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Sports Authority

Hefferon: Sports bring calm in times of tragedy (April 16)

| Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Yesterday, April 15 came and went. For most Americans, that date means taxes, accompanying death, the old saying goes, as the two unavoidable truths in this world.

However, for some, the date meant far more.

In Major League Baseball, for instance, this April 15 marked the 67th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Every player in the league wore No. 42 on the back of their jerseys Tuesday, and with Mariano Rivera’s retirement last year, it’s the only day of the year that any player will wear the number. Robinson is the only athlete in baseball to be honored with such a league-wide retirement, and one of only two (along with Wayne Gretzky) in any of the Big Four American sports leagues.

Tuesday also marked the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster in England. On April 15, 1989, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest were set to play in the semifinals of the FA Cup, England’s all-league domestic tournament, on neutral ground at Hillsborough Stadium. Fans of the two teams were segregated into separate halves of the stadium to prevent violence, but a lack of police presence in the Liverpool stands resulted in severe overcrowding. As fans flooded in around game time, exit gates were converted to entrances, and the crowd swelled to the point where those up front were crushed against barricades and each other. Some made it through or over the fence, some did not. Ninety-six people died, and more than 700 were injured. Liverpool, coming off a dramatic win Sunday that kept them atop the league table, gathered the club and its fans at their home ground yesterday for a memorial service.

And April 15, 2014 also marked the one-year anniversary of the terrorist bombings at the Boston Marathon, resulting in three deaths and hundreds of injuries. This year, 36,000 strong will take to the course on Marathon Monday, many of whom will return after being stopped or affected by last year’s attack. The size of the race will mark the second largest event in the marathon’s 118-year history and authorities are securing the event to insure it goes off without a hitch. (Police were investigating a potential threat near the finish line at press time Tuesday night, but the situation appeared to be under control.)

Anniversaries serve as poignant reminders in our lives, but they do only come once a year. Much more common are those everyday things that are routine for us, and for many of us — that “us” being applied universally here — that routine includes sports.

These anniversaries serve as the big ticket reminders, but it is in the grind of a season, where fans and players can lose themselves in a day at the park, that sports can truly mark the return to normalcy that we — universally — need after these life-shaking tragedies.

A nine-year old version of myself comes to mind. Living half an hour outside of New York City meant that the events of 9/11 were the first real experience I had had with death and evil, and my worldview was truly shocked. Our house, my family and my dad who worked in the city, in my young mind no longer seemed safe. However, my aunt — who was staying with us at the time — told me once how I had woken up in the middle of the night, in the days after the attacks, sweating and panicked. I had another concern:

“What if they blow up Yankee Stadium?” I lisped. “Will they play at Shea?”

A yes put my mind at ease that night, and one week later, I can remember watching Mike Piazza crush a late-game home run to give the Mets a come from behind victory against the Braves in the first game in New York after the attacks. My pride swelled again one month later, as the Yankees hosted the Arizona Diamondbacks for Game 3 of the World Series. Regardless of your feelings on the man as a president, George W. Bush strapping on a bulletproof vest, walking to home plate in front of a packed house and millions worldwide, and firing a down-the-heart, no-doubt strike was easily the most important and reassuring first pitch in the history of baseball. It was a message of national fortitude. The show would go on. We’d play ball.

So, April 15 was a special day in Liverpool, in Boston and in ballparks nationwide. But the real celebration comes from the everyday — a black ballplayer slipping on a uniform before the game, or Liverpool’s singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before every match.

It’s through sports that we move forward, one step — or 36,000 — at a time.

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