Baseball keeps doing what it does. Twice

Thursday, September 12, 2002

President Bush threw a strike when it mattered. The baseball players' union didn't.

The best moment of the best-yet Super Bowl came during a halftime show. And the Olympic torch provided the perfect second act for a bunch that produced the "Miracle on Ice" the first time around.

People who wondered where sports would fit into the post-Sept. 11 landscape have a few highlights to look back on. What stood out on a day set aside to mark the ways our lives have changed is how familiar the games still feel.

A full slate of baseball was served up Wednesday, 16 games in all. Under clear skies in an afternoon game in Atlanta, part of a day-night doubleheader. It ended not long after an American flag recovered from the World Trade Center was unfurled beneath the stars at Yankee Stadium.

"It's a day that we'll all remember, but you've got to get on with it," Atlanta's Chipper Jones said just before the Braves hosted the Mets.

"You've got to do what you do. And that's what we're doing," he added. "Twice."

That same flag that flew over Yankee Stadium during Game 3 of the World Series last year was back for an encore. Just miles from the World Trade Center site, the Yankees unveiled a memorial inscribed "We Remember," in Monument Park beyond the center field fence.

That tribute was echoed, in ways large and small, at ballparks everywhere. At 9:11 p.m. local time, the games paused for a moment of silence. The words "We Shall Not Forget" were etched into fields, outfield walls and T-shirts handed out to fans. Few needed the reminder.

"It happened on our turf," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "It seems like it happened 10 days ago, 10 minutes ago."

Security is more visible and most likely better, but not everybody feels safer. There is more red, white and blue on display inside the stadiums, but whether it's proof of America's unity or just window dressing depends on whom you ask.

American flags were impossible to miss Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field. With the Chicago Cubs at home against Montreal, Old Glory fluttered in the breeze from just about every pole, replacing for one day, at least, the customary pennants marking significant achievements in Cubs history or identifying their opponents.

But a more realistic measure of ballparks as gathering places came the night before, when things were closer to normal. That's when Rich Nagengast drove in from the northwest suburbs with his wife, Agnes, their three kids and a Spanish exchange student from Madrid.

"We didn't get to a game after Sept. 11 last season because we were like a lot of people. We sat around and watched too much TV. But I've been to six games this season," he said. "I think people get a little extra lift out of gathering together like this."

For weeks after Sept. 11 last year, stirring renditions of "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America" choked up fans during the seventh-inning stretch. The songs will ring out again at most ballparks on a momentous anniversary.

That's the way New York roared when Bush threw a perfect first-pitch strike to get Game 3 of the World Series rolling. It is an event experienced only once.

Same for the heartache when banners with the names of the victims of Sept. 11 unfurled behind the band U2 as it played a short, inspiring set at halftime of the Super Bowl. Or the chills that surged when the 1980 U.S. gold medal-winning hockey team shared a podium again and lighted the Olympic flame to open the Winter Games at Salt Lake City.

Now, everybody is trying to move on, waiting for sights and sounds to feel familiar again. Proof progress is being made is found in the games and their familiar rhythms.

Last year, Sammy Sosa hit his 59th homer the night the Cubs first returned to Wrigley following the terrorist attacks. After his hop, step and jump at home plate, Sosa slowed crossing the first-base bag and grabbed a small American flag from coach Billy Williams. He waved it all the way around the bases.

"I was proud to do it," Sosa said. "Knowing what happened, carrying the American flag was a special memory. It was my way of giving back."

This year, though, things seem normal enough that the defining moment of the Cubs' season will be Sosa's all-too-familiar plea to management to put a better product on the field.

"No question they got to clean house," Sosa said.

No doubt they will.

Someday.

As the saying goes around here, "Wait until next year."

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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