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The Long War & The Big Us

As U-S-A! U-S-A! was helpfully identified as the site of Sunday night’s Mets-Phillies game, my instinctive need for the Mets to prevail briefly melted away. It was the top of the ninth of an increasingly endless 1-1 deadlock. We’d just surrendered the tying run in the bottom of the eighth and, given the usual trajectory of these Citizens Bank Park affairs, it didn’t seem reflexively pessimistic to assume a) we wouldn’t score here and b) the Phillies would find a way to test Frankie Rodriguez’s anger-management resolve as soon as they took their next licks.

What difference does it make? I reasoned. Mets lose, Mets win…we got Bin Laden. Besides, Philadelphia is where our nation was founded. It’s where my favorite movie musical [1] was set. They’re Americans. We’re all Americans. That’s what matters tonight.

That feeling lasted maybe about a dozen U-S-A!s.

Not that the great news wasn’t great news; not that prioritization should be dismissed lightly; not that we’re all not in this together. We are all in this together…but the “this,” for the balance of the telecast in question, was the Mets and the Phillies. And I’m in this with the Mets, so I’ll decide what matters.

That’s freedom, baby. That’s what those scenes with William Daniels as John Adams, Howard Da Silva as Ben Franklin and Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson were getting at. Besides, the last time I defaulted to “baseball doesn’t really matter” was for reasons far less given over to cathartic chanting.

Baseball didn’t matter to me in the wake of September 11, 2001. Too much was too awful to indulge in anything that didn’t strike me as too significant. The off-field happenings of May 1, 2011, were the delayed response to that which, as one news anchor after another was happy to repeat, changed everything/changed America. Killing Bin Laden doesn’t equal Bin Laden killing nearly 3,000 people with one evil plot. It doesn’t end the longest war in American history. It isn’t the stuff of ticker-tape parades. But it is, as deaths go, the best one I’ve ever lived through — and while I wanted to hear all about it [2], I didn’t see any point in consigning the Mets to doesn’t-matter territory.

The Mets always matter unless there’s something so horrific going on in the background that we can’t possibly wrap our heads around them. We’ve had one of those, and even if its aftermath may never be fully resolved, I’m not shopping around for another one.


Since the news anchors were also vigilant enough to let us know in the same breath that they were breaking their breaking news to us that we’d also never forget where we were when we found out about it, I’ll throw my two instant-recollection cents in and report that I was…well, I was watching the Mets game. I was doing it like the dinosaur I am at heart. I didn’t have my Droid on, thus no Twitter. I don’t own a laptop. My computer was upstairs while I was downstairs. And I hadn’t changed the channel from ESPN since about 9 o’clock, so anything that was going on in the world — and what could possibly be going that’s more important than the Mets and Phillies on Sunday Night Baseball if Mad Men is out of season? — wasn’t going to be known by me unless Dan Shulman told me about it.

A few minutes before eleven, Stephanie and I were in the kitchen, reassuring Hozzie that in a manner of minutes his bowl would be refilled, please calm down kitty. I could overhear, from the living room, Shulman saying something about “president” and “White House” and “statement” (or maybe “press conference”) and how we should all tune in to ABC News. I put Hozzie’s late supper on hold and, through the miracle of DVR, rewound Shulman.

“Hey! We killed Bin Laden!” I told Stephanie, debating even as I relayed the news whether “we” had done anything. I didn’t go to Afghanistan. I didn’t cross the border into Pakistan. I was never even in the Cub Scouts. But if “we” could be trying to keep Raul Ibañez mired in his massive slump, then I guess “we” could bring a war criminal to justice.

Stephanie went to bed just before the U-S-A! chants went up, just after I turned to MSNBC (against ESPN’s direct orders) to get a fuller picture. Since President Obama had the nerve to dot every “i” and cross every “t” before publicly confirming this particular development — and because I couldn’t take one more pontificating moment of Brian Williams, David Gregory and everybody else on every channel I checked letting me know how I was going to remember where I was when they told me I would remember where I was — I went back to the game, keeping an eye out via P-I-P for when Obama would actually speak.

The Mets didn’t score off Ryan Madson. The Phillies didn’t score off Frankie Rodriguez. Nothing much, besides pretty decent relief pitching, was going on in the baseball game even as everything was going on around the baseball game. Still couldn’t completely tear myself away except during commercials. I’d devoted the bulk of three-plus hours to this. If it wasn’t quite The Long War Afghanistan had unfurled into since the fall of 2001, it showed no signs of either ceasing or desisting.

