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Sports heal when the heart breaks

When 58 people were shot at a Las Vegas country concert last year, the Golden Knights hadn’t played an NHL game. What should have been an opening ceremony filled with fanfare and celebration, instead, turned into a tribute to those who lost their lives.

The Knights had a storied inaugural season. They defied odds with a group of misfits essentially thrown out by their former teams. Vegas would ultimately lose in Game 5 to the Washington Capitals.

When the Boston Marathon was bombed in April 2013, the Red Sox were on their way to Cleveland. They had Boston’s area code sewed onto those jerseys when they took the field the next day, and the unofficial Red Sox anthem, Sweet Caroline, played at Jacobs Field. Boston Strong became their mantra, the jerseys switched from the normal “Red Sox” emblazoned across the front to “Boston.” Big Papi started his first game that season after telling the city “Nobody gonna dictate our freedom.” The Red Sox would go on to be World Series champions that year.

Seventeen years ago, when America was attacked on Sept. 11, baseball stopped. Then Commissioner Bud Selig canceled games that night, then later all games that week.

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Joe Torre, Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter went to the Armory. That’s where families were gathering to hear about their missing loved ones. Bernie and Jeter both said they weren’t sure what was expected of them, but they had to do something. Bernie saw a woman crying, walked up to her and said “I don’t know what to say, but you look like you need a hug.”

Play resumed on Sept. 18, the Yankees were in Chicago facing the White Sox. A banner was unfurled reading “Chicago <3 N.Y. God Bless America.” Every fan who entered the stadium got an American Flag, there was a candle ceremony before the first pitch honoring those who lost their lives. The prior week’s terrorist attacks were front and center in everyone’s minds.

And then the players took the field. Suddenly, Americans had something else to focus on, we didn’t have to think about whether another attack was coming, we only had to worry about Orlando Hernandez throwing strikes. The Yankees went on to score 11 runs, beating the White Sox 11-3.

The Mets were the first team to play at home following the attacks. NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani received a standing ovation, later saying things would return to normal when he got booed at the stadium. The Mets swapped their normal caps for NYPD and FDNY hats, an emotional ceremony took place before the game – and then, like something out of a movie, the Mets healed the city.

They faced the Oakland A’s. Down a run late in the game, Queens sweetheart Mike Piazza was up to bat. He hit a homerun. Shea Stadium went wild. Piazza said he was just doing what was expected of him, but for New Yorkers, it was the healing they needed.

The Bronx Bombers would go onto the World Series in 2001, ultimately losing to the Arizona Diamondbacks. They lost the first three games, and returned to NY needing some wins. That Yankee magic was in full effect. They won all three games at home, President Bush threw out the first pitch – a perfect strike down the middle. New York did it’s best to return to it’s new normal.

Sports don’t take away the pain forever, they don’t make us forget the terrible tragedies we face. But for a few hours, they give us a distraction. They heal us.

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