June 15, 2005


Standing on the Mound: The Virtues of Baseball (Elizabeth Thecla Mauro, June 2005, Crisis)

Baseball is not only a reflection of America’s motto. With no clock, no fouls, no penalties, and the game’s heart-stopping ability to confound the most restless fan (“It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” said Yogi Berra), baseball is an expression of the nation’s cherished “can-do” spirit, its individualism, and its willingness to sometimes go it alone.

The essential dynamic of the game, after all, is that for nine innings, 18 men are engaged in a contest in which, ultimately, each and every player finds himself utterly alone—one man taking on a whole world that wants him to fail.

Perhaps nowhere was that dynamic, and the distinctly American character that embraces it, more perfectly demonstrated than at Yankee Stadium on two separate occasions during the 2001 World Championship games between the Bronx Bombers and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Only weeks earlier, New York had lost 3,000 of its citizens, police, and firefighters in the deadliest attack made on American soil. The rubble in Manhattan was still smoldering, and the nation was still on its knees—uncertain, unsure, and afraid.

People went to Yankee Stadium wondering if they were safe. They worried that the same group that had flown airplanes into two office buildings, in the hope of killing thousands, might be tempted by another target. And yet, for all of their fears, the fans came.
October 2001, Yankee Stadium. Security is tight. President Bush is scheduled to throw out the first pitch. Everyone wonders about that, and worries. What if there’s an assassin in the stands? The president might wear a bulletproof vest, but that won’t protect his head. What if?

As President Bush moves to the pitcher’s mound, the Yankee shortstop delays him, calling out, “Mr. President, are you going to throw from the mound or from in front of it?” Bush replies, “I hadn’t thought about it.”

“Mr. President, this is New York,” Jeter says. “In New York, you throw from the mound!”
The American president walks out onto the field. Yankee Stadium is rocking and trembling with the emotional release of 55,000 people screaming in hope, and in pain, and in worried excitement. They’ve just begun to like this president. They liked what he said when he stood upon a pile of rubble and spoke through a bullhorn. They liked it when he addressed the joint houses of Congress, saying, “I will not forget this wound to our nation.” They want him to succeed.

Now, improbably, New York City, bluest of the blue communities, is rooting for George W. Bush, because there’s so much riding on this one pitch, so much symbolism, so much meaning. They want him to succeed, because it means that New York will succeed; America will succeed. It means they’ll get through this new and terrible reality together, no matter what it takes. Optimism. Childlike faith.

Bush gains the mound and gives the crowd a thumbs up. They roar. He stands motionless for a moment. And then, with a quick look at the Yankee catcher, Jorge Posada, the president throws.

A perfect strike! Yankee Stadium erupts. People from every political and economic persuasion—Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Rosie O’ Donnell—are jumping and screaming. The people in the stands are weeping, in sorrow and in hope.

It is only a strike, but it’s a perfect strike. And at that moment, it means everything.

Two nights later, in the same series, New Yorkers are attending the last hometown game of the 2001 season, and they’re losing. It is the ninth inning, and there’s a feeling of resignation in the stands. After this season, this particular championship team will be broken up and many will leave. It has been an astonishing few years for the team of Jeter, Chuck Knoblauch, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, and Paul O’Neill, but New York is going to lose this game, and the fans know it.

Adding to their gloom is the knowledge that O’Neill—their so-called warrior—has announced that this as his last season. New York loves him, but with all that has happened since September, there has been no opportunity to pay him homage. Until tonight. As O’Neill waits for work in right field, a murmur begins in the stands near him.

“Paul! Hey, Paul O’Neill! Paul O’Nei-ll!” And the murmur moves beyond right field—it becomes a chant and careens through the stadium until the entire crowd, even the Diamondback fans, are calling out to the warrior, in tribute and thanks.

And O’Neill, never one to put himself above his team, must finally acknowledge the crowd—even now, in the middle of the inning—for the game cannot continue until he does. He doffs his hat briefly, and then hangs his head to hide his tears. The crowd roars its appreciation and finally quiets down. The game continues.
Only baseball can do this. Only baseball repeatedly puts one man out into the field, against a whole team, or a whole stadium, or the whole world, and then cheers him, win or lose, for his courage and his humility—for the heroic virtues he has brought forth from himself and, it is hoped, inspired in the rest of us. Only baseball can combine drama and buoyancy and innocent awe into such a heady brew of human theater that you forget you are watching a mere sport.

I sometimes wonder how it will be for those two men, President Bush and Paul O’Neill, when they’re old and fading, when their lives have begun to echo back in their heads. In their last hours, will those teeming, vivacious baseball crowds—so generous, so big-hearted, so distinctly American—be the last thing they hear? The roar that followed the perfectly thrown strike? The sad goodbye of an appreciative crowd?

If you've never seen it, HBO's Nine Innings from Ground Zero is extraordinarily compelling.,

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 15, 2005 12:00 AM

Paul O'Neill, local boy makes good in the big town.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 15, 2005 12:46 PM

Look, I love baseball. It's a graet game and wonderfully distinct from most other types of games. But claims like this, "Only baseball can do this. Only baseball repeatedly puts one man out into the field, against a whole team, or a whole stadium, or the whole world, and then cheers him, win or lose, for his courage and his humility..." are just freakin' nonsense. That description is just as apt for other sports as well.

Posted by: Brandon at June 15, 2005 3:41 PM

Didn't happen at an NFL, NHL, NBA, NCAA game.

Posted by: oj at June 15, 2005 4:11 PM

And that particular incident is sufficient support for the statement I quoted?

Posted by: Brandon at June 15, 2005 6:09 PM

that's this

Posted by: oj at June 15, 2005 6:18 PM

And this particular incident is sufficient support for the statement I quoted?

Posted by: Brandon at June 15, 2005 6:23 PM
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