Play soon or wrong side wins

Thursday, September 13, 2001

Not today.

Or tomorrow.

Maybe not even the next few days after that.

A nation still needs to catch its breath. Two cities need time to complete the gruesome business of pulling bodies from the rubble. Families and friends need time to grieve, to heal, to try to understand.

Games are the last thing anybody cares about at the moment.

But sometime soon, that will change. It has to. Otherwise, the wrong side wins.

The first time I heard an athlete say that, it was U.S. Olympic beach volleyball player Mike Dodd. That was five years ago in landlocked Jonesboro, Ga., of all places, where the organizers of the Atlanta Games trucked in miles of sand to create the illusion of a beach. That was hardly the most jarring contradiction of the day.

A dozen hours earlier, a few miles away, somebody with a cold heart left a pipe bomb in a satchel at Centennial Park in downtown Atlanta. It exploded at the edge of a crowd celebrating nothing more uplifting than a warm summer night. One woman was killed. One hundred other people were hurt. Almost everybody else at those Olympics wondered whether it was worth the effort to continue.

The answer came as soon as people began emerging from the darkness of the early morning. Their notions of security shattered, they were skittish at first but bolder as the light lengthened and their numbers grew. By late morning, most of the venues were full again but subdued.

When Dodd stepped onto the volleyball court at midafternoon and surveyed the crowd, he got the sense that just showing up had become a kind of civic duty.

"We're all sad and we're praying, mostly for the families of the victims. But you've got to go on. You've just got to continue to live your life," Dodd said, then paused.

"Otherwise, the wrong side wins."

The devastation terrorists have wrought this time is infinitely worse. The normal rhythms of life won't be restored in a day, for some, not in a year, and for still others, perhaps ever. The delicate question of when to try won't be answered easily.

Major league baseball postponed its full schedule of regular-season games through Thursday. Jerry Colangelo, owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, was in no hurry to get back to business even though his team is in a playoff race.

"I don't care if they're all canceled. When it's deemed safe to proceed or it's in the interests of our country to go forward, that's when we should resume. Whenever that is," he said.

"If it's 24 hours from now or if it's a week from now, I'm just not concerned about it."

Just about every other sporting enterprise in America with an event scheduled in the next few days took the same approach. Concerns about logistics and security, and even what is appropriate, brought many postponements.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is wrestling with the question of what to do with this weekend's schedule, mindful that his predecessor, Pete Rozelle, always regretted a decision to play league games after President Kennedy's assassination in 1963. Players expect whatever decision Tagliabue arrives at to reflect the league's thinking about security as much as sensitivity.

"When he says it's safe," Cardinals receiver Rob Moore said, "we'll play."

After the events of Tuesday morning, nobody can say with any assurance when that will be.

But when President Bush spoke to the nation later in the evening, he vowed the country would slowly put the big pieces of daily life back together. Government offices, schools, airports and shops will be up and running soon, bringing with them familiarity and a routine that most of us can't wait to break by sneaking out to a ballpark.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org

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