Twenty years after 9/11, do sports really heal?

NEW YORK —Sports heal.

That’s the claim by outlets and leagues and teams on social media Saturday because twenty years ago, a series of terrorist attacks killed nearly 3,000 people and it’s considered culturally less crass to say that than to say nothing at all. And because saying nothing at all isn’t actually an option.

I grew up largely in a post-9/11 world, or at least that’s when most of my critical thinking happened. Which means that the self-important conflation of lucrative games with literally life and death and my own cynical reaction to it always seemed like a foregone conclusion. A bloodless, mawkish version of militarization has always seemed part of the pomp and circumstance that accompanies sports. I didn’t know that on Sept. 12, 2001, Hunter S. Thompson used his Page 2 column in ESPN (ESPN!) to write not about sports at all, but with searing prescience about the awfulness of surely impending war. Or how a year later, the same space would be filled with David Halberstam’s unflinching assertion that sports don’t heal.

So I was surprised to see the ambivalence about baseball from baseball in contemporary accounts of the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. I hadn’t remembered the uncertainty about whether Major League Baseball would even finish the season or the strength of sentiment from the players themselves who suddenly felt small and even scared.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out sporting events are absolutely meaningless compared with what’s going on in Washington and New York,” Mark McGwire said on Sept. 14, 2001, before then-commissioner Bud Selig had decided that baseball would suspend play for nearly a week, returning with a limited slate of games on Sept. 17.

“It’s very petty to even think about playing a baseball game at this point,” Chipper Jones said on the 16th.

Bringing baseball back to the city that suffered the most, where the smoldering wreckage of the Twin Towers would remain an active rescue and recovery site for months to come, was even more fraught.

In the leadup to this anniversary, members of the 2001 Mets, who hosted the Braves in the city's first sports event since the skyline had been permanently altered, reminisced about the complicated emotions of returning to New York City — and to the field at Shea Stadium.

“I remember when we went down to Ground Zero, I wasn't sure if it was the right thing to do,” John Franco, a Brooklyn native who pitched for the Mets for 15 years, said in a Zoom call with reporters. “And to see the looks on the firemen’s faces and the rescue workers’ faces, how tired and their faces all full of dirt and you can see the whites of the teeth. They were very, very tired but when they seen us, they were happy to see us. That made it, for me, feel that this is where we belonged at the time.”

The stadium parking lot was turned into a collection site for donations, organized by team employees and staffed at times by the players themselves. They met with first responders and injured victims and the family of those who didn’t make it out. And then, on Sept. 21 — ten days after the attacks — they also played a baseball game.

“On 9/21, our first game back, I remember meeting with my staff in the locker room and giving them a pep talk because we were all kind of not understanding why we were playing baseball in a time like this,” said Sue Lucchi, the Mets vice president of ballpark operations for the last 28 years, who oversaw the staging area at Shea.

“​​We had fear,” Mets manager at the time Bobby Valentine said. “We had fear in our hearts, that maybe we'd be attacked, and maybe we were doing the wrong thing.”

To assuage the first fear, the Mets and Braves were assured that the amount of security on hand made Shea the safest place in the city that night. And for the second, they’d have to wait and see, taking their ambivalence with them into an emotional, spectacular, star-studded pregame ceremony.

“You want to enjoy the moment, but you realize how many people were suffering and feeling the pain,” Al Leiter said Saturday. “So it was a weird conflicting mindset.”

Now, with two decades of hindsight and the need to put a bow on a decision that can’t be undone, Mets broadcaster Howie Rose explained that, “Coming back to play was not only the right thing to do, it was the only thing to do."

But of course, the former is only true because the latter is incontrovertible.

Baseball was back, not to heal but because it had to be. If you look for it, there are iconic moments to be found in every game, and so the Mets and their fans found meaning in the first game played in New York City after 9/11.

“It was when Mike [Piazza] hit the home run,” Leiter said. “Seeing people that were kind of flat with respect to what was going on that night, and what has transpired in the country, they erupted, they went crazy. And we knew — I knew, people knew — that it was the right thing to play.”

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11:  First responders are seen on the field holding an American Flag ribbon during the pre-game ceremony prior to the game between the New York Yankees and the New York Mets at Citi Field on Saturday, September 11, 2021 in New York, New York. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
First responders are seen on the field holding an American Flag ribbon during the pre-game ceremony prior to the game between the Yankees and the Mets at Citi Field on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 in New York. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

On Saturday night in New York City, the Mets and Yankees played a baseball game in front of a sold-out crowd. It was a loud, dramatic, game full of long balls and lead changes. They didn’t have to prove it was the right thing to do and when a fan was tackled after running onto the field, the chants of “U-S-A!” felt more like trumped up chest-thumping than solemn observation. When the wave broke out in the bottom of the seventh, the promise of a city unified by sport was shown to have some cracks: An outfield section full of the Mets’ fan group, the 7 Line Army, refused to participate and was roundly booed by the rest of the stadium.

Still, the production value of the pregame pageantry was impressive, full of gravity and also applause-worthy cameos. In that way it was a fitting tribute to what happened twenty years minus ten days ago at Shea Stadium when players weren’t sure whether to enjoy themselves amid the World Series-like atmosphere.

That’s not an indictment of anything — and certainly not the sincerity underlying the ceremony. The people who were honored on field deserved all that and more (like sustained substantive assistance for the long-term health effects from their rescue and relief work around Ground Zero). And the people who came to Citi Field did so to be entertained.

The symbolism was spectacular and affecting. So much so that you could almost forget that on Friday, more people in the country died of our current national crisis than were killed in the attacks in 2001. We would have had to stay quiet all night if they held a moment of silence for all the victims of the interminable pandemic. Or the twenty year war waged in the wake of 9/11.

I think sports make people feel better in the wake of a senseless tragedy for the same reason they make people feel good on a late summer Saturday night. I’ve been covering baseball for a little while now, but to be honest I don’t know exactly what that reason is, probably because it’s different for everyone: The community, the catharsis, the wonder at human achievement and the thrill of vicarious victory. The physical spectacle and unscripted storylines. The excuse to day drink and to socialize outside. The history, the rivalry, the traditions. The absurdity and nerdiness and sheer fun.

Sometimes, sports are serious. And sometimes they don’t matter at all because something else is so serious it chokes the air out of a city and darkens the day like a cloud of carnage and ash so thick you can’t think about anything except what’s right in front of you.

But when they play the games, people will go to them to get out of their heads and into their whole hearts. They’ll go to have fun, to feel joy. If you don’t hope that they’ll heal wounds, that could be enough.