It was all supposed to change after 9/11, remember? We weren't going to use war metaphors when talking about sports anymore. We were going to keep in mind the relative unimportance of this or that ballgame, the ultimate meaninglessness of who got that last playoff spot or whether the home team picked a cover corner or a possession receiver in the fourth round of the draft, because the terrorist attacks, the lost lives, the pain, had put sports in perspective.
A year later, it hasn't worked out that way. Just as irony hasn't died, as famously predicted, and just as blow-'em-ups still kill at the box office and reality television is simultaneously more pointless and popular than ever, the sports world has blithely returned to business as usual.
Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden got a bunch of noses out of joint by proclaiming that "Let's Roll," the phrase uttered by a passenger just before he and others overpowered the hijackers of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, would be his team's slogan for the year. A football game between amiable sometime rivals Missouri and Illinois two weeks ago was called "The Border War."
"He is a warrior," Arizona Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis said this week about Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys. "The bigger the game, the longer it goes, the stronger he gets."
"I think Trent is a warrior; he's been trained through adversity probably better than most starters in the National Football League," said Kansas City Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil about his so-so quarterback, Trent Green, last week.
Writing in the New York Post Friday, Steve Serby called Giants rookie Jeremy Shockey's game face "a refuse-to-lose face, a warrior face that Lawrence Taylor always used to wear."
I would submit that none of this is a bad thing, that we haven't forgotten about the carnage of a year ago just because we live and die -- so to speak -- with some team or shout "Kill the ump!" or refer to a fourth-quarter comeback as "courageous," even when that comeback was made by a football team whose "adversity" was a 10-point deficit, not by firefighters whose adversity was a burning, collapsing skyscraper. Using the words "Let's roll" without being in the clutches of killer hijackers does not mean we've forgotten the bravery of the passengers who used it when they were.
What we've done is gotten back to the living of our lives, which for many of us includes watching and thinking about and talking about and arguing about sports. Sports is not our national religion, as some have overstated, and we showed that a year ago when we put the games aside for a while. Ballgames seemed suddenly unimportant in the wake of 9/11 because they had suddenly become unimportant. But that doesn't mean they weren't important Sept. 10, or that they're not important now.
A few weeks ago, I told a friend that I'd been lucky enough to see a triple play in a Northern League baseball game in Schaumburg, Ill. He responded by saying that enjoying sports is a matter of suspension of disbelief. If you convince yourself that a triple play in a bush-league game is somehow important, he said, it becomes exciting, just as a triple play in a major league game is exciting only if we've convinced ourselves that it's somehow important.
But the thing is: It's all important. Not because the Schaumburg Flyers really needed to get out of a jam in their game against the Sioux Falls Canaries, but because it gives us something to talk about, something to connect to each other with, something to appreciate. It's important the way Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" is important, not because we need it to live, but because we use it to give shape and meaning to our lives.
I know that sounds silly. A Randy Johnson fastball equals a Rembrandt painting equals a Shakespeare sonnet equals a Kobe Bryant dunk. I can enjoy Rembrandt as much as the next guy. Love what he could do with a dead peacock. But if a tackle-breaking run through the secondary by a tailback gives me the same pleasure, fills me equally with wonder, inspires me in the same way that a Rembrandt painting does, what difference is there? Rembrandt was just as meaningless last Sept. 12 as Emmitt Smith was.
Thirteen years ago I was in a bar on the Lower East Side, 3,000 miles from home, in the process of being stood up by a friend, when I overheard the local boys at the next table trying to stump each other with sports trivia. One guy had his buddies giving up on a question when I leaned over with the right answer. I instantly had a new bunch of friends for the night. I can go on at some length about a lot of things other than sports -- Eddie Cochran, burritos, the Gold Rush -- but what are the odds of randomly finding someone else who's interested? Thanks to sports, I share something with millions of people all over the country, and it's something we consider meaningful.
Even though sports isn't my favorite thing to sit and talk about, I revel in the fact that it's the most immediate connection I'm most likely to have with a countryman. How great is that, compared to the connection that a couple of Catholics from Ulster might have on meeting in a New York bar, or a pair of former Haitian refugees?
Just as we can't live the rest of our lives actively grieving for the dead of 9/11, and we can't spend our days scanning the sky for hijacked jets pointed at our heads, we also can't tiptoe around the playing field forever. We don't expect an announcer to say, "That was a gritty ninth-inning comeback by the A's, Jim, though of course not as gritty as the brave firefighters and police officers who rushed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 ..."
We realize, when we say that some second-tier quarterback who's hung in there through injuries and losing is a "warrior," that we're talking within the context of football, an essentially meaningless game that has exactly the meaning we assign to it. We're smart enough to know, we sports fans, that his courage, though real, is not the same kind of courage shown by the rescue workers or the Marines hitting the beach. We're just living our lives here, getting back to normal.
That seems like a victory to me.