Pray Ball

On a sunny day in 1974, I stood in the awestruck company of thousands of my fellow native New Yorkers as a tightrope walker named Philippe Petit crossed the dizzying void between the tops of the two towers of the World Trade Center. A quarter mile above our craned necks and upturned eyes, the daredevil negotiated with élan the barely visible strand separating his heroism from his death. Surefooted and resolute, this Philippe was transformed into a king of the sky. We remained mere earthlings.

I recall this act of derring-do for some reasons that have become painfully obvious in the past two weeks and, I hope, for some that are not so obvious.

Now that the world has profoundly changed, many of us will have to summon the courage of a Philippe Petit as we are called upon to enter frightening and unfamiliar spaces, geographical and psychological. Without towers to anchor us, we will search for our strengths and our comforts wherever we might find them.

For starters, try baseball.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in lower Manhattan and Washington, D.C., and the plane crash in western Pennsylvania, major-league baseball rightly shut down for six days. When the players returned to the diamonds, on Monday, September 17, they did it in great sorrow. The New York Mets donned caps honoring their city's fallen police and firefighters. At Coors Field, solemn platoons of Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks unfurled a giant American flag across the infield. In stadiums across the nation, the sweet seventh-inning yearning of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was replaced by "God Bless America" or "America the Beautiful." The Mets, who, out of respect for the dead, had moved their series with the Pirates to Pittsburgh, won 4-1. Two nights later, the ordinarily fierce Yankees fireballer Roger "Rocket" Clemens, facing the White Sox in Chicago, became the first pitcher ever to win twenty games in a season while losing only one. Out of respect for the dead, he had nothing to say about his feat. The Rocket's Red Glare was nowhere to be seen.

As the week wore on, baseball struggled to return to "normal," and those who love the game struggled to reclaim the pleasure we take in the game. The best fans could do was take note that the Philadelphia Phillies had crept up on the mighty Atlanta Braves in the closest National League East race in years and that Giants slugger Barry Bonds had hit numbers 64, 65 and 66 in his late-career quest to break the single-season home run record (70) Mark McGwire set -- can it be true? -- just three years ago. Amid the weird dilations of time and space so many Americans have wrestled with since September 11, three years may as well be three decades or three centuries.

Still, try baseball.

With its brutal collisions and belligerent lexicon -- all ³blitzes² and ³trenches² and ³smashmouth² -- our football suddenly seems shockingly warlike. Soon enough, we¹ll get our fill of the real thing in the caves of the Hindu Kush and God knows where else. As for pro hockey¹s everyday bloodletting, who will have a taste for that by, say, mid-December? Like so-called ³reality TV,² the violence of football and hockey may soon be overwhelmed in the public imagination by the monstrosity of actual battle. Baseball, on the other hand, usually reminds us of our best qualities, not our faults. Consider: The very object of the game is to ³go home.² As European intellectuals have noted for 150 years, it embodies both our notion of democracy and our capacity for joy. These visitors may not have understood the sacrifice bunt, but they saw us clearly as we took our leads at first base. There¹s something else, too. Notwithstanding the occasional beanball ³war² or bench-clearing brawl, the game is a sunny, pastoral diversion that, while played at its highest level in cities, constantly reminds us of our easygoing rural origins. All that green grass. All that poised standing around. All that tense and beautiful waiting for something to happen. At its best, we still call it good ¹ol country hardball.

Indeed, the origins of the game as we know it are now accurately traced to the afternoon of June 19, 1846, when two amateur teams met in a place called, appropriately enough, Elysian Fields. Played under rules established by one Alexander J. Cartwright (who ranks in the annals of invention alongside Edison, or at least Eli Whitney), the game ended in a Coors Field-like 23-1 score. Today, I feel duty bound to remind everyone that Elysian Fields was located in Hoboken, New Jersey, scarcely a mile across the Hudson River from the site where the rubble of the World Trade Center and 6,000 lives now lie smoldering. And a bell¹s toll from the Statue of Liberty.

For momentary solace, try baseball.

In St. Louis, baseball is a religion dressed in red, practiced by a congregation that knows every rubric. In Boston and Chicago, the game is a wellspring of wild hope -- hope always dashed but forever renewed. In Los Angeles it¹s a happy doze in the sunshine, in Denver a fiesta of exaggeration, a gaudy parade of .250 hitters filling the cheap seats with horsehide. In Milwaukee, baseball is brown mustard on your shirtfront, in Atlanta a chess game contested by grand masters named Maddux and Glavine. In Tampa Bay...well, the less said about the Devil Rays the better. The point is that baseball endures. Despite disputes and work stoppages, the treachery of the Black Sox and the sorry fate of the Montreal Expos, baseball is an institution like no other, a repository of dreams and optimism that have nourished the American psyche for more than a century. As one sage observed, the game is designed to break your heart, but its rewards are eternal.

That brings us, at least in this context, to New York baseball, which on September 11 suddenly lost substance and value, like everything else in the city that was a safe distance from Ground Zero. But baseball doesn¹t have to be meaningless, as so many are saying. As we embrace our grief and seek to be brave, it couldn¹t hurt to remember that New York is also the city of bygone heroes like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson, of Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson. It¹s the city where Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard Round the World, Willie Mays made The Catch and the ¹55 Dodgers -- ³dem bums!² -- finally won the World Series. It¹s the city where the laughingstock of the National League, the hapless New York Mets, rose up from obscurity and derision to win the 1969 World Championship. Need I add that it¹s the city where the New York Yankees have won twenty-six championships, the most recent of them last October? None of that can hurt as we grope in the darkness.

For a little uplift, try baseball. Even in St. Louis and Chicago, try New York baseball. Because this fall, everyone is a New Yorker. I don¹t know what the daredevil Philippe Petit might say, but perhaps the steady rhythms and timeless comforts of the grand old game can help us maintain our balance as we undertake our own dangerous high-wire acts in the face of uncertainty. Let¹s say it again, quietly: Play ball.

Amid the horrors inflicted by the terrorists, some smaller (but not lesser) tragedies have been relegated to the back pages of the newspapers and the margins of the newscasts. On another day, the eight University of Wyoming track athletes who lost their lives in a horrendous highway accident on September 16 would have commanded headlines. Instead they are casualties of the road and of the Big Picture. But we should remember their friends and families, too. God bless.

So, too, let those who pray say a prayer for Alex Zanardi. On September 15, four days after the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings, the two-time Championship Auto Racing Teams champion was leading the final laps of a race in Germany (CART's first European event) when he lost control, skidded sideways into the path of oncoming Alex Tagliani and was struck amidships at 200 miles per hour. Zanardi's car was sheared in half, and an hour later both of his legs had to be amputated. Only recently was the driver roused by doctors from a medically induced coma. The world Zanardi beheld upon awakening must have looked no less tragic and dangerous than when the green flag dropped.


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