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On Tragedy and Triumph

It is sometimes said that comedy is tragedy plus time. In the world of sports, time is not necessary. In fact, sometimes it’s necessary to not have any time at all. In Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary, Keith Olbermann recalls speaking to a NYPD officer a week after 9/11:

“He said, ‘I’m worried.’ I said, ‘Yeah I’m worried too.’ He said, ‘I’m worried about the Mets.’ And I sort of snapped out of it, I said, ‘You’re worried about the Mets?’ He said, ‘Well yeah, the season resumes tonight, they’re in Pittsburgh, you think they’ve got enough to get back in the pennant race? I mean they were doing so well, can they catch the Braves?’ I said, ‘How on Earth could that possibly matter? We’re standing where there’s smoke coming up from behind us.’ He says, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter. Of course it doesn’t matter. I’ve got 300 friends dead. Doesn’t matter. But tonight, 7:00 and all day the rest of today, I can look forward to putting my feet up and pretend it does matter.’

Joe Torre, then manager of the Yankees, later said, “Our baseball was there to distract the people.”

Every baseball season is different. Different teams make the playoffs, different teams win the World Series, and different teams have different players. But the presence of baseball is constant. Other than 1981 and 1994, when labor strikes cut the season short, baseball is always there from April to October. Every single day for 6 months in the regular season, there’s baseball. It provides solace and comfort, and a place to hide, if only for a few hours, from one’s problems.

After 9/11, even standard coping mechanisms were put on hold. Sports and comedy were both postponed for a week. But in the case of comedy, even when it returned, it wasn’t really “back.” On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart put together a tear-ridden monologue and a clip show for his first show back. The monologue was incredible, but it wasn’t the same. David Letterman also focused on the tragedies. In the Comedy Central Roast of Hugh Hefner, shown 3 weeks after 9/11, the comedians were hesitant, and concerned about crossing the line. The “time” component of the equation simply did not exist yet. Everyone’s mind was still focused on the tragedy.

But after the week of postponed games, baseball returned, and it was the same. The game was still 9 innings. Each team still had 9 players on the field. There was a heavy burden of emotion, but it needed to be the same, and of course, at its core, it was.

On September 21, 2001, after sweeping Pittsburgh to get within 5 games of the Braves, the Mets were down 2-1 to those Braves in the 8th inning. Mike Piazza, their star player, crushed a 2-run home run to dead center, and the Mets won. The crowd, muted for 7 1/2 innings in the first home game since 9/11, went berserk. For just that moment, everyone in Shea Stadium, and everyone watching at home, was focused on Mike Piazza, and whether or not they could really catch the Braves. Sure, they were worried—worried about the Mets.

[A Note: This is not a piece to compare tragedies. It is simply meant to examine the response.]

On April 20, 2013, the Red Sox played baseball. The day before, the game was canceled to support the efforts of tracking down the remaining Marathon bomber. He was found and arrested, and the city desperately needed to get back to normalcy. As David Ortiz said before the game, “This is our fucking city, and nobody can dictate our freedom.” The Red Sox provided that normalcy just by playing at all, but in the 8th inning, down 2-1, Daniel Nava hit a 3-run home run into the bullpen to give Boston a lead that they would keep. Announcer Don Orsillo said, “Boston, this is for you.” And it was. As silly as it seems, that one swing of the bat provided a sense of city-wide correction; Boston prides itself on its sports, especially the Red Sox, and to see them succeed after everything that had happened in the week prior, was a breath of fresh air.

Daniel Nava’s game winning home run will be the highlight of the 2013 season. No matter what happens this year, if the Red Sox make the playoffs or not, this was the most important game the Red Sox have played in a long time. Important not in a baseball sense, though it did give them a 7-game winning streak, but in a city-wide effort for stability.



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