One month after the September 11th attacks, President Bush stood atop the pitcher’s mound in old Yankee Stadium before game 3 of the 2001 World Series and delivered the best first pitch ever thrown by a president. It was a fastball that thundered down the heart of the plate for a strike. Some say they never heard Yankee Stadium so loud.
First pitches at baseball games rarely have a lot of significance, but President Bush’s did. Indeed, one could argue that it embodied the thoughts and feelings not only of New Yorkers, but of Americans across the country. As then-mayor Rudy Giuliani said, it showed the world that “we’re not afraid,” that “we’re undeterred” and that “life is moving on the way it should.”
Although the Yankees lost that World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks, they’ve made the playoffs eight times since 2001, with much of their success coming at the expense of the Boston Red Sox.
Inasmuch as the Yankees are the sworn enemy of the Red Sox, New Yorkers stood in solidarity with their neighbors to the east following the bombings at the Boston Marathon last week. Before their game with the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday, April 16th, the Yankees held a moment of silence for the victims of the attacks. Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” the unofficial anthem of the Boston Red Sox, subsequently played over the PA system.
The terrorists who committed those atrocities may have accomplished their intended goals, but much like New Yorkers in the days and weeks after the September 11th attacks, the resolve of Bostonians has only grown stronger, due in no small part to their love of sports.
In fact, if you look at American history over the past 100 years, you’ll see that sports have played a large role in helping us come together as a society.
One person whose life helped us in such a way was Jackie Robinson. Robinson was the first black player to play in the Major Leagues. He was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 14th, 1947 – a full eight years before the Supreme Court unanimously declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional.
His speed on the base path, uncanny ability to play multiple positions, and his .311 career batting average resulted in his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Robinson’s journey, however, was not easy. Opposing pitchers would throw at him on purpose. Fans would heckle him. His own teammates voiced their opposition to playing with him. And during road games Robinson often times had to stay in a separate hotel.
Following his death in October of 1972, Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, established the Jackie Robinson Foundation - an organization whose generous scholarship program has helped changed the lives of millions of Americans.
You don’t have to know everything there is about Jackie Robinson to know that his athletic career helped us grow as a nation. Indeed, according to a recent Rasmussen Reports survey, 52% of Americans believe sports have helped race relations in America.
Sports, however, can do a lot more than that. Sports can inspire us too – like when Jesse Owens won the 100M dash under the watchful eye of Adolph Hitler at the 1936 Olympics. Sports can make us believe we can do anything we put our mind to – like when the 1980 USA hockey team defeated the USSR. And sports can help thaw international relations – like ping pong diplomacy between the U.S. and China during the Cold War.
Sports, in other words, can do a lot. As I wrote last week in a column entitled “Winning doesn’t take care of everything,” it’s only when “we spend too much time focusing only on sports” that our relationship with God deteriorates. Sports, by and large, are good for us.
So, as we continue to pray for those affected by the senseless bombings in Boston, let us remember that sports have an important role to play in the healing of our nation going forward. They always have and they always will.