I don’t remember if it was before or after Obama made his rather brisk and relatively succinct remarks that the talking heads (MSNBC, CNN, ESPN…whoever) said something about “closure,” as if it had just been issued by the Department of Talking Points. Bin Laden’s existence was certainly closed out, and that was surely a mission worth accomplishing, but I kind of doubt everything about the past ten years is simply sealed for good now.

As I drifted out of news analysis and back to play-by-play, it really hit me how long this had been going on — the big “this”…the everything changed/America changed this. Ten years is a substantial swath of time in anyone’s life, yet little of this feels like we’re One Decade Later from that day in 2001.

It’s been with us every single day as far as I can tell. We got past the initial shock, the part where we decide the non-essential things that matter to us don’t, but proliferation of nifty electronic devices aside, are we off into a distant future from where we were nearly ten years ago? Are we “over” it?

How the hell do you get over something like that?

That’s only a partially rhetorical question, because on one hand I don’t know how you would, and on the other hand I don’t know that we should. Maybe we should. Maybe ten years of proceeding as if something horrendous just happened and that we have to take every theoretical precaution to ensure, to the best of our abilities, that it doesn’t happen again isn’t a futile endeavor. But leaving out whether poking around in our bags on our way into ballgames or growing used to soldiers in camouflage carrying machine guns in Penn Station is a viable deterrent against anything that would harm us, maybe we need to keep remembering…keep being reminded.

Maybe we shouldn’t be able to walk by a firehouse and not think of the sacrifices people make for people they’ve never met and may never meet. Maybe we shouldn’t fail to rise and applaud heartily the almost routine but never rote salute to the Veteran of the Game. Maybe that almost anachronistic faded miniature American flag inside my rear windshield stays put for a good reason. Maybe I’m right to continue to avoid calling a catcher who got a key hit a “hero” because I took very seriously the admonition ten Septembers back that the real heroes in our society aren’t its athletes.

Or maybe there’s a statute of limitations on undying awareness of everything that was top of mind nearly a decade ago. “Survivor’s guilt,” a friend of mine calls it. I’m a New Yorker who was nowhere near New York on September 11. I was in Las Vegas for a beer wholesalers convention. Sounds like a wild scene, but trust me, it wasn’t. I was unable to get a flight home for five days, but my guilt isn’t over complaining ten years ago that I had to spend five extra days in a hotel room in Las Vegas nursing a head cold and getting nowhere with airlines (I hated it there, but I could think of thousands of folks in precarious circumstances who would have gladly traded predicaments with me). The guilt came from being so far away in the first place.

When I learned of and processed the events of 9/11 from TV, I took it that the terrorists had attacked New York. I mean New York was who they were going after. The Pentagon and other short-circuited D.C. targets notwithstanding, it never occurred to me they were going after the United States. As such, I felt irresponsible for not being in New York while it was going on. I should have been there. Never mind that I didn’t live or work close to the World Trade Center (my office then was at Ninth and Broadway). Never mind that I probably would have been on the Long Island Rail Road at the instant the first plane hit, and that’s assuming I had my ass in uncharacteristic gear that morning. Never mind that I brought no special skill to bear that would have been of any use to anybody in the state of emergency that gripped Lower Manhattan.

I wasn’t there. I wasn’t nearby. I was completely out of town, completely out of the Metropolitan Area. It beat the hell out of being on a 107th floor quite obviously — it also beat the hell of what my wife went through, having to dash across the Williamsburg Bridge from her then-office on Park Place just around the corner from the Twin Towers — but it was somehow wrong to me. New York is attacked, and I’m in Nevada. What’s my problem?

So I didn’t get to be a New Yorker in New York’s hour of distress. Instead, I had to settle for being an American. I was with the rest of them, if you will. They’re not bad sorts necessarily, but they’re not us. At least that’s how I saw it for five days in Las Vegas.

Eventually it sunk in that there’s us, as in New Yorkers; and us as in Mets fans; but there’s also us as in Americans. The Big Us, if you will. The Big Us was on display in Philadelphia last night. The Big Us was chanting U-S-A! The Big Us was or wasn’t receiving closure from the president’s announcement, but it wasn’t just for citizens of one city and its outlying suburbs. It was for everybody who makes up The Big Us.

