The phenomenon has happened time and time again. It followed the events of October 17, 1989; September 11, 2001; August 29, 2005; and April 15, 2013. In every instance, an enormous tragedy had shaken a city. Still reeling from the pain of each disturbing incident, the city’s population took emotional refuge in their local sports team. Whether it was the Bay Area after the Loma Prieta earthquake, New York City after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or Boston after the Boston Marathon bombings, the games and success of the respective sports teams took on special emphasis. Sports teams, particularly football and baseball teams due to their popularity, allow cities that have experienced serious devastation a forum to unite and recover from whatever disaster occurred.
A Series-ous Stoppage
Prior to Game 3 of the 1989 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics, a 15 second-long earthquake that measured 6.9 on the Richter scale brought the Bay Area to a standstill. The damage caused by the earthquake was extensive: 63 people killed, 3,757 reported injured, 12,053 displaced, thousands of aftershocks, and up to $10 billion in damage. Infamously, the upper level of the Bay Bridge collapsed as a result of the tremors. One fan already at Candlestick Park, the home stadium of the Giants, reported that during the earthquake the right-field foul pole was “bouncing back and forth, like a needle on a metronome.” Major League Baseball immediately postponed Game 3, disrupting the World Series for 10 days.
After the earthquake, life in the Bay Area was anything but normal. Pat Gallagher, the Giants senior vice-president, recalled, “The only thing active was the seagulls.” All the clocks on the sides of San Francisco buildings had stopped at the same time. When the World Series finally did resume, it restored some semblance of normalcy to an area still profoundly shaken by a recent disaster. Before the rescheduled Game 3, several emergency first responders were honored and threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Although the A’s ended up sweeping the Giants, the final two World Series game had tremendous significance. They demonstrated that the Bay Area would recover. The games distracted people from the detritus, both physical and emotional, that surrounded them wherever they looked. Most importantly, the World Series served to comfort the Bay Area community.
The Beneficial Bronx Bombers
On September 10, 2001, the MLB postponed the New York Yankees game against the Boston Red Sox due to rain. Everyone was disappointed that Roger Clemens would be unable to win his 20th game of the season against his former team. Even Yankees manager Joe Torre acknowledged, “It would’ve been great theater.” Fans and players went home unaware that the Yankees would not play again for another eight days.
The tragedy of September 11 cannot be adequately explained in words, and although pictures do a better job of conveying the horror of that day, still much is lost. In the following days and weeks, not only New York City, but also the nation as a whole, struggled to comprehend the events that had just transpired. As the initial response to the traumatic incident began to slowly transform into grief, baseball resumed. People were skeptical about having baseball games only six days after the attacks, but Scott Brosius, the third baseman of the Yankees at that time, recalled, “When we got back and started playing again, we realized how important playing was to the healing process, especially in New York.” The Yankees, already a dominant symbol, took on an even larger burden of responsibility and pride. David Justice, an outfielder for the Yankees, acknowledged that after September 11, the team was “playing for all the families who had lost relatives, all the people who were negatively impacted by that event.” When the city needed its team more than ever, they were eager to respond and help.
In a perfect world, the Yankees would have won the World Series that year. It would have been their fourth consecutive championship, but instead they lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 7 on a walk-off single by Luis Gonzalez. Regardless, the success of the Yankees expressed the resiliency of New York. Each regular season, playoff, and World Series game provided an invaluable distraction and a much-needed escape for every citizen of the United States, but particularly New Yorkers. Former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani remarked that the 2001 World Series showed “how much baseball means to people … what it can do for a community … and that baseball came along at just the right moment.” Through America’s pastime, people found an outlet for some of the anxiety and pain that they had just experienced with each triumph, or failure for that matter, of their hometown team. The city lived vicariously through its team, uniting everyone around a common fandom.
More than Saints
Hurricane Katrina did more than devastate the city of New Orleans; in some parishes, it just about eliminated it. Causing over $100 billion in damage and putting 80 percent of the city underwater, Katrina transformed New Orleans into a “total disaster zone.” Twenty thousand people sought refuge in the Superdome, the home of the Saints, New Orleans’ football team. From that very moment, the revered Saints became downright sacred to its population. Although the Saints were forced to play their entire 2005 season at either the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas or Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, their home opener in 2006 at the Superdome had a sellout crowd of 70,003. Despite the Saints struggles from 2005 through 2008, the Saints fans continued to buy tickets in droves. In fact, support for the Saints skyrocketed after the hurricane. The unbelievable loyalty of the fans was rewarded in 2009 when the Saints achieved the ultimate success in the NFL: winning the Super Bowl.
When the Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts for Super Bowl XLIV, New Orleans jubilantly erupted. For so many fans like Cindy Davis, who sought refuge in the New Orleans convention center during Katrina, the Saints, as she told ABC News, were essential for giving “everyone a common ground,” and bringing “everyone together.” While local football fans had suffered for years with a mediocre football team, pejoratively nicknamed the “Ain’ts”, the Saints’ ultimate success gave all city residents a reason to be proud once more.
The 2013 World Champion Boston Red Sox purposefully associated themselves with the Boston Marathon tragedy soon after the bombings when they chose to hang a Red Sox uniform in their dugout with the number 617, Boston’s area code. The jersey also sported the phrase of recovery, Boston Strong. The team’s self-appointed mission was to give Boston something to cheer. After David Ortiz unleashed an emotional speech, punctuated by one strong expletive, at a pregame ceremony five days after the events, that mission could not have been clearer.
The concept of ‘Boston Strong’ did not fade away with this team as the season progressed, but rather stayed with them just like the patch on the sleeve of their jerseys. As the magical season culminated in winning the American League East, the American League championship, and finally the World Series, both the team and city seemed to have recovered from the April tragedy. Fans have echoed the sentiments of Mark Porcaro, a Boston native, who told the Associated Press, “We needed this. They were an easy team to get behind because they stood up for us when we need them most.” Through the team that epitomizes their city, Bostonians were able to heal from the psychological wounds of that horrible attack.
Throughout the entire season, the Red Sox emphasized honoring all those impacted by the bombings. Everyone associated with that day, from the first responders to the victims and their families to the police, were in some way acknowledged over the course of the year. During the playoffs, the outfield grass was mowed into the “B Strong” logo. After the team beat the Cardinals in Game 6 to clinch victory, Jon Lester, the ace of the Red Sox pitching staff, tweeted, “First and foremost, to all the Marathon victims, this one’s for you! #BostonStrong.” Through their interviews and their actions, Red Sox players stressed the importance of wanting to help out Boston however they could. As the celebrations in Boston raged into the wee hours of October 30, it was remarkable to think how much the city had rebounded in six months.
The Value of Sports
In a recent article, Bill Simmons, a sports columnist, argued, “Sports put everything else in perspective.” He observed, “Our favorite teams bring people together, keep family members close, bond people from different generations.” All that is true, but sports also allow us to heal in a manner no other outlet can provide. Nothing can replicate the feeling of unity and togetherness like being among thousands of other strangers unanimously cheering on the hometown team. We live vicariously through sports teams, in awe of their ability to play a game. How perfect that these athletes can also help us recover from the most traumatic of events. These tragedies give both us fans and the players a perspective on how unimportant at some level sports really are, and yet sports are vital because they can give us moments of respite in times of tragedy, and truly lift the human spirit.
Photo Credits: Sports Illustrated and Wikimedia Commons