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Jewish World Review Nov. 12, 2001 / 26 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Bob Greene

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Prayers, pitches, promises -- and the president -- LIKE so many moments during the last two months, this one seems destined to become a part of the American memory.

And like so many of these moments, how we will remember it will be determined by whether the U.S. triumphs decisively in the daunting new kind of war -- or whether more days and nights of dark confusion and indiscriminate death await us.

The moment, in any other year, would not have been particularly historic: a president of the United States makes an appearance at a championship sporting event.

This year, though, President Bush's trip to Yankee Stadium to throw out the first ball of the Yankee homestand at the World Series felt stirring and fragile all at once, felt defiant one second, plaintive the next.

Politicians get booed at sporting events; that is why some of them avoid being introduced at games. There is -- or at least was -- a feeling among fans that politicians show up only to elevate themselves by attaching themselves to the big games.

George W. Bush elevated the World Series. Not only because of who he is, but because of what we have asked him to do. When the public address announcer introduced him to the crowd, the announcer did not mention his name. He said that the first pitch would be thrown by the president of the United States.

The cheers that rained down. . . .

The cheers were for him, but they were also for that: for the fact that he is us. Seldom in recent history have we had occasion to reflect upon who our elected representatives in essence are. The answer is in the words themselves: We have elected them to represent us. In times when it doesn't matter so much, we lose sight of that. In times like these, we understand: They are us, with all of our yearnings and fears and strengths, and with some of our flaws and frailties. We have not asked them to be perfect; we have asked them to be our deputies.

So when, in Yankee Stadium, the roar from the 57,000 voices greeted the first sight of President Bush, it was affecting in a way that did not have to be explained. Earlier the same day, the federal government had advised all U.S. citizens to be on heightened alert for new terrorist attacks. Even as the president walked toward the pitcher's mound, F-16 military jets patrolled the sky above; a National Guard biohazard truck was stationed outside the ballpark; metal-detector wands were being used to frisk ticketholders.

The president's thumbs-up to the crowd signified, in an instant, so many conflicting national emotions, not all of them as cocky as the gesture usually connotes. If a thumbs-up can be a promise and a prayer at the same time, then maybe this one was.

A baseball diamond in autumn. During World War II, at the Battle of the Bulge, American soldiers had a way to determine if men who approached them in U.S. Army uniforms really were on their side, or if they were German operatives who had stolen the clothes. The Americans would ask: "Who are `Dem Bums'?" If the man in the uniform knew the answer was "the Brooklyn Dodgers," he was presumed to be on our side. The Americans would ask: "Who won this year's World Series?" The assumption, in 1944, was that any American anywhere in the world would know it was the St. Louis Cardinals.

Baseball is no longer the national pastime; watching television is. And much of the television-watching in the U.S. since September has been of deadly serious news coverage, not games. The president of the United States toed the pitcher's mound and threw to Yankee backup catcher Todd Greene. Out in the bullpen, Roger Clemens -- who would be starting pitcher for the Yankees -- stopped his warmups to watch. Clemens would later say: "I wanted to take in the moment."

As the president left the mound and walked toward the dugout, Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly approached him and said, with feeling in his voice: "Very nice throw. Good stuff, Mr. President." One guy talking to another guy, in language that conveyed more than the seven words. "Very nice throw. Good stuff, Mr. President." We know you're doing the job we have asked you to do. We can't imagine what that must be like. We're with you, sir.

There are moments when this nation feels like a very old country; there are moments when this nation feels still young, finding its way. In these trying hours, we seem to be both nations: an America that has been through so much since 1776, yet at the same time an America that, of necessity, is searching for a path through frightening and unknown territory.

With 1,200 uniformed police officers at the ballpark, the president departed for Washington. How will the night -- the picture of him lifting his thumb to the crowd, to the nation -- be remembered? The answer will be found not in what we were going through during this year's World Series -- but in what we, and he, will be going through during next year's World Series.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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