Monday, May 2, 2011

Reality Check

I usually attend sporting events to temporarily escape from reality.

Regardless of the sport, I try to arrive at the ballpark/stadium/arena as early as possible...and I don't leave until I'm practically being shoved toward the exit. It is not an attempt to prove that I'm a "bigger fan" than anyone else, or to avoid the traffic that comes with attending such events. It is because I enjoy it, and I want to maximize the experience.

Early arrival at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park

If I'm having a problem with my career, a relationship, friendships, family matters, or anything else...this is my sanctuary. For a few hours, I can clear my head and simply watch a game...along with all that accompanies it.

Simple plan for a Sunday night -- food, relaxation, and baseball

Sunday, May 1st started out that way. It was a ho-hum trip to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia for a ho-hum ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game between the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies. There was a simple plan involved -- drive there, relax, eat, watch batting practice, walk to my seat, watch the game, and head home.

Game night in Philly

I did not expect it to turn into one of the biggest "Where were you when...?" moments of my lifetime...for a reason completely unrelated to sports.

It all started with the Mets nursing a 1-0 lead in the 8th inning. While watching the game from Section 421, my cell phone buzzed in my jeans' pocket. Thinking it was something regarding the game, I decided to check. Imagine my surprise when I read the following text message from one of my friends -- "Unscheduled Presidential news conference at 10:30 about national security...odd" on the screen.

While I was in my baseball sanctuary, real news was occurring

As a news journalist in real-life, my mind began to wander. Why is this happening on a Sunday night? Was there a foiled terror plot? Is there a major threat out there?

Surprise turned to shock when the same friend sent another text minutes later -- "bin Laden dead."

Soon after that, there were more texts saying that Osama bin Laden -- the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks and numerous other terrorism events through his al Qaeda network -- had met his demise.

What the rest of the world was watching

Little-by-little, word began to spread throughout Citizens Bank Park. Those checking text and voice messages, as well as social networking sites, were learning about the apparent news. A buzz was building among the sold-out crowd of 45,713...and it wasn't only because the Phillies were threatening to score in the bottom of the 8th.

When Phillies' 1st baseman Ryan Howard singled to bring home the tying run, the crowd cheered...but still seemed distracted. Suddenly, the ballgame directly in front of them was becoming secondary to the news that was reverberating throughout the park. Was it true, after all? If so, how did it happen?

Ryan Howard strokes a game-tying single to left field

The next few minutes were a rather incredible indication of technology's role in today's society, coupled with word-of-mouth. It's important to note that there was never any official announcement from stadium public address announcer Dan Baker, nor was there any word given on the scoreboard.

When the Mets' Daniel Murphy stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter in the 9th inning, it was a 1-1 game. Usually, this is a rather tense moment...with players and fans both focused on the game situation. Yet, throughout the Citizens Bank Park crowd on a Sunday night, chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" began to fill the air.

Tie game, 9th inning...yet the crowd's chant was not about the game

As the inning continued, the chants grew in intensity, from both Mets' and Phillies' fans alike. For a brief moment, the faithful of these archrivals were united behind a common cause. President Barack Obama was making his announcement to the world that American military forces had killed bin Laden...and that message was being relayed throughout the park via smartphone and interpersonal communication.

Could the situation have been any more fitting? The ballgame was being played in Philadelphia, home of the Liberty Bell and one of the birthplaces of American history. The Declaration of Independence was signed a few miles north of the ballpark's location in 1776. Eleven years later, the U.S. Constitution was framed in Philly. These were two of the cornerstone moments in American democracy...and the terror attacks orchestrated by bin Laden over the years threatened those very freedoms.

Philadelphia has played a significant role in American history

New York City was most directly affected by the 9/11 attacks, and here were the Mets...a team that loaned the Shea Stadium parking lot for use as an emergency mobile command center in the days immediately following the World Trade Center's collapse 9 1/2 years ago. The Mets played the first professional sporting event in NYC following the attacks, which offered area residents a chance to gather and resume life in a new and uncertain world.

The Mets still honor those lost in the World Trade Center attacks at Citi Field

I began to reflect on my own life while watching this game.

I thought about the phone call that woke me up at my apartment in Athens, Ohio on the day of the attacks...and the shock that came with witnessing such a tragic, newsworthy event. I remember the frantic phone calls home to see if everyone I knew in NYC was OK.

