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America still needs playing

Posted: Friday, September 14, 2001

We're all a little edgy. Now. The dull roar of a plane overhead, the wailing siren of an ambulance a block away, the nonstop pounding of a construction site -- all those sights and sounds in the background of our own daily dramas register as never before.

So maybe we don't need the flash and pop of our grandest sporting spectacles back just yet. But a few small ones would be a good way to start.

The NFL won't play football this weekend, but your local high school team might. The PGA Tour stop in St. Louis closed up shop, but golf courses for hundreds of miles in every direction are open.

Wrigley Field will be empty during what would have been a big weekend in the pennant races. But so will all the scruffy softball diamonds ringing the ballpark like a necklace.

So play. Freedom always required acts of defiance, large and small. Play -- or go out and watch somebody else do it.

Leave the TV alone. There's not much worth seeing, anyway. Collect your kids and some gloves, a bat and a ball, and hit fungos in a park. Trace the long, lazy arc of a fly ball, and try to remember what it was like to look at the sky behind it without being afraid.

Call up a friend, get the clubs out of the closet, and relive the moment when hitting a little white ball into a cup was your only care in the world. Remember what it was like to watch a kid, your own or your neighbor's, smack a puck with more force than that little body seemed capable of, and wonder if this was that one kid in a million.

The terrorists knew exactly what they were doing Tuesday. There are thousands of people buried under tons of rubble, countless funerals to come and hundreds of sleepless nights.

Strange, isn't it, how that inflated corner of the world that pro sports inhabited only a week ago is down to just about the right size now. How the owners, coaches and players who once seemed so much larger than life are just as scared and confused as the rest of us.

They have a hard time concentrating on the job. The idea of getting on an airplane to go to work somewhere is unsettling. They understand how the comforts we all took for granted will now come at a much dearer price.

President Bush and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani used the airwaves over the last two days to urge a return to normal as fast as possible. But nobody can say -- today, at least -- exactly what normal means. To their credit, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Bud Selig, his baseball counterpart, concluded that rushing back to fill up stadiums this weekend was many things, but normal was certainly not one of them.

Between the two leagues' announcements, just about every other big-time sporting enterprise decided likewise to fold the tent. It was the right decision.

The whole twisted point of terrorism is to make the familiar seem dangerous. And so it doesn't make sense to try to pull off the spectacular until we're comfortable again with the most mundane details.

The skyline of New York has a gaping hole in it. There are still cars in the Giants Stadium parking lot -- which also serves as a commuter lot -- that belong to people who will never return to drive them home.

The games should go on, and soon enough, the biggest ones will. There will be time to catch Barry Bonds launching baseballs into McCovey's Cove, to feel the electricity of Michigan-Ohio State football buzzing through the car radio on a chilly ride to the grocery store, to see Michael Jordan fill up a basket in the warmth of a packed arena while snowflakes swirl in a blizzard outside like a million sweet jump shots. And maybe then we'll appreciate those games for what they really are -- diversions.

Thankfully, the start of that time is still a few days away. There is plenty to be done, and not just in the meantime. Kids who thought planes only crashed into buildings in the movies know better now. Carrying on as if everything were normal in the face of that kind of madness will test our courage and resolve as never before. But first, it will test our patience.

If you want to make a statement right away, volunteer. Give money to charity, or donate blood. Then get that ball sitting in the back of a closet and find somebody to catch it.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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