WASHINGTON (AP) — Before the top of the fourth inning on Military Appreciation Night at Nationals Park, the public address announcer encouraged everyone at the baseball stadium to cheer for the active or retired members of the service who were in the stands Monday, recipients of free tickets.
As Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” blared through the ballpark, and the message “Thank You for Your Service and Sacrifice” dominated the HD scoreboard, a group of military personnel seated a few rows behind home plate waved their red Nationals baseball caps.
Thousands of fans rose to applaud. Members of the Nationals, spread around the diamond, preparing to play defense – and wearing what the team called “patriotic” uniforms, with stars-and-stripes curly “Ws” on the chests of their blue jerseys – provided their own standing ovation. The World Series champion San Francisco Giants stood in the visiting dugout and bullpen, clapping, too.
Talk about a coincidence: Less than 24 hours after President Barack Obama announced that terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan, the Nationals honored the military – an event the team said it began planning in the offseason and announced to the public a week ago.
“That’s amazing, the way the timing worked out for that,” Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said before the game. “Really a great opportunity for our fans … to honor our military vets and wounded warriors. Those who are here tonight are going to be beaming with pride about what took place last night.”
As part of Military Appreciation Night, military personnel were allowed to receive up to four free tickets; a member of the Army threw out the ceremonial first pitch; a member of the Navy sang the National Anthem; two red Coast Guard helicopters did a flyover before first pitch; and other uniformed military personnel jogged out as if to play defense position before being joined by the real ballplayers.
In addition to meeting baseball players, some members of the military in attendance also got to shake hands with NASCAR driver Kyle Busch, who was at the stadium.
“It’s funny how things work out sometimes: The day after we take down one of the biggest individual terrorists in the world, we can come out here and kind of celebrate it,” Washington pitcher Tyler Clippard said. “For it to fall on the day after is sort of ironic.”
While Washington’s players are used to being in the nation’s capital, of course, the Giants were excited to be in town – they toured the Supreme Court before Monday’s game. After playing four games in Washington at a historic time, they now open a three-game series at the New York Mets on Tuesday.
“We’re in our nation’s capital here, and we get that kind of news, and now we’re off to New York – Ground Zero,” San Francisco pitcher Brian Wilson said. “It’s going to be quite an emotional week for a lot of people – baseball being one of them, playing America’s sport here.”
In the wake of bin Laden’s death, security was a prime concern.
The NBA told all playoff teams to check fans with metal detector wands as they entered. The policy was in effect as crowds came to the United Center in Chicago on Monday night for the Eastern Conference semifinal opener between the Bulls and Atlanta.
Kristina Palacios of Chicago appreciated the extra measures, saying they “make you feel safe.” Her boyfriend, John Comia, said the search was “quick and efficient.”
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the league had been “in contact with each of our remaining venues and they will be taking steps as they deem appropriate given the information we have.”
Major League Baseball said it would continue working with its teams and local law enforcement “to monitor what’s occurring on a day-to-day basis.”
Salutes to the military poured in throughout the sports world.
“I think that the word ‘heroes’ are used far too often when you talk about athletes and actors,” New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said. “The real heroes are out on the battlefields, protecting our well being, allowing us the opportunity to play baseball or take our daughters or kids to the park. They’re the real heroes.”
Tweeted tennis star Andy Roddick: “Words cannot do justice to the amount of thanks we should bestow upon those whose life mission it is to keep the world safe. Thank you.”
Rory McIlroy, the 21-year-old golfer from Northern Ireland, posted on Twitter: “Bye bye bin Laden!! Good riddance I say!!”
“The biggest thing I’m happy for is that the troops that were in there all came back in one piece. That’s dangerous. That’s the No. 1 thing,” Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
All over ballparks and arenas, there were sights, signs and sounds it was an extraordinary day.
A day after Phillies fans shouted “USA! USA!” when the news spread during the New York Mets-Philadelphia game at Citizens Bank Park, Flyers rooters echoed the chant before the NHL playoff matchup against the Boston Bruins.
