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"God Bless America" and baseball, 10 years later

By Howie Rumberg

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 10 2011 11:45 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 17, 2001 file picture, members of the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks meet in the center of the infield to hold the American flag during the singing of "God Bless America" and the national anthem to mark the first baseball game in Denver's Coors Field, since the terrorist attacks on the United States. Six days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Major League Baseball returned to the field with a new ritual. During the seventh-inning stretch, a moment typically reserved for "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," another song played at parks around the country: "God Bless America." Everybody sang along, that night and for weeks afterward. Even today, two teams play the patriotic tune at every game and "God Bless America" has become woven into the baseball experience.

David Zalubowski, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

NEW YORK — Six days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Major League Baseball returned to the field with a new ritual. During the seventh-inning stretch, a moment typically reserved for "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," another song played at parks around the country: "God Bless America."

Everybody sang along, that night and for weeks afterward.

In a riveting World Series that year between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Yankees, one of the most enduring memories came during Game 3 in New York, when 56,000 people at Yankee Stadium joined in a melancholy rendition of the tune as a tattered flag recovered at the World Trade Center site fluttered on a pole above the center field scoreboard.

At a time when America was still in shock over Al-Qaida's strike on U.S. soil, baseball was there to help start the healing.

"It sent chills down and a lot of tears," Commissioner Bud Selig remembered. "Almost overpoweringly emotional."

Ten years later, "God Bless America" has become woven into the fabric of the baseball experience. It's played on Sundays, holidays, special occasions and even every game in the case of two teams, the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.

Certainly, when the song is sung, Sept. 11 is prominent in the minds of many New Yorkers. Grief psychologist Barbara Okun says it takes several generations for a tragedy on such a massive scale — the obvious comparison is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — to lose its visceral impact and fade into history.

And with troops still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Irving Berlin tune has taken on a broader significance.

"I think everyone was grieving then, but things change in their meaning and functionality. I think it's different," said Okun, a professor at Northeastern University. "I really look at when we do something patriotic, it's not just for those victims — it's for all the victims of tyranny and warfare and terrorism."

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, major sporting events around the country came to abrupt halt.

Selig postponed the full schedule of games for almost a week — the longest stoppage other than for strikes since 1918, when World War I forced the cancellation of the final month of the season.

Shea Stadium became a staging area for relief supplies. Mets manager Bobby Valentine helped run the operation, organizing "people coming in off the streets" to lend a hand. Mets and Yankees players visited first responders. The Yankees all went to an Armory where families were waiting to hear about their missing loved ones.

When games resumed on Sept. 17, teams wore the Stars and Stripes on their uniforms. The Mets wore caps with the NYPD and NYFD inscriptions rather than their interlocking NY. Opposing players met on the field for handshakes before the start of the games.

All the teams, at the request of the commissioner, swapped out "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" for "God Bless America."

The Mets put on a spirit-raising show for 41,000 fans when baseball finally returned to New York on Sept. 21. Mike Piazza, after choking up during pregame ceremonies, hit a homer in the eighth inning to lift the Mets over the Atlanta Braves.

"It was probably the most special night I've spent at a ballpark, with the Mets," Mets executive vice president David Howard said. "Piazza's homer, it was magical."

The singing of "God Bless America" sticks with Valentine.

"There was a physical feeling, the chills and leg shaking a little and all those emotional adrenaline rushes," he said "There was sadness, there was anger, there was patriotism, there was the idea of what can you do and how can you do more of it."

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