The inning was exciting. The ninth of a tied contest between divisional rivals. An early-season Sunday-night matchup, televised by ESPN. The New York Mets were visiting the Philadelphia Phillies, a team belabored by ownership fiasco playing away against the National League’s most feared rotation and fans. Met Jason Bay was at the plate, two out, men on first and second, game tied one-all. The crowd started chanting.
The commemoration of death with celebration hasn’t always been so uneasy. The United States’ last great military triumph was a twofold affair, greeted with tickertape parades and a pair of calendar holidays. Sixty-six years after, crowds gathered in New York City, Boston, Washington, and a host of other cities. The sight was unfamiliar–Americans celebrating in unison–and some of the imagery was laughable: undergraduates pulling from Dixie cups, grabbing hold of the latest reason to party. The spectre of white Westerners jubilant at the termination of radical Islam’s most prominent face brought forth trepidation from multiple corners. The Obama administration warned travelers to dangerous areas, or some such. An age of immediate access and social media birthed a global diameter of response. Rumors and confirmation of Osama bin Laden’s death pushed Twitter to a rate of more than 5000 tweets per second. There was no limitation in available reaction to the elimination of a ghastly criminal many Americans had dismissed. “We’ll probably never catch him,” went the popular wisdom, “but we presume he’s under control.”
So many found out so different, so fast.
September 11th was covered from every angle by miles of footage, viewed in real-time by a global audience, timed to coincide with U.S. breakfast television. Arriving around 11 PM Eastern Daylight, news of bin Laden’s termination broke in fragmented reports, suppositions about an unexpected presidential speech, frantic attempts by reporters and “insiders” to uncover whether these sudden rumors were somehow, could it be, true. President Obama’s speech came, confirming the news, reconstructing the reasons that it came to pass. It would be until early morning before footage of so much as the bin Laden compound saw airtime. Old-media photographs began to emerge, the most sublime of which was Michael Appleton’s portrait of New York firefighters benching side-by-side before the snaking Central Park ticker reporting bin Laden’s ultimate defeat.
The effect of “the news” was indelible, bin Laden’s death an unexpected sequel to the amber-cased memory of 9/11. And, like the events of that day, the momentousness of the occasion was enough to warrant inclusion on the ESPN ticker, as those Mets fought to grab a lead against their hosts, the Phillies.
The footage, as available to those who weren’t watching live, lacks a single word of commentary from ESPN’s fledgling, promising Sunday Night Baseball team. This is as it should be. The finest moment of loved/loathed ESPN company-man Chris Berman’s career was his abandonment of the microphone as he called the game that clinched Cal Ripken, Jr.’s all-time consecutive-games-played streak. The moment–and Berman for it–have been rightfully celebrated. The new Sunday Night team had done their homework, and followed suit. Philadelphia fans, the most detested in American sports, held the stage.
Baseball, more than any of its counterpart sports in this country (football, basketball, hockey) is the most overdramatized. For every wonderful book written about the diamond’s holy charms, twenty are published manipulating those charms to diabetic effect. The finest beat writers, weary of the overlong season, routinely fall back upon the lustrous romance of “America’s pastime,” its evocation of a simpler past, of fathers and sons, of green grass and brown dirt, and so on, and so on. Just the same, the game is twinebound with September 11th, what with those first Mets and Yankees games after the attacks, vaulted upon their very existence to Cooperstown legend.
The reaction of the Phillie fans to bin Laden’s death, though, was something else. Well-aware–they’re Philadelphia fans!–of their opponent’s symbolic relevance to the news at hand, they found a cheer that transcended divisional rivalry, that acknowledged the presence of a Queens-based team in their stadium and decided to express their unformed excitement in a manner appropriate to the surroundings. “U-S-A,” they chanted. “U-S-A.”
It would and will forever be silly to align the “importance” of athletic events with that of “hard news,” planet-shifting events that alter the existence of, say, nine figures worth of living human beings. But, then, a baseball team consists of twenty-five men, and generally represents a city. A city not known for spectator friendliness–“Brotherly Love” aside–symbolically honored a symbolic victory in a symbolic fight against symbolic enemies.
Isn’t that about right, though? We all like our symbols. That’s why we like sports.