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Sports can eventually help us heal

In the movie “Rudy,” the title character affirms his passionate desire to attend Notre Dame during a modest lunchroom celebration of his 22nd birthday with steel mill co-worker and best friend Pete.

After Rudy acknowledges that Pete is the only person who ever took him seriously, Pete responds, “You know what my dad always said: ‘Having dreams is what makes life tolerable.'”

That sentiment is likely shared by many throughout the country and around the world right now, particularly by fans of America’s pastime. Baseball has long served as the universal prescription for a troubled mind, aching heart and deflated spirit.

Mild weather promised a cooperative start to the baseball season at all levels and nearly all regions of the country.

Then came the invasion of the coronavirus.

The suspension of play is not unprecedented. For six days after 9/11, the ballparks were empty as the nation coped with the impact of the terrorist attacks and enhanced security measures were instituted.

Already, there is a feeling of inevitability that lifestyle changes, many to become permanent, are on the horizon for global society. That is just one of numerous parallels between the current health crisis and the terrorist attacks in America in September 2001.

Once our new normal arrives, the significance of spectator sports will supersede entertainment, as was the case after 9/11.

A past exhibit at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum explored “how sports and athletes helped to unite a country, consoled a grieving nation and gave us a reason to cheer again following the 2001 attacks.”

The exhibit highlighted the Sept. 23 NASCAR race at Dover International Speedway, which was the largest post-9/11 gathering of any type.

A quote from NASCAR President Mike Helton is particularly relevant to a major consideration that sports fans in America will face, hopefully in the near, rather than distant, future: Is it now safe to participate in a public event with a crowd in the thousands?

“With the heightened sense of vulnerability, it felt like a real leap of faith. But what we were doing was leaping back into our normal lives,” Helton said.

A theme of the 9/11 exhibit was that sporting events were occasions for fans to draw strength from simply being together. After this extended period of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, people are longing for the sense of community and shared experiences that sporting events provide.

As Hilary Giorgi wrote in a 9/11 retrospective for Yankees Magazine, the world changed after the terrorist attacks, but sports remained nearly the same, “And that comfort and consistency was so crucial in a time of distress.”

Following the traumas, frustrations and sacrifices that so many will have endured during the coronavirus pandemic, future sporting events will be sources of comfort, relaxation and renewal.

These events will also provide opportunities to publicly recognize the heroes in the community who willingly jeopardized their own health to help and serve others.

With each opportunity to honor these selfless individuals who are providing essential services, heart-felt care, and most importantly, hope, the dreams of sports fans everywhere will be fulfilled.

And at ballparks across the land, that familiar pronouncement from the home plate umpire will once again double as a rallying cry for a nation in recovery. “Play Ball!”

Jim Caltagirone resides in Altoona. He is an occasional contributor to Voice of the Fan.

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