The first step
Things will be a lot different as America's game returns
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
Baseball, the national pastime, returns Monday night to a wounded nation, hoping in some small way to help America begin to heal from last Tuesday's terrorist attacks.
Like the rest of America, though, baseball won't be the same.
The late September pennant races, shaping up to be especially close in the National League this season, take on a little less significance now. Individual accomplishments, including a quest for the single-season home run record, pale in comparison to true heroism being played out across the country. Players and coaches -- again, like the rest of us -- have become a little less self-absorbed, a little more aware of the big picture.
Still, the games will go on. Monday night, after six days of postponements, a half-dozen games (all in the NL) will be played. Baseball still plans to finish a full 162-game season. So the lost week of games will, in effect, be posted onto the end of the season. That'll put the final weekend of the season into the first weekend of October and the World Series, maybe, into November.
At the very least, baseball's return can provide, for some, a moment's diversion from the horrors of the past week and the uncertainty of the future. At its best, baseball can show us how we all can persevere.
Nothing will be the same. But baseball is back anyway. Here are some highlights to look for in the last three weeks of the season:
All season long, the San Francisco Giants' slugger has insisted the public importance placed on his quest to break Mark McGwire's 1998 record of 70 home runs in a season was overblown. After last Tuesday, he sees it -- so rightfully so -- as even less important.
Still, one of the most coveted records in sports is there for the taking. With 63 home runs and 18 games remaining, Bonds is within reach. Especially considering he has hit a home run every 6.8 at-bats this season.
The big question is whether Bonds can break the record given what has happened. Players are people, too, and the events of last week have affected them as well.
Not to mention the weeklong layoff, the concerns for safety in ballparks and the new hassles of traveling from city to city.
Can Bonds do it? It's the No. 1 question in baseball as the game resumes.
"It's going to be awfully tough. It's hard enough for me to take one day off ... " Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said Saturday. "But Barry Bonds is a phenomenal hitter. He's a much better hitter than I am.
"It would be an awesome thing if he were able to do it, if he were to give it a run. I'm pulling for him. I hope he does it."
The pennant races
The American League seems to have things all sewn up, as far as the postseason goes. But the National League was looking to be a wide-open, down-to-the-wire, all-out race in late September.
That was before the events of last week.
Now, many players all over baseball talk about how hard it will be to get prepared for a stretch run considering the last week. Players and coaches and managers don't figure to be quite as focused as they normally would be. The games may not be as sharp. The consistency will be lacking.
Still, if there's a consensus among the guys who play the game, it is that everyone will be equally distracted in the final weeks.
Five teams are within five games of the wild card in the NL. The biggest lead any first-place team has in the NL is five games. Three teams are within three games in the NL West.
But a race? That may be putting it too strongly. There's a concern as to whether the players -- much like the fans -- can muster up the passion for the game that they had before last Tuesday.
Streaking, both ways
Hot teams love to keep playing, cold ones always could use a break.
If that's a given, the postponements of last week especially may affect these teams, all with at least slim (and, in the case of the New York Mets, very slim) postseason hopes:
The Mets and Yankees may be most affected by the horror of the past week because of their proximity to the New York tragedy. They both also were playing well before the postponements.
The Mets have a better record than either the Braves or the Phillies since the All-Star break. They've won 10 of their last 12 and they have six games remaining with the first-place Braves. Still, they've eight back with 18 games left.
The Yankees used six straight wins against the Boston Red Sox to win nine of their last 10. Second-place Boston is 13 games behind.
Seattle, a runaway in the AL West all season, is trying to top the record for most wins in a season (116). Oakland is the best team in baseball since the break (43-14) and has a virtual lock on the AL wild card.
Can the M's break the record?
"In some ways, you don't even feel like playing any more. As good a year as we've had, this takes something out of it," Mariners reliever Jeff Nelson said. "If we didn't have a chance to go to the World Series, I'd say, 'This is it.'"
On the cold side, the Phillies are 25-31 since the break but have ample opportunity to get back into the NL East race. Beginning with Monday's four-game series against the Braves, the Phils have seven games remaining against Atlanta.
The Cubs, despite the amazing Sammy Sosa (.316, 54, 139), are just 27-30 since the break and are more likely a wild card than the NL Central champs.
That unbalanced schedule that has been talked about all season is all different now.
Retiring Baltimore Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. and San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn now both will have their final games at home. Both had been scheduled to wrap up their Hall of Fame careers on the road.
The Mets have switched their series with the Pittsburgh Pirates to Pittsburgh this week (starting Monday), while the Yankees have postponed Monday's game against Tampa Bay and will open on the road against the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday. The Mets won't return to Shea until Friday, when they host the Braves. The Yankees won't be home until next week.
The Braves had a three-game home stand against the Mets scheduled as their final weekend. That has morphed into the first series of a nine-game home stand to end the season -- which may not be good for Atlanta, which is 34-38 at Turner Field this season.
The Cubs, who had a four-game series at Wrigley against the Astros to end the season, now have a 10-game home stand, with Houston to start, followed by the Cincinnati Reds and Pirates.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, in the thick of the NL West and wild card races, now end the season with nine games on the road, the last three against the Giants. The Cardinals and Astros finish the season in Enron Field in Houston in a series that could be a difference-maker.
It is that way all over baseball. Lots of changes.
Nothing, ever, will be the same.