In our ballparks, fear will strike out

So much remains unknown about the person or people responsible for the explosions at the Boston Marathon, a mystery President Obama has promised to solve. But this much is already clear about the attack on the innocents trying to enjoy a race defined by the unbreakable human spirit:

If the murderer or murderers hoped to scare away sports fans from arenas and stadiums and future marathon sites, the places where people go to celebrate the teams and events representing who those people are, he or she or they will lose.

And lose decisively.

People won't flee our ballparks, but fill them. Joe Torre often called a big-league game a temporary sanctuary, a place to hide from one's pain for two or three hours, and in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy it can ultimately be that and so much more.

The NHL and NBA did the right thing, the only thing, in calling off Monday night's Bruins game and Tuesday night's Celtics game, as hockey and basketball couldn't possibly be played with blood in the streets and dozens upon dozens injured -- and an eight-year-old child reportedly among the dead. Sports leagues need to go dark in the hours and days after a man-made disaster or a natural one like superstorm Sandy, and any commissioner who decides otherwise risks making the kind of mistake Pete Rozelle made when he let football play on two days after President Kennedy was shot.

But after the people have their proper time to grieve, they do what tens of thousands of New Yorkers did on the night of Sept. 21, 2001, when the Mets played the Braves at Shea Stadium in the city's first ballgame after the 9/11 attacks. It wasn't a game that night as much as it was a faith healing. The people chanted, "U-S-A ... U-S-A," and cried when the bagpipers played and when Diana Ross sang "God Bless America" like Whitney Houston sang the national anthem before the Gulf War Super Bowl.

They cried when Mike Piazza hit that winning home run, too. If you were in the building at that moment, and felt what was happening as the ball soared over the wall, you understood exactly how a team and an athlete could symbolize the restorative power of a battered-but-not-broken town.

President Bush would throw out the ceremonial first pitch of Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium that fall while wearing a bulletproof vest. Inspired by what he called "a monumental struggle of good against evil," Bush warmed up his arm in the batting cage area to better his odds of throwing a strike. He didn't want any enemies who were watching to take a bounced pitch as some sign of weakness.

In fact, the ballpark has always been a good place to show off our society's strength, to remind domestic and foreign terrorists that we won't buckle or cower or quit coming together as one. Sports have long served as a great unifier of black and white, or rich and poor, of old and young. People from diverse backgrounds can find common ground in the form of a team -- or an event like the marathon -- that embodies the resilience and vitality of their community.

Monday in Boston, the bomber or bombers tried to blow all of that away. The terrorist attack summoned the horrific sights and sounds of the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, and of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, where a madman blew a late-night hole in Centennial Olympic Park.

Monica Seles, who had been stabbed by a fanatic at a tennis match three years earlier, was roused from her sleep by a call early that morning from her old friend in New York, former mayor David Dinkins, who told her to turn on the TV.

Seles beat Gabriela Sabatini in straight sets that day, and then said, "I am still going to go to track and field and going to other (Olympic) events and going on with my life. That is pretty much all I can do. You know, that is what I did after the stabbing. That is what you do all the time. You just have to go on."

Sports can't repair any family that's lost a loved one, but they do help people go on. When Victor Cruz wrote the name of one of the Newtown shooting victims, Jack Pinto, on his cleats and gloves before visiting the boy's family, Jack's grandmother called Cruz's tribute "a wonderful, wonderful, incredible thing."

Now the survivors in Boston are in dire need of kindness and support, just basic human decency. The responsible evildoers, whether homegrown or from some faraway land, spilled innocent blood in an assault on an American institution.

And yes, the scene will leave an indelible mark on those who regularly attend sporting events with thousands of fellow fans, people who lived through 9/11 and still look at planes and blimps above a packed stadium and wonder what if. People who have endured checkpoints with bomb-sniffing dogs on the way to their seats. People who have opened the trunks of their cars for officers searching for explosives outside the gates of an arena on game night.

The Boston bombing will intensify security at sporting events all over again, and maybe that will discourage a small number of fans from showing up in the short term. But in the long term?

No chance. Far too much good happens inside stadiums everywhere. We see athletes and coaches inspired by personal tragedy, and by strangers dealing with terminal disease. We see the Nebraska football team lift a seven-year-old boy fighting brain cancer, and we see a Louisville basketball player, Luke Hancock, offering comfort and prayer as he kneels over a teammate, Kevin Ware, with a leg snapped in two.

We see teams playing for Newtown. A dozen years ago, we saw rival cities and fan bases everywhere stand and cheer for New York.

And next April, on Patriots' Day, we'll not only see competitors at the Boston Marathon running in tribute to Monday's victims, but also thousands of spectators lining the route to honor the cause and the tough city hosting it.

Sooner or later, fear always strikes out at the ballpark. So if the bomber or bombers hoped sports fans would quit gathering to celebrate their teams and their communities, guess what?

They've already lost.