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Fields of Fear
October 28, 2002
In Washington, D.C., home of SI senior writer S.L. Price, this is the season of the sniper
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October 28, 2002

Fields Of Fear

In Washington, D.C., home of SI senior writer S.L. Price, this is the season of the sniper

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The 12th bullet hit home just before the 2002 World Series began last Saturday night, and the rest of the evening rode that strange TV pendulum from frivolousness to menace, from rally monkey to murder scene and back again. It had become a familiar drill. After all, the night the 11th bullet hit, we flipped back and forth, back and forth from channel to channel, until the Giants' pennant-clinching win over the Cardinals segued for good into a report on the latest casualty. Bookshelves sag with endless blather about baseball's virtues, but here's one that has gone unnoticed: With so many gaps in the action, there's no better sport to monitor terror by. You can switch to the nearest news station, find out who, what, where and when, and never miss a pitch.

Forgive the black humor. That's all we have left to distract ourselves with these days in the Washington, D.C., area, where a sniper has shot 12 people, killing nine, in the meticulous rampage that began on Oct 2. Since then, the region has spent its days mixing the most banal of acts—pumping gas, buying groceries, shuttling kids to school—with this sick jangle of apprehension. The one respite came on Monday when two men in Richmond were detained, until police announced they had nothing to do with the case. Life then returned to abnormal, and we went to bed listening to the choppers overhead.

All the fun stuff is gone: parades, parties, old-fashioned games of every kind. Schools are on universal lockdown, with no recess, and all after-class outdoor activity canceled. The weather is fine and cool, yet fields stand empty.

Here and there, there have been some attempts at normality. On Thursday night Maryland played Georgia Tech in football at College Park, Md., but a beefed-up police presence kept watch for white box trucks. Some high school teams played after a two-week hiatus on Saturday, but many games were transplanted to fields hours from home and, in the case of D.C. public schools, parents had to trail team buses to find out where their kids would play. People talk about pushing past fear, but then, nobody blames officials in Prince Georges County, Md., where a boy was wounded by sniper fire on his way to school, for canceling its games.

More than ever, this remains a region under siege. Sept. 11 made local airports and planes suspect; last year's anthrax infestation made mail suspect. Now a killer threatens the daily routine. While families and coaches worry that lost high school games could cost their stars a scholarship, those in charge of younger kids haven't hesitated to halt play. In the Northwest D.C. neighborhood where I live, nearly every house has a kid stuck to the ceiling with pent-up energy. The soccer league has all but disappeared. There was hope of salvaging the T-ball season with a four-game jamboree this past Friday, complete with cop cars and a shield of parents ringing the field, but in the end, too many decided against setting their children up as targets.

I didn't want to see my son dead either. Yet I took him out to that same field on Friday afternoon, and threw soft pitches and watched him get fired up and grow bored like kids do. Once or twice I looked around at the tree line and felt exposed and stupid, but then he'd hurl the ball my way and I'd forget about it. The next night, number 12 went down.

On the morning after, Sunday, joggers huffed along in our neighborhood. A few college kids played soccer. None of us were being brave. It was just that we knew winter was coming, and there were only so many good days left. If we were lucky, we could come in and watch the World Series. If we were really lucky, we'd get to watch the whole game.

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