There are some events people will never forget. Plenty that will be talked about for generations. But there are a few more, substantial as they are triumphant or devastating, that become so a part of your mind, that you never forget where and when you were the moment it happened. For many Americans, these moments often include the JFK assassination, the Challenger explosion, and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. For these, they were as unforgettable as they were tragic.
After such tragic events, unsuspected things, people, expressions become definitive symbols of resilience. The game of baseball provided a few such events in the days following the attacks, moments and statements that revealed time and again the strength of the American people, New Yorkers in particular.
Jack Buck, beloved St. Louis Cardinals announcer, recited a poem to the crowd pre-game on September 17th when baseball resumed. “For America,” was short, concise, and as patriotic as our National Pasttime. He read:
“Since this nation was founded under God,
more than 200 years ago,
We have been the bastion of freedom,
the light that keeps the free world aglow.
We do not covet the possessions of others;
We are blessed with the bounty we share.
We have rushed to help other nations;
War is just not our nature,
We won’t start but we will end the fight.
If we are involved,
We shall be resolved.
To protect what we know is right.
We have been challenged by a cowardly foe,
Who strikes and then hides from our view.
With one voice we say,
We have no choice today,
There is only one thing to do.
Everyone is saying the same thing and praying,
That we end these senseless moments we are living.
As our fathers did before,
We shall win this unwanted war,
And our children will enjoy the future we’ll be giving.”
Buck’s sobering words silenced the crowd before an uproar of unbridled admiration from the standing fans. His poem, like a smoke signal fire reminding the world we weren’t done yet.
In the midst of the World Series some month and a half later, President George W. Bush walked humbly onto the diamond at Old Yankee Stadium and delivered one of the most memorable ceremonial first pitches in the history of baseball. With signs reading “USA Fears Nobody Play Ball” to young men shirtless and painted like a college football game, the President of the United States walked out to the mound and delivered an accurate pitch over home plate. The crowd erupted. Baseball fans and Americans all the same watched and knew, like the dog days of August baseball testing the mettle of even the most seasoned ballplayer, the United States would grind through, and rise up again despite the fear. The pitch became a symbol of fearlessness, for as the world watched that World Series, they knew there was fight in the American people.
This untimely reflection (as most sports articles on 9/11 usually land on September 11th each year) was spurred by Mike Piazza‘s induction into the baseball Hall of Fame. Despite his records, his pitch-framing skills and his drafting in the 62nd round, many remember him best, or at least most vividly, for the symbolic role he played after 9/11 for the New York Mets.
On September 21st, the Mets played the Braves, their first game back in New York City after the attacks. Fans stood, sat, and cheered as they tried to enjoy the game and will away the horrors just a few miles away in Manhattan. The game had a somber feel, perpetuated by a low score and a 2-1 deficit for the Mets going into the bottom of the 8th inning. With a man on base and the stadium anxious, Mike Piazza made New York forget about the tragedy for 30 seconds or so as he belted a 2-run homer that drove the Mets off to victory.
The now Hall of Famer ignited a crowd that cheered but in a subdued manor, all too sober from the past ten days of crisis, anxiety, and fear. And Piazza was well aware of the symbolic power of his game-winning home run. “It was almost like a blur to me, it was almost like a dream, sort of surreal,” he shared with reporters after the game. “I’m just so happy I gave the people something to cheer. There was a lot of emotion. It was just a surreal sort of energy out there. I’m just so proud to be a part of it tonight.”
As Piazza anticipates his enshrinement with the game’s greatest honor, he again stands as a reminder to the large and small magnitudes of Major League Baseball. The game, in the grand scheme, means nothing. But, on days like September 17th, September 21st, October 30th and many others long before and still to come, the game was as simple as it was powerful: a shared and unwavering national pastime.