Monday, September 11, 2006

Five years later

This was my first column for the Monitor in the days following 9/11. I'm not sure how well it holds up over time, but it captured my sentiments during the horrifying, heartbreaking aftermath, and I remain proud I wrote it. - CF

• • •

AMERICA'S TEAM

God, yes, I want the New York Yankees to win the World Series. How could any American not? The Yankees are America. They are capitalist, a melting pot and, in recent years, a monopoly. They are ordinary and extraordinary individuals who thrive as a team. They are arrogant and resilient and hated for their success. They are a superpower.

They are us.

No sports team is more symbolic of our nation than the Yankees. And it is sickeningly obvious that the terrorists who intended to blow our country apart had a sadistic eye for symbolism. They attacked our military center, the Pentagon. They targeted the White House. They wiped out the World Trade Center towers, the two tallest buildings in our tallest city.

It's a small miracle that the Statue of Liberty still stands. Or Yankee Stadium.

Normally, this would be grounds for treason, a Red Sox fan switching allegiances to the Yankees. But what's normal anymore? We are all numb, having wept through an impossibly sad and tragic time, one in which our games never seemed less important.

My television remote is usually locked on ESPN. It has scarcely visited there the past 10 days. The Bottom Line sports ticker was replaced by MSNBC's streaming news updates, Stuart Scott's smug self-reverence replaced with Tom Brokaw's gentle reassurance. And the scoreboard was replaced with a horrible new statistical category: the death toll.

So this is what it takes for a sports fan to gain perspective. Was it just a few weeks ago I was chiding friends for admitting they were rooting for Mike Mussina during his perfect game bid against the Red Sox? It all seems so ridiculous now, so trivial, so small. As a survivor of the bombings told ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons: Oh, for the days when my greatest fear was Derek Lowe.

Of all the brilliant political cartoons in our newspapers in recent days, few touched me as deeply as this one. It pictured two kids sitting around a playground, swapping trading cards. One kid says to the other: I'll give you two Bonds and two Jordans for one New York firefighter.

The cartoon's message is obvious, painfully so. I'll never again refer to an athlete as a hero - or, for that matter, a villain. That's been the standard term for the Yankees around here, but no more. There are no real villains, not in sports, not by the frightening parameters that define the term now. Since the attack, so many so-called bad guys, many of whom I've skewered, have revealed themselves to be goodhearted, decent, compassionate men (the despicable Carl Everett being the obvious, oblivious exception.)

More than once I've mocked Jason Sehorn, called him camera-happy, a pretty boy. Last week, Sehorn led his New York Giants teammates on a shopping spree to buy supplies for the rescue workers at "Ground Zero." Keyshawn Johnson - you know, Me-shawn - was among the first of countless NFLers to donate a week's paycheck. George Steinbrenner, derided here as Georgie Porgie, has donated a million dollars and the Yankee Stadium tarp. Bobby Valentine and his Mets have opened their stadium and their hearts to any weary folks who want nothing more than rest and reassurance.

It may seem trite, claiming a Yankee championship would be of any relevance in these solemn hours. But then, I'm reminded of something we've heard again and again this week. Sometimes, sports transcend. The U.S. hockey team's "Miracle on Ice" in 1980 raised the spirits of a nation stuck in the doldrums. Jesse Owens's four gold medals in the '36 Olympics in Berlin upstaged Hitler on his home turf.

The Yankees can transcend, too. They are a part of our fabric, certainly of New York's fabric. You can't turn on the television without seeing someone shedding a tear while holding a picture of a missing loved one. Usually, one or the other is wearing a Yankees cap. Sometimes, both.

The day will come when every plane in the sky no longer draws a wary second glance, when every song's lyrics no longer seem more poignant than you remember. The day will come when the tangle is gone from our throats, the ache from our hearts and the sorrow from our eyes.

The day will come when we're again cheering the Red Sox and jeering the Yankees. Oh, how I look forward to that day.
But right now, there are no rivalries. The only team that matters not only wears stripes, it is representing them.

So I want to see a parade down New York's Canyon of Heroes, what's left of it. I want to see firefighters and policemen and ordinary, extraordinary New York citizens cheering and saluting Roger and Derek and Bernie and Tino, and I damn sure want to see them cheering and saluting back.

I want the Yankees to say, in that symbolic language those terrorists understand, that we are as strong as ever. I want the Yankees to transcend.

God, yes, I want a Yankee victory.

Because a Yankee - an American - is what I am.

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