Who says sports don’t matter?

Published 11:18 pm Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Throughout the course of my short time on this earth as a follower of sport, one question has rung resoundingly among the many that have been flung my way.

“What is the big deal about sports? Why do you get so wrapped up in it?”

Why I love sports is — in and of itself — a topic for another day.

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But nearly seven years ago, only 10 days after the horror and tragedy that this day, Sept. 11, is best known for, sports brought distraction and entertainment to a wounded city in dire need of something else to look at, something else to think about, at a time when anything but the sudden terrifying realities of everyday life were ever so prevalent.

As our nation has done on many an occasion, we as a people turned to sports for, at the very least, a few hours of not being glued to CNN and a newly introduced running ticker at the bottom of the screen.

As former president Franklin D. Roosevelt put it in his 1942 “Green Light letter,” — a document urging Major League Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to keep his sport going even though this nation was embroiled in World War II — “These players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of their fellow citizens — and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.”

Roosevelt felt baseball would be a welcome diversion for a country wounded by the attack on Pearl Harbor just five weeks earlier. Less than 60 years later, baseball would fulfill this role again at Shea Stadium — home of the New York Mets.

The Mets were in the midst of a valiant attempt to catch the division-leading Atlanta Braves in the National League pennant race, and in the end would fall short. But on September 21, 2001, in the first sporting event held in New York City since the World Trade Center crumbled to the earth below, their mission for that evening would be achieved.

The matchup between the division rivals played out before a capacity crowd of 41,000 American flag-waving patrons. The majority of the fans — 31,000 to be precise — bought their tickets prior to the day of the contest. The other 10,000 were walk-ups. They weren’t season ticket holders — some would say not even fans — but just people in need of a reprieve from what had become the rigors of everyday existence.

The Mets trailed 3-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning, and a large portion of the crowd had already departed for the gates in anticipation of a loss, thinning out the stadium as Mets catcher Mike Piazza approached the plate.

But on the first pitch delivered to him, Piazza belted a two-run home run, and the remaining fans absolutely exploded. They were on edge the entire evening, anxious for a reason to scream and cheer, and finally had reason to do it. With the swing of a bat, it seemed that New Yorkers finally allowed themselves to exhale from a tumultuous 10 days.

Perhaps ESPN writer John Anderson best summed up what Piazza’s feat accomplished.

“There’s no telling how far Mike Piazza’s eighth-inning, game-winning home run against the Braves flew on Friday … because how do you measure the healing power of a swing?”

No, the Mets didn’t catch the Braves. And the Yankees — winners of three straight World Series — failed to capture the title at a time when they were actually the sympathy figures. In a year that the Yankees truly appeared to be the team of destiny, they fell to the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 7 of the World Series.

But on one night in late September — when a bleeding New York heart was in its darkest hour — baseball came through and delivered a welcome, brief sigh of relief, normalcy and euphoria.

What’s not to love and get wrapped up in when something so simple as baseball can have that kind of impact?