalcy that goes along with sporting events, sporting events also occur on a regular basis. 

This permanence or regularity is what makes sports uniquely able to help cope with disasters.  The Saints are still in New Orleans and the Yankees and Mets are still in New York, but the benefits concerts have long since come and gone.  Sports are not the be all and end all solution to tragedy, but for many Americans in New York and New Orleans, the return of their teams gave them something to be hopeful about again.  The desire to be a fan and to be engrossed in a sporting event temporarily stemmed the painful reality of their situation. 

When the seasons are over and the stadiums close their doors, the tragedy returns to front and center but the permanence of sport always provides hope that next year will be “our year.”  

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