October 10, 2001

The Human Side of Sports

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It was just about two hours before game time on Sunday. Five of us stood in the conference room in the Mets Executive Offices putting the finishing touches on the care bags — personalizing hats, jerseys, whatever it was we could find. It was my last day working as an intern for the Mets and I knew it would be sad on many levels — I would have to say goodbye to the close friends I had made over the summer and I would be parting with an organization that had given me the chance to pursue a career dream.

It meant that five o’clock would no longer be time to head down to the field to watch batting practice. But I never anticipated just how poignant a day it would be. When I arrived for work on Sunday morning, I learned we would be honoring some of the families of the fallen members of the New York Fire Department with a pre-game visit to the field where the children would have a chance to meet with players and tour the playing area. As I brought the souvenir bags down to meet the families, I must admit I was skeptical of the whole idea — in the wake of the unfathomable devastation these people must be suffering, what good would a visit to a ballpark do for them. It seemed almost perverse to me. And perhaps at the end of the day I maybe do not understand the logic any better.

What I can say is the experience put the events of the past month in context for me unlike anything else. I have heard it said that some people understand and internalize tragedies best through the lens of a photojournalist. Similarly, my experiences on Sunday left me with indelible images that I will forever remember.

I first met six-year-old Nicholas as I was making sure all the families had made it to the field. I was checking off names on a list. He tapped me on my back and questioned, “What’s your name? I’m Nicholas.” His eyes revealed a look of sadness in them, distinct from any expression I had ever read on a human face. Yet, at the same time, his behavior displayed a youthful innocence that to me seemed wholly incompatible with his sorrow.

After we exchanged names and he told me about his favorite and least favorite players on the team, he disappeared into the crowd of the 20 or so families on the field and repeated the same dialogue he had with me. He approached old and young alike uttering the same words: “What’s your name? I’m Nicholas.”

Later on as his guardian pulled him away from the crowd to tell him to stay close, he explained that he was only trying to make new friends. I never did find out if it was a father, brother or uncle that Nicholas lost in the tragedy, but it was clear that even in the face of unspeakable evil, he sought first and foremost to meet as many people as he could and tried to make as many ‘new friends’ as possible.

As the players slowly emerged from the clubhouse, one by one to greet the fans, it was clear that the athletes became more and more emotionally distraught as they exchanged handshakes and listened to the stories of surviving family members. I will not soon forget the look on Al Leiter’s face as he emerged from the dugout to see the throng of visitors. As he heard the tales of loss and looked into the eyes of the children, you could see the tears forming in his eyes. Cliched as it may be to say, at that point millions, fame, and glamour meant nothing to the former All-Star pitcher. As Leiter and his teammates moved down the line of people, they encountered some of the usual fans still had sporting balls and T-shirts to autograph. However, many chose not to offer baseball cards to be signed but rather showed pictures of their missing or deceased family members. Perhaps it was their way of coping with grief, or maybe it was a display of pride by the family members. To me, it crystallized the oft-mentioned idea that the true heroes in our lives are not those on the field, but those in our family and those working to improve the well being of their fellow citizens in communities across the country and the world. It made clear that in times like the ones we are facing, no one, regardless of status is exempt from the strain and uncertainty that lie ahead. Sports figures are often criticized for the excess power they hold in society. But Sunday afternoon showed that if the substantial amount of influence accorded to teams and leagues can be channeled properly, incredible good can be done. For some, it may have been the opportunity to experience the small dose of happiness that comes with meeting a player they admire. For some on the other side of the fence, the opportunity to be able to be part of the effort to comfort the victims was most significant.

Take head groundskeeper Pete Flynn who gathered the children and gave them the opportunity to prepare the field for the game. One of the most vividly etched memories of that day will always be the Marines entering to present the colors in the outfield as three lines of children cleaned the infield. It was an image that could help anyone takes solace in the strength and future of our nation. As game time approached, Mets manager Bobby Valentine prepared for the most difficult speech he would ever make. He wouldn’t be talking about wins and losses or pennant races and commitment. He gathered the children in attendance and walked them around the outfield before sitting down with them in shallow center field. No one else on the field or in the stadium could hear what he was saying. Perhaps he was talking to them about the need to persevere. Perhaps, he was speaking of the importance of what their loved ones had to done for the nation. One thing is for certain though — he had never spoken to a team with as much chemistry as the assembled group that day, for they bound a common experience that no mix of ballplayers could ever have. There is much we can learn from the visitors to Shea that day. Shouldn’t we all try to be more like young Nicholas? Why not try to make one ‘new friend’ a day? His actions embody our nation’s most pressing need — to forge relationships that transcend apparent differences. After all, as we face what promises to be one of the most trying and scary situations in our nations history we could all use a few more helping hands, a few more shoulders to cry on. Surely if a six-year old who just lost a relative can do it, we can take the time out of our busy, but far more fortunate lives. It can be as simple as a smile or a short “hello” when passing between classes. And maybe it will never have the monetary value of a Topps Sammy Sosa rookie card, but let’s try to put as much concern into the objects in life that help craft our identity. Instead of putting that extra money toward buying a plastic case for our prized baseball cards, let’s frame our most cherished family photos and ensure their future safekeeping. As game time was fast approaching, families mingled and realized similarities they never may have thought they shared. All around me, I was surrounded by the pride and fortitude that President Bush has so aptly described as characterizing our nation. The president has said that these events would test our nation’s resolve in maybe the outcome on the battlefield, which remains undetermined. Yet clearly on the field of Shea Stadium on Sunday, our citizens showed they were passing the test with flying colors.

Archived article by Gary Schueller