- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2001

PHILADELPHIA It began just like any other September night at the ballpark. Players finished up batting practice. The grounds crew prepared the field. Concession stands opened for business. Fans slowly made their way to their seats.

And then it happened. Three ROTC guards marched onto the field wielding the American flag, a seemingly inconspicuous act that regularly occurs at sporting events across the country without drawing much if any attention.

This one, however, was different. By the time the trio of military personnel carrying the Stars and Stripes had reached the pitcher's mound, every one of the 33,290 fans in attendance was on his or her feet, applauding, cheering, chanting "USA! USA!"

Clearly, this was no ordinary night at the ballpark.

"Your legs were a little wobbly," said Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Scott Rolen. "It was a feeling I haven't ever had on a ballfield before. I was glad to be out there."

Baseball was played last night across the United States, six days removed from the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that forever changed this country. The scene at Veterans Stadium, where the Phillies and Atlanta Braves opened a crucial three-game series in their fight for the NL East crown, was duplicated in five other cities where players, coaches, managers and fans welcomed the national pastime back to a nation desperately trying to regain a sense of normalcy after a week that was anything but normal.

• At PNC Park in Pittsburgh, New York Mets players wore caps with inscriptions now familiar to millions all over the world: NYPD and FDNY.

• At Busch Stadium, hundreds of St. Louis' finest marched out to the warning track to honor their fallen brothers in New York.

• The crowd at Olympic Stadium in Montreal observed a moment of silence and watched images of the rescue effort in New York. Fans cheered as the color guard walked off the field to John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance."

c At Coors Field in Denver, players from the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies held a large American flag as part of a 10-minute pregame ceremony.

"We have to let the powers who did this know that they didn't knock us out," Phillies manager Larry Bowa said.

And so the games went on. The Philadelphia faithful cheered when Rolen homered to left field in the bottom of the second and again in the bottom of the sixth. They booed Chipper Jones every time the Atlanta third baseman came to bat. More than anything, they cheered for their country.

"They really did a great job tonight," Braves outfielder Brian Jordan said of the Philadelphia crowd. "Those guys running around with the flag all night, I even tipped my cap to him when he ran by."

The ovation for the presentation of the colors was merely a prelude of things to come. Both teams lined up along the base lines, just like they do during postseason play. Philadelphia mayor John F. Street walked toward home plate wearing an American flag jacket and a bright red Phillies cap. The stadium, aptly named for those who served their nation, fell quiet for a moment of silence.

Perhaps most touching, though, was the video on the stadium Jumbotron depicting various baseball and patriotic scenes to the strains of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA."

"Standing out there from 7:02 to 7:12 [the time of the tribute], there's going to be a lot of emotion," Braves manager Bobby Cox predicted earlier.

Indeed there was. When the Valley Forge Chorus sang "God Bless America" and the national anthem, even the usually stoic Bowa was caught on camera with eyes welled up and a tear streaming down his cheek.

"I've been to a lot of games, but this was the most emotional I've seen," Bowa said. "It was more than baseball out there."

There were other less positive reminders of the changed atmosphere at sporting events that will likely remain for some time. Before the game, a police K-9 unit with two German shepherds made its way around the stadium sniffing for bombs. Fans had their bags searched upon passing through the gates. The police presence, according to Phillies vice president of administration and operations Mike Stiles, was "close to tripled."

"I think all that can possibly be done is being done to ensure the safety of our fans and players," Braves general manager John Schuerholz said.

Fans didn't seem to mind the minor inconveniences, though. Sure, the lines were a little longer than normal, but it was a small price to pay for the chance to watch a ballgame and show your pride.

The American flags were everywhere. On the backs of the players' jerseys. Hanging from the upper deck facades. In the hands of each fan who attended the game. Such visible signs of national pride were more reminiscent of an international soccer match than an American baseball game.

In time, the emotions will diminish and the game will return to normal. Pregame talk will be of the playoff chase, not the search for terrorists. How long it takes for baseball to once again rise to the forefront is anybody's guess.

"I think more and more that these series are less and less crucial," Jones said. "I think we've all had a little reality check and learned to grasp what's most precious to us."

"I think it will gradually unfold," Schuerholz said. "As hard as it is for these guys to give their heart and soul fully tonight, maybe two or three nights from now, I think it will be back."

For six days, it was appropriate to put baseball on the backburner. There were more important matters at hand. On the seventh day, however, it was time to stop resting and to start playing.

"We've got to go back sometime," Cox said. "It's the old cliche: We can't let those people dictate our lives. We have to move on."

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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