Catharsis with a swing of the bat
Assistant Managing Editor
What makes sports important in the grand scheme of things?
Many sports fans have asked themselves this question, while many more have had others ask this question in various intonations. The question in and of itself is loaded because, in truth, they aren’t. Sports are just part of the umbrella of little things that play a minor role in our everyday lives.
But, when tragedy strikes, sports play an important role in one aspect of life: catharsis.
Nobody expected the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 to happen. People went to work thinking it would be another normal day at the office. Children went to school wondering what the cafeteria had for lunch. All was typical in America for the first part of the morning.
Then news came through the wire about planes hitting the World Trade Center in New York. The collective eyes of the nation simultaneously glued themselves to television screens and wept as more details came to light.
Commissioner of Major League Baseball Bud Selig cancelled all games for the day in an effort to help the nation grieve. After all, New York was not only a hub of culture in America but also a hub of baseball. While the Mets called Queens home, the Bronx hosted a cultural institution in and of itself: the New York Yankees.
Indeed, the Yanks are as much a part of the New York state of mind as the Statue of Liberty and Times Square. In many cases, the team is an intricate part of American culture.
So it was no surprise when then-President George W. Bush felt compelled to throw out a ceremonial first pitch during the 2001 World Series. However, he did not do so at Game One in Arizona. Rather, he opted to open Game Three at Yankee Stadium.
“When presented with the opportunity of throwing out the first pitch, I seized it,” Bush said, “because I knew that baseball could be a part of the recovery after 9/11.”
This logic was evident in stadiums throughout the country months earlier when Major League stadiums in six locations hosted games on Sept. 17. Fans in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston put aside rivalries for one night and showed support for New York and its Yankees.
So when Bush threw a perfect strike at Game Three, the raucous ovation in the Bronx was not for him or the Yankees. It was for an American sense of unity, for a sense that we as a nation were not just allowed to regain normalcy – we were encouraged to.
In this case, like in many, a sport served as a symbol that we as a nation had the strength to carry on. It was just big enough to be a part of our identity but just peripheral enough to keep the purity of the game from being caught in the fracas.
But when the tragedy hits the sport itself, it can be hard to call the world of sports extraneous.
The Boston Marathon has been a staple of the American sporting landscape after its establishment in 1897. Always held on the third Monday in April (Patriot’s Day), the marathon brings runners the world over to New England to compete in the region’s most widely viewed sporting event.
Many spectators of the 2013 Marathon lined the home stretch on Boylston Street, watching as competitors raced by completing the marathon. Approximately two hours after the winner completed the race, two pressure cooker bombs went off near the finish line.
After a subsequent shooting and manhunt, the casualty total sat at 286, six of which were deaths from bomb-related injuries or the shootout. Many near the explosions needed amputations, including some of the runners unable to complete the race.
There is an awesome SportsCenter Featured story about Rebekah Gregory, a victim of the bombing during the race, who trained to run a portion of the race in April 2015. It is one of the many pieces about runners who came back from the 2013 race to compete in subsequent years.
But the main story of sports unity, once again, lies in baseball.
The Boston Red Sox had just opened the season, facing off against the Indians in Cleveland when the bombings happened. Immediately, Cleveland fans and fans throughout the league showed the team and the city support, which continued throughout the next few weeks.
Boston rallied behind the Sox, who finished first in the American League East and went on to win the World Series. Throughout the season, the team carried a jersey with the number 617 emblazoned on the back between the words “Boston Strong.”
Indeed, “Boston Strong” was the rallying cry throughout the season and up to the World Series ticker tape parade, which ended at the finish line for the Marathon. The team placed the trophy and the Boston Strong jersey on the finish line to honor the victims and the healing city.
Those moments of solidarity between team and place make sports an important part of society, whether it’s a team playing for a city in grief or an entire league trying to bring normalcy to a nation in dire need of it or any of the countless examples the world over.
It’s not the only catharsis, but it’s a major one; and in dark times, any light – even a stadium light – will help illuminate the path to healing.