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WHEN SENIOR WRITER Michael Bamberger and his older brother, David, were kids, they would take the Long Island Railroad to Woodside, Queens, and then the number 7 subway train to Willets Point, the stop for Shea Stadium. This was all through the '70s. The subways were hot and dirty and crowded, and everywhere you looked there were Mets fans carrying baseball gloves and banners, wearing team hats. They weren't strangers. Bamberger would listen to David, three years older, talk to some random guy about Gary Gentry or some other now-yellowed name and how many innings he might go in the second game of a Sunday doubleheader. Maybe this time he'll go, I don't know, four? David's dismissive tone made him sound to his little brother like a knowing teenager, one who had figured out that life offers more disappointment than anything else, but they both knew it was an act. They went to Shea, like everybody else on the train, with hope. Maybe they'd be able to sneak down into the loge seats. Maybe Willie Mays, nearing his end, would get a start. Maybe Tom Seaver would retire 27 straight. Maybe the boys would meet Ralph Kiner (broadcaster) or Shag Crawford (umpire) or Cleon Jones (middle-of-the-order hitter, Southern black man, Bamberger's hero).
When Bamberger would get off the train and glimpse the stadium for the first time, he would think it was a marvel. Maybe he didn't know better. He was awed by the perfect grass, the bleached uniforms, the watered infield dirt, the men who traveled the country playing the game he and David played on the bumpy field behind the elementary school on Medford Avenue in Patchogue. They were connected, and they were in turn connected to the 30 people in their train car, the scalper who sold them their tickets at below face value, the whole paid attendance of 21,343. There were no sellouts in those days. It was the Mets, in the '70s. Bamberger didn't care. He was watching baseball. Anything could happen. "It was my life," Bamberger says. "Without those memories, part of me would be dead."
THE SAINTS OPENED THE 2005 season at Carolina, and senior writer Lee Jenkins watched from Houston, on a small television in Hall C of the Reliant Center, with about 200 Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Most had lost their homes. Some were missing family members. One guy got a call during the game from the VA saying an apartment had been found where he could move. He was holding a suitcase, but he wasn't going anywhere. "I can't wait to see the place," he said, "but I really don't want to leave the game."
The Saints won, on a field goal by John Carney with three seconds left, and the evacuees erupted, hugging each other, racing around the shelter, shouting their "Who Dat" chant. "All we're missing now is some crawfish, corn bread, crab and smoked sausage!" one of them yelled.
The Saints were terrible that year, 3--13, and the NFL made them play their home opener in New Jersey's Meadowlands. They practiced at a high school in San Antonio, lifting weights in the parking lot. But that one game on opening day showed why sports matter, and it didn't have so much to do with saving a ravaged city or distracting a beaten populace. "Our teams are a manifestation of our hometowns," Jenkins remembers thinking. "They connect us to family and friends and provide a sense of place even when we're far away."
Less than five years later the Saints were 15--3 and Bourbon Street was packed by 10 a.m. on Feb. 7, 2010, the collective exhaustion from everyone's Saturday night giving way to the buzz of Super Bowl morning. On that sunny Sunday the Saints were to play in their first Super Bowl, and the entire Gulf Coast seemingly took to the French Quarter to turn a three-hour game into a marathon event; win or lose, they were proud to see their beloved, long-fledgling franchise in the NFL's marquee game. SI.com NFL producer Tom Mantzouranis stood in the same spot in front of the Cats Meow bar's big screen from noon on. Rubber legs were a hazard he was willing to risk. And when Tracy Porter picked off Peyton Manning, putting the Saints two touchdowns up on the Colts with 3:12 to play, and everyone in the bar fell over one another in joy, Mantzouranis knew it had been worth it. He told his legs to be ready for a few more hours. "It felt like coming home," says Mantzouranis, who is from New Jersey, "to the greatest party of all time."
SENIOR WRITER JOE POSNANSKI was born in Cleveland, a fact that many of his colleagues think explains his theory that our games can transcend being just games only when we suspend disbelief, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued 200 years ago, and accept events that we ordinarily find incredible. Cleveland.
Hold that thought.
Sports has transcended many times, of course. We all have our own list, like Posnanski's: when Jimmy Connors, long past his youth, won match after match at the 1991 U.S. Open; when Brandi Chastain made her penalty kick and then ripped off her shirt in celebration. He could go on.
"But even events like those are transcendent only for people who are willing to open up their hearts to it," Posnanski continues. He also sometimes thinks ("in a strange way") of December 1986 as his last month of sports innocence. That was the month when the Indians looked promising; when the Cavaliers had rookies Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper, Hot Rod Williams and Mark Price and were looking like a team rising; when the Browns... .