It’s time to re-embrace baseball for what it has always been:
By Ed Griffin-Nolan
After 10 years of commemorating the 9/11 attacks at sporting events, it is time to lay that custom to rest. Born of an instinct to maintain national unity in a time of threat and a desire to honor the memories of those we lost, it has morphed into a forum for the praise of militarism, and as such it serves us no longer.
During the critical weeks while Manhattan smoldered and anthrax envelopes were opened and all of us wondered what was coming next, sports played an important role in uniting us and at the same time reminding us that life still went on. When major league baseball resumed play a week after the attacks, it was as if to say that, even after this dark September, there will still be an October classic, and in a world concerned with weighty matters, it is still important to play games.
By that time Mets manager Bobby Valentine had turned Shea Stadium into a staging area for volunteers and donations arriving in New York City. Derek Jeter and his teammates were making the rounds of firehouses to thank the people who were the true heroes of that day. I still cringe when ballplayers are described as heroes, a term that demands not just excellence but also sacrifice. Mariano Rivera put it best after visiting a firehouse: “I save games, these guys save lives.” That’s the difference.
In the Carrier Dome in 2001, then-Gov.
George Pataki told the crowd at the first Syracuse University football game after the attacks, “While those evil criminals have been able to break our hearts, they haven’t been able to break our spirit. The American people are stronger and stand more unified than ever before.”
We badly needed the distraction, and the temporary elation of a ballgame. We needed permission to enjoy the simple things in life once again, to go beyond stunned and grieving and start to answer the question Bruce Springsteen later put to us in “Mary’s Place,” off The Rising: “How can we live broken-hearted?” For the remainder of the 2001 baseball season the seventh-inning stretch became the time when everyone sang “God Bless America” instead of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” And it was healing. It was beautiful, and emotional. OK, so I might have preferred “This Land is Your Land,” but it sure beats the hell out of “Sweet Caroline.”
Then came the war in Iraq. People who lament the splintering of national unity since 2001 should not forget when that unity broke—when the Bush administration decided to go after Saddam Hussein and invade Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11. It is hard to argue now that the Iraq war did anything to enhance our national security. It cannot be said with any honesty that it did anything to enhance the cause of freedom.
And yet there was former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at Yankee Stadium last week as the Bronx Bombers commemorated 9/11. Donald Rumsfeld! You could not have chosen a figure more closely associated with the Iraq war unless you brought in Dick Cheney or George Bush himself. That convinced me more than anything that we have allowed this tribute to go on too long.
At first the songs and tributes were to honor those innocents murdered by terrorists. Then they were to honor those first responders who struggled to find survivors. And then, slowly and imperceptibly, they became a tribute to the military. It wrapped the military adventures of the Bush administration in the flag, and bathed their misguided Iraq adventure in the warm glow of a nation’s desire to show respect for our heroes and fallen. And it allowed good and thoughtful people to overlook their own better judgment and fall in line behind a war that has brought unspeakable consequences to Iraqis and Americans.
The peace movement did a remarkable and commendable job of separating the issue of the war from the troops who were asked to fight it. The men and women of the armed forces were never targeted for blame, as was sometimes the case during Vietnam. The same cannot be said of the government, which continues to hide its crimes and errors behind the sacrifices of these men and women.
In those early days you could not find a dry eye in the stadium when “God Bless America” was sung. But the Iraq nightmare should remind us that we need to make important decisions with clear vision.
Singing and holding hands was originally designed to make us remember. To continue the tradition begs us to forget, and that is something we simply can’t afford.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at edgriffin@ twcny.rr.com.