The ballpark can be our place to escape. It can be our place to explore. In its most exultant moments, it can be a place to slap hands or pump fists or hug strangers. In its least, it is a place of hurled heckles and hanging heads.
Stadiums were built for that surreal reality known as sport. Real reality has little place inside its walls.
And yet, the ballpark is one of few public venues in which an honest pause is possible. Reflection resonates, however briefly. When tens of thousands of voices hush and the preparation for play is halted, moments of silence feel, well, a little more silent.
This was the significance of what happened on Sunday, when ballparks across the country hushed, with silent prayers sent out to the ones we lost on Sept. 11, 2001. The ballpark served its unintended but all-important purpose, allowing us, collectively, to quietly mourn those who lost or gave their lives and loudly honor those who sacrifice so much for the greater good.
It happened in Milwaukee, where veterans from various military branches threw out ceremonial first pitches and were given heroes' welcomes. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy and other Brewers players visited a pregame party for veterans at the Klement's Sausage Haus in the Miller Park parking lot, and Lucroy reflected on an encounter he had with a Navy SEAL he met in the dugout at Miller Park over the weekend.
"I told him, 'Dude, you come out and watch us take batting practice and think it's awesome; I think what you do is awesome,'" Lucroy said. "We can play this game because of what guys like that do for us."
In Pittsburgh, they paid a special salute to the citizens who became heroes on 9/11. PNC Park is located about 80 miles from the field in Shanksville, Pa., where United Flight 93 crashed to the ground after a team of brave passengers and crew members overtook hijackers to prevent a second attack on Washington, D.C. All weekend, during the Pirates' series against the Marlins, volunteers collected donations for the Flight 93 National Memorial.
"I saw the wall here for Shanksville," said Marlins outfielder Logan Morrison, "and that was pretty cool to see how ordinary citizens like you and me just took it upon themselves to save other people's lives."
At St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field, a physical representation of that tragic day was on display, in the form of a steel beam from the rubble of the World Trade Center, as well as the University of South Florida robotics machine that was used in search and recovery efforts after the attacks. Fans wrote messages to first responders and victims of 9/11 on a wall erected by the Rays, and players from both the Rays and Red Sox shared their memories of that brutal day.
Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek noted the "heightened awareness to everything that goes on around you" in the wake of 9/11. And on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, there was a heightened awareness of the need to put our lives on pause and put matters in perspective.
"You reach out to those people who have lost family, friends, etc.," said Varitek, "in the most tragic thing that's ever happened here."
Throughout the baseball world, such sentiments were shared. Be it through tickets donated to police, fire and rescue workers, re-readings of the poem the late, great Jack Buck had recited when baseball returned after 9/11 or video presentations, a somber anniversary was given its due recognition before the games themselves -- which were secondary by comparison -- were played.
"Baseball gives an opportunity for people to come and see players perform and, maybe, put some of their thoughts in somewhat neutral, or idle, for a given moment to come out and see a game get played," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. "It's a way to galvanize people across nationalities and across race."
Ultimately, a ballpark is just a ballpark. It served a meaningful, even motivational, function in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, giving us a place to promise and to prove that we will always carry on in the face of even the most horrific and harrowing adversity. A place to assemble together and escape, however briefly, the terror that arrived at our doorstep.
But at some point, the ballpark's significance reverted, for most of us, back to simplicity. Yes, servicemen were still saluted and "God Bless America" blared over the PA speakers during many a seventh-inning stretch. Slowly but surely, though, the ballpark became, once again, a place to watch grown men play a child's game -- and this was function enough in an increasingly complicated world.
On Sunday, the game paused again, just as it had in those agonizing days after the Twin Towers fell and a nation was shaken from a calm and confident slumber. We paused, appropriately and earnestly, to remember what we should never forget, even on days that don't happen to mark an awful anniversary.
And when the moments of silence, of reflection and of patriotic prose had passed, it was time for the ballpark to return to that surreal state for which it was built.
It was time to play ball.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.