It will feel familiar. And it won't. It will look familiar. And it won't. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Beginning Thursday night and spilling over into the weekend, Americans return to fill up football stadiums in numbers that likely will make baseball blush. People will show up with their hearts in their throats, their eyes on the horizon and their minds still clouded by the terror of Sept. 11.
At a time when everything else is changing in lasting ways, it seems only reasonable that sports should change, too, and for the better. The return of baseball has presented some evidence of that already.
Ballplayers who once seemed too insulated by wealth and fame to share our doubts and fears have let down their guard. They cry during the national anthem. They've made sacrifices large and small. They misplay a grounder and, like the grocer who can't remember where he stacked the canned peaches that arrived two weeks ago, ask only for patience. We'll get this right soon enough, their slightly embarrassed expressions read, just give us a little time.
Wednesday night, the record-setting Seattle Mariners clinched a division championship like dozens of baseball teams had done before. Except they didn't know how to celebrate. Manager Lou Piniella was in the dugout in the fourth inning in Seattle when Oakland's loss at Texas made it official. He walked the length of the bench, shaking hands and exchanging brief hugs, and planned to leave it at that.
After the final out, though, the Mariners gathered on the mound and kneeled in a moment of prayer, then made a lap of the bases behind Mark McLemore waving an American flag. It fit the mood of the ballpark in a way no amount of planning ever could.
''It was just something that came together,'' McLemore said afterward. ''It wasn't choreographed.''
As the comedians charged with providing the rest of our late-night entertainment will attest, striking the right chord at the moment can be tough. Laughs are hard to come by. Many of the passions they tickled mercilessly are still numb. And now along comes football, perhaps the most passionate of our diversions, to test exactly how numb.
Every leader from President Bush on down has requested that life in these United States return to normal. And if what we mean by that is a return of the spectacle that surrounded our grandest sporting events just before the terrorist bombings, the guess here is that we're going to be disappointed. But that's not a bad thing, either.
In quieter times, against a quieter backdrop, sport too often robs us of perspective. It brings too much pressure to bear, drains too much joy from winning, injects too much pain into losing and orders lives in ways that events of much greater consequence never quite match.
And yet, in times like these, it can have just the opposite effect. It can be ennobling, providing moments of normalcy in a world that is grasping, yet not quite reaching it. It can serve as a quiet reminder that strength and swiftness and clarity of mind are rewards in themselves, that while chaos threatens almost everything else, order and cooperation are possible -- if only for a short time and only between the narrow white lines or our playing fields.
The test this weekend will be walking that fine line between showing respect or the lack of it. Baseball has provided an admirable beginning. Everything from the pregame ceremonies to the play on the field and the conduct in the stands fit the occasion. We knew where the games ranked on the scale of daily struggles.
Now the sporting calendar is going to fill up in earnest. The diversions we welcomed back one at a time are about come rushing back fast and furious, and with them the opportunities for excess that sapped more of our time and energy than it deserved.
The time may yet come when war, like an illness, consumes too much of our effort or our patience or our resources or our courage. But it is not here yet.
So celebrate -- a little.
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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