It's more than playing the games
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

Sometimes sports makes the world seem small enough to hold in your hand as if it were a baseball.

Had the Seattle-Oakland series in Japan gone on as scheduled, next week America's national pastime would have opened the season on the other side of the international dateline with a Japanese outfielder leading off the game, a Venezuelan pitcher starting for the Mariners, the son of Nat King Cole's music arranger pitching for the Athletics, an MVP from the Dominican Republic playing shortstop, an African-American who once worked for George W. Bush available to pinch-hit and a nation we once defeated in war watching on TV.

At other times, the world makes sports seem so small as to be insignificant.

About halfway into the 48-hour deadline to war announced by President Bush (who employed utility player Mark McLemore was he was an owner of the Texas Rangers), baseball still hadn't announced whether it would cancel the Japan series. As the players waited for word late Tuesday afternoon, Seattle third baseman Jeff Cirillo talked about his feelings, which were mixed. He said he would feel safe in Japan, but also said he would be leery of being out of the country when war began. He said the series was inconsequential in the current situation, but also said that the war "shouldn't interrupt how we go about our business."

A lot of people say that. That we should go about our lives and our games as normal.

But should we?

When we're asking lowly paid young men and women to leave their families, travel halfway around the world and risk their lives, when we ask them to march into a desert and expose themselves to possible biological and chemical attack, shouldn't we ask something of ourselves as well? Shouldn't we give up more than a trip to Japan to see a baseball game? Shouldn't we sacrifice something more than complete television coverage of the NCAA tournament on CBS? Shouldn't we do more than sing ''God Bless America" at a ballgame until it becomes as rote and meaningless as "Cotton-Eye Joe"?

Wouldn't those U.S. flag decals stuck to SUVs that get 11 miles to the gallon mean more if they were like the stickers Ohio State puts on its helmets? Where you only could put a decal on your car if you had done something to earn it? Vote in a local election, you get a flag. Donate canned food and old clothes to a homeless shelter, you get another. Have a family member serving in the military, you get several.

My father fought in World War II, leaving college after his sophomore year to serve overseas as a navigator on B-24. My mother stayed home, where she bought gas and sugar with ration cards, grew victory gardens and worried whether her brother would live through the Normandy invasion.

They weren't alone. That's what everyone did in World War II. Almost everyone sacrificed. Almost everyone lost someone to the war. Roger Angell, the great baseball writer, recently wrote a powerful piece in the New Yorker about all the friends and classmates he lost during the war and the names went on for paragraphs. When we won that war, all Americans could truly say, "We won," because they had.

In contrast, I spent most of the 1991 Gulf War at spring training. I knew no one in the service. I watched the missiles streaking across the Baghdad night on CNN, but I was otherwise completely untouched by the war. While the world's armies swarmed into Iraq, I must admit I was more concerned with what free agents Jack Morris and Chili Davis would add to the Twins.

This spring, I went out for dinner with friends after Bush's speech. I spent Tuesday watching spring training games. Until the Japan series was cancelled, I had still planned to fly there to watch the games. There is a U.S. flag decal on my rental car, but I did nothing to earn it other than present a credit card at the car lot.

To appropriate a thought by Bill Mahre, wouldn't those U.S. flag decals stuck to SUVs that get 11 miles to the gallon mean more if they were like the stickers Ohio State puts on its helmets? Where you only could put a decal on your car if you had done something to earn it? Vote in a local election, you get a flag. Donate canned food and old clothes to a homeless shelter, you get another. Have a family member serving in the military, you get several.

And until you do something like that, your car should be as clean as the helmet of an incoming freshman.

Baseball cancelled its season-opening series in Japan because of war concerns, but the NCAA decided to hold its tournament as scheduled. Spring training games will go on as scheduled. NBA games are being played as scheduled. Tee times will go on as scheduled (if you can get one) at courses around the nation.

And so our games will go on as scheduled, just as the Academy Awards, the movies at the local multiplex and "American Idol" all will.

"If you ask the soldiers over there, 'Do you think that life in America should stop? Do you think people should stop going to their jobs? Do you think people should stop going to games?'" Seattle second baseman Bret Boone said. "I can only speak for myself, but I think they would say, 'Go on with your lives.'"

Probably. After all, President Roosevelt gave baseball the go-ahead to continue playing during World War II (with the crucial proviso that healthy players were subject to the draft the same as everyone else). We played our games during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Every day, there are millions of people starving and dying of disease around the world, and we never question whether we should keep playing. On the way home from Mariners games, I used to ride my bike past the homeless shivering on the sidewalks and never even slowed my pace.

If we don't think twice about the appropriateness of sports at such times, why is war any different? Or is it any different?

"I think it was good for the country when we started playing after Sept. 11," Boone said. "There's only so much you can watch CNN and get beat down. That was a tough time for people and for people to get away and watch baseball, I think that was good. It was almost therapeutic. If I can make someone feel good for three hours, that makes me feel good."

I don't disagree. But I also think that while we make ourselves feel good when so many others feel differently, we also need to make sure we deserve it.

Asked to think back on his memories of playing during the 1991 Gulf War, Angels manager Mike Scioscia said that he remembered how the war provided perspective and a hollow feeling in spring training. The hollowness, he says, was because "there were people putting their lives at risk to enjoy the liberties we have in this country and we were the ones who were enjoying them."

We would feel a little less hollow if the perspective provided us with incentive to better the country, if it prompted enough good works that Americans could deservedly plaster their cars with so many patriotic decals that they look like the side of Craig Krenzel's helmet.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.





LIFE GOES ON ... SORT OF

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