I would have chanted with those Phillies fans last night, at least until they went back to being them.


This morning, I dropped Stephanie off at the LIRR station and then pulled into the parking lot of our local Walgreens. A woman was standing outside the store in a Yankees jacket. As ever, I bristled a little bristle because that’s what Yankees garb of any kind makes me do. Then I looked down and realized I was wearing a Mets jacket, my oldest still-active model, purchased in 1998.

It’s as likely as not that I was wearing it or one of its now long-running counterparts ten years ago today. They were all in my closet in 2001 and they’re all there now. Different closet, same jackets. Same Mets fan.

And I was back to Sunday night before stepping into Walgreens. I was thinking about SNY’s postgame show. The Mets won their battle in 14 innings — endless enough, but somewhat short of a long war in baseball terms. We saw one of those from St. Louis last year [3]. We saw outfielders pitching and pitchers in the outfield. Last night the closest we came was Chris Capuano temporarily on deck and Cole Hamels grounding out to second. Ronny Paulino’s fifth hit in seven attempts and Taylor Buchholz’s outbreak of effectiveness kept this game from stretching into the absurd category.

I was glad. Lengthy was OK, but absurd would have been disrespectful.

Anyway, we won and I tuned in to the postgame. Four of every five questions asked of Terry Collins and Chris Young and Pedro Beato and all-purpose sage R.A. Dickey were about the news of the death of Bin Laden. Well, of course they were. The Mets-Phillies game was to this story what the Patriots and Dolphins were for John Lennon’s murder [4], what the Knicks and Rockets were for the low-speed chase of O.J. Simpson. And then throw in how the Mets were present and accounted for so sturdily after September 11, 2001, well, ya gotta ask the Mets what this meant to them.

That’s when the Big Us kicked in again. Collins and Young and Beato and Dickey and David Wright (whose answers I missed initially but were, as always, sought and recorded [5]) spoke for the Mets because they are the Mets at the moment. They were Americans in 2001 if not Mets. They were entitled to their opinions even if their connection to New York didn’t necessarily stretch back that far (though for Young, then attending Princeton, and Beato, a high school freshman at Xaverian in Brooklyn, it did). Nevertheless, I yearned for Robin Ventura and Todd Zeile and maybe Mike Piazza to somehow emerge in this clubhouse and take some questions.

This is their game, I thought first last night and again as I stared at my well-worn jacket this morning. They should have won in 14 innings the night Bin Laden was killed. Those were our guys that September and October. I’m including October because the 2001 season was pushed back a week when Bud Selig postponed games from 9/11 through 9/16. Everybody remembers Shea on September 21 and Piazza’s home run. Does anybody (besides me [6]) remember later? Say, Shea on October 7? That was the cold, windy Closing Day when Gary Cohen finished giving the lineups on WFAN and then threw it to George Bush who announced we would be going to Afghanistan.

“As the national anthem was being sung,” Bob Herzog wrote in the next day’s Newsday, “manager Bobby Valentine and several players remained in the locker room, watching President Bush’s televised address about the Untied States’ attack on Afghanistan.” Valentine said, “I don’t know how we started the game. It seemed like everyone was listening to the president’s speech.”

Zeile was among them. “That,” our 2001 first baseman posited, “says something about the state of affairs in the world. Since September 11, a lot of what people thought was important has changed in this country.”

Ten years go by. There’s a different president. There are different Mets. There’s still a speech. It’s still about Afghanistan. There’s Young, in for Zeile, explaining that yes, he was watching Obama speak on one of the two clubhouse monitors after he was pulled following seven innings of two-hit ball. “There are some things in life,” he said in a clear Zeile-like echo, “that are bigger than a game.”

It’s still going on, I thought. Something great — definitely something justified — has taken place, but it’s still going on. Extra innings end. Seasons end. Managerial tenures end. Beloved skippers from 2001 morph into goofy (but well-meaning [7]) television analysts in 2011. But there are still Mets compelled to address questions stemming from one day from ten years ago. We still have troops over there ten years later because of that one day from ten years ago. That one day from ten years ago hangs heavy in the air over New York long after the smoke has cleared from Ground Zero.

There is no closure. There are the Mets, though. And there is my Mets jacket, which — like the Mets outlasting the Phillies in fourteen — matters. I say it does, so it does.