By Zachary Pearce
What happened on February 22, 1980 touched a nerve as deep as any in the collective psyche of the United States. As the American Olympic hockey team stormed the ice following their 4-3 win over the Soviet Union, the crowd gathered in Lake Placid, NY erupted. The rest of the country, left in limbo by ABC’s time delay, followed suit with an outpouring of patriotic fervor. As commentator Al Michaels had predicted, this was “the rarest of sporting events: an event that needs no buildup, no superfluous adjectives.” But Michaels continued. “In a political or nationalistic sense, I’m sure this game is being viewed with varying perspectives, but manifestly it is a hockey game.”
Inevitably, as the Olympic Center crowd collectively counted down as the clock reached five seconds bedlam prevailed. The tempered Michaels could not hide his exuberance as the stadium shook visibly. His voice shrill, he was able to deliver the greatest call in sports history before the rabid crowd took over. “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” It certainly seemed like this was more than just “a hockey game.”
As news poured in on Sunday night that Al Qaeda leader and mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks Osama bin Laden had been killed, a sold-out crowd at Citizens’ Bank Park in Philadelphia watching the Mets play the Phillies was abuzz. There was no easily defined “enemy” on the field. No, the erstwhile baseball game was surreally unaffected as the same chants of “USA, USA” that filled the Olympic Center 31 years earlier rained down from the stands. There were “no superfluous adjectives” to describe an energy that was at once celebratory and sobering.
10 years earlier, the Mets faced the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium in New York. A week and a half since the terrorist attacks had passed, professional sports resumed for the first time. The Mets’ ballpark had been a makeshift area of refuge just days previously. Players helped carry supplies and donations onto a diamond that, for all intents and purposes, was far removed from the spikes of any player. Now, on September 21st, those in the crowd, many of whom had seen destruction first hand, were now at a baseball game. Most sat in stunned, chilled silence as the Braves took a 2-1 lead into the eighth inning. When Mets catcher Mike Piazza propelled his 34th home run of the season past the wall left center field, Shea, in the words of commentator Howie Rose, had “something to smile about.”
Just as in the Olympic hockey upset in the semi-final game, Piazza’s decisive blast used sports as surrogate; it was a medium for essential catharsis. This week in Philadelphia, what happened on the field was decidedly secondary. It was, as Al Michaels might have said, “manifestly a baseball game.” It was a scene wholly unlike those in 1980 or 2001. For the first time in recent memory, sports seemed to be wholly separate from the atmosphere in the stands. As players on the field looked baffled—the news trickled down to the dugouts after iPhones and Blackberries buzzed in the crowd—people began to chant. The same refrain of “USA, USA” of 1980 was audible on the Sunday night telecast. Commentators explained to their listeners that the crowd, en masse, was saluting no team in general. At least for the night, sports returned to their proper sphere. While the Mets would win in 14 innings, the exultant crowd reminded the ballplayers on the field that they were playing, at last, “just a game.”