Baseball offers nation a familiar respite

Yogi Berra thinks President Roosevelt got it just right when he suggested that baseball, the national pastime, continue through World War II.

Fewer people might be in the stands, the quality of play might not be top-notch, and the headlines of the day might be about a tragedy on some far-off battlefield. But, somewhere, on some dirt mound, a man with a baseball was trying to throw it past a man with a bat.

"It takes your mind off things," says Mr. Berra, known just as well for his "Yogi-isms" as for his long career as a New York Yankees catcher. "Sports has always been good for anything you did. You have something to watch."

Starting today, New York and the rest of the country will get that chance when the road to the World Series starts anew, during a wartime setting, and the world champion Yankees start their defense against the Oakland Athletics team. It won't be easy: The Yankees have to get past a young and hungry Oakland team and then the winner of the Seattle-Cleveland matchup. Seattle has surpassed the record-breaking 1998 Yankees in terms of number of wins this season.

The playoffs will present the city - and the nation - with yet another chance to come together. Some think it would be fitting for the Yankees to win. It might bring extra tourists into New York - something it badly needs.

And the playoffs bring the country back to familiar territory, loaded with tradition.

"Tradition is very helpful in a time of crisis," says Allyce Najimy, chief operating officer of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

It is an opportunity that many New Yorkers are savoring. Last week, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told President Bush, who was visiting, that he couldn't wait to see the Yankees in the World Series again. The president called the mayor an incurable optimist.

Former Yankee left-hander Whitey Ford usually follows the games closely. But, he says, he hasn't had the interest to watch the games the past few weeks.

Yet now, he's now looking forward to the playoffs. "People will never forget what happened, but I think it will help," says Mr. Ford, author of the new book "Few and Chosen," a look at the great Yankee players.

Even if the Yankees don't win, their fans will realize it's not the end of the world, says Phil Pepe, co-author of the book. "This is the kind of thing that helps people get their minds off tragedy and fear, and if it accomplishes that, that's what sport was meant to do in the first place."

Just the fact they are in it, trying to win their fourth straight World Series, is a help to some. "The mood in the city if the Yankees had failed to make it, coupled with the Mets not getting there, would definitely make us feel that much worse about what had happened," says Bruce Garrison, a Manhattan lawyer. "You look at these sources of accomplishment in times like these. Another great showing would help us maintain some sort of optimism."

New York businesses could also use the boost. Last year, with the Mets and Yankees battling it out in the World Series, long lines formed outside of retailers as fans scooped up T-shirts, caps, and jackets. "It's Christmas for us," says Jack Perlman of Modell's Sporting Goods.

The enthusiasm spread to other segments of the economy, as residents felt good about themselves. Says Dominican taxi driver Jose Nunez: "The city is alive if the Yankees win."

Even some non-Yankee fans are supportive. Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly, not exactly a devotee of the Bronx Bombers, recently wrote, "It's hard to believe these words are coming out of my mouth, but it'd be sweet if we could have another Subway Series, just for the sheer joy it would bring New Yorkers. I'm a changed man. I love Yankees fans now. Please, put a hair in my soup. Grunt directions at me.... I know who you really are underneath."

Yankee fervor has even spread to Fenway Park in Boston. Well, OK, maybe those Red Sox fans aren't waving Yankee pennants, but they have stopped cursing the team. Ms. Najimy recently visited the stadium and noted that the fans did not boo when the Yankees were mentioned. "The rivalry does not seem that important anymore, and, of course, people have more compassion for New York," she says.

In fact, sports can help to heal society, she says. "Look at the values that sports promotes: teamwork, discipline, working to a common goal, and personal bests," she says. She believes the message is even reaching professional athletes, known for being long on narcissism. "We try to promote them as role models, and look what has happened: Michael Jordan is donating his entire salary to the relief effort."

In fact, athletes have been able to put their sport into perspective. Before one game, the New York Mets team all knelt in prayer. Almost every team has brought its city's police and firemen to the stadium to watch the games, which have been draped in patriotism. In one moving moment, Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter gave seats to the family of one of the pilots of a hijacked jet. He sent the pilot's two young daughters his glove, another player gave them a bat, and manager Joe Torre gave them the lineup card after the game.

This is the kind of inspiration that Mr. Roosevelt hoped baseball would do once World War II started. On Jan. 15, 1942, he wrote a letter to baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Landis. Said Roosevelt: "They [the American people] ought to have a chance for recreation and taking their minds off work even more than before."

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