I thought about my visit to Ground Zero one week following the attacks. The air was so stale that night, and it was horrifying to actually see the destruction for myself.

I thought about my friends in the miltary who went overseas to fight for America and its people. Many did multiple tours in the Middle East, and continue to serve this great nation. A couple made the ultimate sacrifice, and gave their lives in the name of freedom.

As the ballgame continued, I started thinking about the night's deeper meaning

I thought about my buddy Kevin, a volunteer fireman and EMT who worked in the World Trade Center's ruins immediately following the attacks. When we were in high school, Kevin and I used to travel to Philadelphia for Sunday baseball games at Veterans Stadium. We'd buy the cheapest available tickets, then sneak into the field level seating in a mostly-empty ballpark. Kevin passed away over 3 1/2 years ago, but his memory lives on with me...and as news of bin Laden's death came around, I almost felt like Kevin was sitting in the empty seat to my left. It was a Sunday ballgame in Philly, after all.

As I looked around Citizens Bank Park, I noticed more evidence of unintentional patriotism. Seated a few sections to my left was a lady wrapped in an American flag blanket. She had no idea that something designed to simply keep her warm on this night would end up carrying so much meaning.

Woman draped in an American flag blanket

On the ballpark's videoboard, there was a man in a USA Baseball jersey. Little did he know that his choice of attire would be so representative of the evening's events. That image produced the loudest cheer of the night, and more chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

Citizens Bank Park's unofficial announcement of the news

Even the Phillies' uniform colors are a patriotic red, white and blue...indicative of the city's role in American history.

Red, white and blue were the colors of the day

Meanwhile, there was still a ballgame going that was dragging deep into the night. As Sunday night turned to Monday morning, the public address system fittingly played "After Midnight," and "Living After Midnight." The Mets and Phillies continued their struggle to score runs against each other's bullpens. The score remained 1-1 through the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th innings. My scorecard was beginning to run out of room!

And the game played on

In top of the 14th, the Mets finally broke through against Phillies' pitcher Kyle Kendrick. Following singles by David Wright and Jason Bay, catcher Ronnie Paulino lined a double into the left field corner...scoring Wright and giving the Mets a 2-1 lead.

The Mets take the lead in the 14th

For Paulino, it was a significant night, going 5-for-7 and producing that big RBI double. Paulino missed the first month of the season by serving the final part of a 50-game suspension...after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs as a member of the Florida Marlins. The 30-year-old then served a stint on the disabled list before returning to the big league club. Sunday was Paulino's 1st start as a Met, and he appeared determined to make up for lost time.

Ronnie Paulino had a big game for the Mets

It was now up to reliever Taylor Buchholz to close the door on the Phillies and end this marathon contest. As outfielder John Mayberry, Jr. swung and missed at the final pitch, the Mets popped out of the dugout in celebration. Their 3-game losing streak was over, and it took almost 5 hours to do it.

The Mets celebrate a marathon victory

Outside the ballpark, there was more evidence of the real story of the night. As I was walking to my car...another car pulled out of the parking lot, with an American flag hanging out the window. Those exiting Citizens Bank Park cheered, and other cars began honking their horns. It was now 1 am...yet people were invigorated by the news of Osama bin Laden's death.

Yes, that says 1:04 am

Usually when I drive home from a sporting event, I listen to music and think about the game that I just witnessed. On this night, as I traveled along a series of deserted highways...I listened to CNN's coverage of the biggest news story of the year.

About to leave a now-empty Citizens Bank Park

It allowed me more time to reflect on the past 9 1/2 years. When the 9/11 attacks happened, I was a naive college kid...not knowing where my future would take me. Now, I am a seasoned journalist whose life (sports) and career (news) were both represented on this very night.

I'll never forget where I was on the night that Osama bin Laden was killed. I was watching America's pastime, a city that is so extremely rich in American history, Philadelphia.

Given the military's contribution to this event, it's too bad the game wasn't at Veterans Stadium.

Scorecard from a historic night in Philadelphia


  1. This is excellent Dave...I'm going to re-post it for all Phillies and Mets fans on my FB page! Well written and well said!


  2. A great piece from someone who I know can write well...kudos!