How we find healing through sports

Mike Piazza rounds the bases after his home run against the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium in New York on Friday, Sept. 21, 2001. AP Photo/Jeff Zelevansky

On Sept. 21, 2001, the New York Mets played the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium. It was the first major sporting event in New York since the Twin Towers went down. Our hearts were still pinned under the rubble.

Two firefighters, an EMT and a cop threw out the first pitches. Liza Minnelli sang "New York, New York" for the seventh-inning stretch. And in the bottom of the eighth, with the Mets down 2-1 and a runner on base, Mike Piazza launched one over the wall in left-center. The Mets were up 3-2, and that's how it stayed.

The crowd let out this huge bellow of release, and everybody waved American flags, and all over the country people wept at the highlights. But here, 10 years later, I'll be honest. I've been a Braves fan all my life. And as a Braves fan, that moment kind of sucked.

In an essay for ESPN.com in 2002, the late David Halberstam dismissed the healing power of sports after Sept. 11. I'd like to gently suggest that sports does heal, and in fact did heal on that very night when Piazza hit that home run. And not only did it heal those Mets fans, and all those people just rooting for New York, but it also healed people like me, who couldn't help but wonder, on that magic night, what this all meant for the race in the National League East.

Let's be clear. Watching a ballgame couldn't fix what happened on Sept. 11. Hell, killing Osama bin Laden didn't fix it. The hurt went too deep. As a nation, though we are back up and moving, we will always walk with a bit of a limp.

Even now the attacks cause our fears to boil up. Some sad soul tries to play martyr, or some politician tries to scare votes out of us, and without even thinking we pick at the scabs.

Halberstam, in his essay, said being "strong, wise and patient" would get us through. He said sports don't bring any true emotional balance; "we must get it from our loved ones, family, friends, co-workers."

It's sound advice. But I think, for all his reasoned comments about what sports can't do, the great Mr. Halberstam forgot about what they can.

The sports we love are not a dip into the waters of Lourdes. They're a bandage, a salve, a plaster cast on a broken arm. They don't heal us by themselves. They give us protection and time so we can heal on our own.

You know how a great book can consume you so fully that you get lost in the world between the covers? A great game -- or even just a great sports moment -- can do the same thing. It becomes its own little universe. And it puts you in the center of it.

Gordon Hayward of Butler grabs the rebound with 3.6 seconds left in last year's NCAA basketball final, down by two to Duke. Four quick dribbles and he's at half court. He takes the shot. If it goes in, it's the greatest moment in basketball history. The ball arcs through the air. The universe slows to a heartbeat. And for that brief pulse of time, millions of people forget about the jobless rate and the price of gas and the terrorists trying to kill us.

The ball hits the rim, and only then do we breathe.

You could call that a diversion, as Halberstam did, but it's not quite the right word. We talk about getting absorbed by the games. Turn that into active voice and what happens is more clear. The games absorb us. And sometimes that's what we need. We need something to soak us up. We need to get carried away.

Movies can do that too, and books and paintings and music and sex and long days out on the water. None of those things is essential. Sports aren't essential. But they help make the difference between living and being alive.

Of course some people take it too far -- the "obsessive superfans" (Halberstam's phrase) who detach from the rest of the world, and pay more attention to their teams than their families. Too much medicine can turn into poison.

But most of us aren't like that. We're strong enough to deal with whatever life hurls at us -- the ordinary terrors of our daily lives, or the profound shock of a day like Sept. 11.

Still, our hearts can't lift the load forever. We have to put it down once in a while, and find a place where we can gather our strength.

Hey, look. There's a game on.

My favorite thing about that Piazza game is that the Braves pitcher got tossed. Reliever Steve Karsay gave up a walk just before the home run, and he thought plate ump Wally Bell had squeezed the strike zone. Karsay was so mad that he rushed Bell after the inning and had to be held back by teammates.

And you know what? The ump did squeeze the strike zone. At least that's what I thought at the time. In that moment, as a fan, what mattered was that my team got jobbed. Forget Liza and Mayor Giuliani and Diana Ross singing "God Bless America." Forget the Pentagon and those people on that plane in Pennsylvania and that hole in the ground in Manhattan.

Forget it all, just for a second, and think about balls and strikes.

Sept. 11, 2001, won't ever go away. We remember it on anniversaries, of course, but also at the oddest times. Maybe you flip past a movie one night and there's a shot of the Twin Towers, tall and strong. Maybe you drive by a brush fire and something in the smoke switches on a memory. Maybe your mind wanders back through the years on its own, still trying to make sense of it all.

But after a while, if you're like me, maybe you start thinking about whether Oklahoma's got the goods this year, or if Serena will ever come all the way back, or if the Packers have a chance to repeat.

Or maybe you think about the Miracle on Ice, or Lorenzo Charles' dunk at the buzzer, or Jack on the back nine in '86.

You might even think about a Mets-Braves game that lives in the same place as all those solemn memorials, all those days of fear and panic. It belongs in that place. It played a part.

This is the blessing of sports. They help you remember when you want to remember, and they help you forget when you need to forget.

They heal us an inning at a time, quarter after quarter, play by play.

Not all the way. But enough.

Tommy Tomlinson, a columnist for The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. He can be reached at tommy@tommytomlinson.com.