At Fenway Park, a large American flag was draped over the 37-foor Green Monster before Boston hosted the Los Angeles Angels. Members of the military lined up along the warning track in front of the wall and helped carry the flag off the field.
The Red Sox and Angels stood along the foul lines in for a moment a silence to honor the 9-11 victims and those who have been killed fighting for the country. The PA announcer also asked fans to thank those who have risked their lives.
At San Diego Padres, who bill themselves as the team of the military, wore their camouflage jerseys for the game against Pittsburgh. The Padres normally put on the special tops for Sunday home games, but players requested that they wear them Monday night. The Navy SEALs train on Coronado, just across San Diego Bay from downtown.
“I think a lot of the fans are going to take it that we’re wearing it because Osama bin Laden’s dead. That’s not the reason we’re wearing it,” said Padres pitcher Mat Latos, who displayed a Team USA basketball jersey.
“We’re wearing it because we’re in support of out troops. That’s the reason my Team USA jersey is hanging up in my locker, for my friends that I personally know that are overseas right now,” he said. “This night is for our military troops, the men and women that protect and serve us. It’s not for Osama bin Laden, it’s not for the triumph or whatever you want to call it. It’s strictly for what those people have done for us.”
The Padres said they would give two free tickets to any active or retired military personnel. The Mets donated 4,000 tickets to military members and their families for Tuesday night’s game against San Francisco.
At Oakland, where the Athletics took on Texas, Greenwood’s patriotic anthem played over the sound system between first and second innings. A’s public address announcer Dick Callahan asked fans to “Raise their Budweisers” in appreciation for those who serve the country. One female fan sported a short-sleeved flag shirt.
Bin Laden’s death drew reaction from a trio of Yankees who were with the team when the terrorist attacks occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.
“All I said was, ‘Justice,'” closer Mariano Rivera said. “Justice prevailed. You do something like that, somewhere along the way, you’re going to pay, and this was the time.”
Said longtime star Jorge Posada: “I’m happy for the city of New York. I think the firemen and the policemen, and everything that we went through. I think this is one of those steps that we needed to cross, and it’s good to see.”
Captain Derek Jeter said he was in “disbelief” when he heard the news.
“I don’t know if this puts closure. I’m sure there’s no closure to someone losing a relative or a loved one, but in some sense I guess it is, from what I’ve seen in a lot of the interviews with people that lost family members. It sort of brings some closure to it. Not total closure, but some,” he said.
“Last night and this morning, watching the news, you remember a lot of the stories and the people that you had the opportunity to meet. Like I said, it was 10 years ago, but it almost feels like it wasn’t,” he said.
Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully recalled a time long ago.
“I remember D-Day in June, and the games were extremely important as an escape. And that’s what they are today, whether it’s terrorism or a bad day on Wall Street, or whatever,” he said.
“I’m sure people are happy, but it’s a momentary happiness. It doesn’t remove the threat, or anything like that. I mean, that’s one head off the snake, but there will be another one for sure,” he said.
New York Jets coach Rex Ryan said he was watching “Celebrity Apprentice” with his wife Sunday night when NBC broke into the program to announce Obama was about to address the country.
“That thing came across,” Ryan said Monday, “and I thought, ‘Whoa, this must be some big news here.”
The Jets open their season – if there is one this year with the NFL lockout currently in place – at home on the night of Sept. 11 against the Dallas Cowboys. Ryan said it’s an honor to play that night, especially since so many fans who were personally affected will be at the game.
“Quite honestly,” he said, “I was happy we got him.”
AP Sports Writers Andrew Seligman, Noah Trister, Dennis Waszak, Janie McCauley, Ira Podell, Rob Harris, Dan Gelston, Bernie Wilson and Ben Walker, and AP freelance writers Rich Dubroff, Ken Powtak and Amy Jinkner-Lloyd contributed to this report.
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