Patriotism and baseball go hand-in-hand
President George W. Bush once told me that "baseball has a way of dramatizing some of the biggest moments in our society."
Those words echoed in my mind on Sunday night during the New York Mets-Phillies game when suddenly thousands of fans at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park began chanting, "U-S-A, U-S-A."
Word that terrorist Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Navy SEALs filtered through the capacity crowd, upstaging a tense 1-1 deadlock between the two teams being shown on national television.
There's no better venue than a ballpark filled with 45,000 fans to spontaneously celebrate such a long-awaited moment.
Baseball and patriotism have always gone hand-in-hand.
President Obama's visit to New York City's "Ground Zero" on Thursday isn't tied to baseball. He'll take part in a ceremony and meet with many families of those who died on the horrific day of Sept. 11, 2001.
Yet when we think back to 9/11, it certainly isn't a stretch to recall how baseball helped a nation in mourning heal somewhat.
I think about that every time I go by the site where the stately twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood -- before they were destroyed and thousands died because bin Laden directed al Qaeda hijackers to fly commercial planes into them.
I try to picture President Bush standing on the ruins, bullhorn in hand, with a group of firemen crowded around as he blares into the horn: "I can hear you, I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon."
And on Oct. 30 on the hallowed grounds at Yankee Stadium, Bush throwing the ceremonial first pitch for Game 3 of the 2001 World Series between the D-Backs and Yankees.
"The crowd was chanting 'U-S-A, U-S-A,' and it was very emotional, a very alive experience," Bush told me in the Oval Office years later. "It's something I'll never forget. Thinking about it still brings me goosebumps. That was a very memorable night."
In America's darkest moments, from World War I to the Great Depression to Sept. 11, 2001, baseball has been an escape, preserving and helping our country through its toughest times.
Hunting down and killing bin Laden undoubtedly won't end terrorism. But after nearly 10 years, finally eliminating the mastermind of all the pain, suffering, death and destruction makes this moment in history much more than merely symbolic.
"The response at the ballpark in Philadelphia was wonderful," Commissioner Bud Selig said on Wednesday. "It was spontaneous, really good. Baseball again, in its own way, proved what an important social institution it is.
"In the midst of all the heartache, if we can make somebody's life better, that's all we have to do.
"When I considered what to do after Sept. 11, I agonized over the decision somewhat, but deep down I knew what was right," Selig recalled.
We watched baseball through wet eyes for much of that autumn in 2001.
Before each game, the national anthem took on a new meaning, and in the seventh-inning stretch emotions were high -- in the stands and on the field -- when "God Bless America" became a fixture.
It seemingly was more than coincidence that former Mets manager Bobby Valentine was an ESPN analyst on Sunday night when word of bin Laden's demise filtered through Citizens Bank Park.
Valentine was a very visible presence on the days following 9/11. He and many of his players, such as Robin Ventura, Todd Zeile, Al Leiter and John Franco, were deeply involved in a volunteer effort at the Shea Stadium parking lot. The lot was a staging area where they loaded cases of medical supplies, food and clothes that were taken to downtown New York firehouses, hospitals and Ground Zero.
Baseball resumed after its self-imposed six days of darkness on Sept. 17, with six National League games. The Mets-Pirates game, originally scheduled to be played in New York, was switched to Pittsburgh because of the relief efforts taking place at Shea.
PNC Park was awash in red, white and blue, and even though the Mets were one of Pittsburgh's bitter rivals, the Pirates handed out "I Love New York" buttons to all the fans.
The Mets wore caps honoring New York firefighters, police and rescue workers, plus American flags on their jerseys and hats. The Mets won, 4-1.
The first game in New York was four days later, on Friday, Sept. 21, with the Mets playing the Atlanta Braves.
It was one of the most memorable games I've covered. The healing power of baseball was in full bloom.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Liza Minnelli and Diana Ross took part in the ceremonies; Minnelli brought tears to many in the crowd of 41,235 when she sang "New York, New York" during the seventh-inning stretch.
The Mets once again wore the NYFD and NYPD caps and had the date of the tragedy -- 9-11-01 -- embroidered on the left sleeve of their uniforms. Even crusty reporters in the press box became a little teary-eyed when the Braves hugged the Mets before the game.
I wrote that Mike Piazza, outspoken and emotional from the moment the terrorists attacked, swallowed hard and was choked up when he paid tribute to the victims of the World Trade Center before the game.
And then, to make the script perfect, Piazza blasted an awesome two-run homer over the center-field fence that gave the Mets a 3-2 victory. It was a blast not just for the Mets, but for all of New York and maybe the nation -- the healing power of one swing.
"I'm just so happy that I gave the people something to cheer," Piazza said. "The energy tonight was surreal. I'm proud to be part of it. New York has been so strong through all of this."
I mentioned the significance of that game to Commissioner Selig on Wednesday.
"Yes, here we were in the midst of this horrible, horrendous tragedy," Selig said. "You cannot state it strongly enough how important getting baseball back on the field was."
Once again our national pastime served as a rallying point during an excruciating time.
It always has.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.