A new season, a new resolve In Clearwater, the national anthem has never sounded so beautiful.

Posted: March 17, 2002

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The memories of Sept. 11 are still burned into the minds of baseball players.

The unspeakable acts of terror occurred on a Tuesday morning while most late-sleeping players were just getting out of bed. There would be no games that night, no games that week, and that was a good thing, because no one felt like playing baseball.

Eventually, the players took the field again. They wore American flags on their uniforms. They made generous donations to relief efforts. The season went on, pennant races pulsated, and the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees treated us to a magnificent World Series.

Now, after the shortest baseball off-season ever - a byproduct of the terrorist attacks - the players are back in Florida and Arizona working their bodies into shape for another season.

Someone up North recently asked whether spring training was different this year.

Our first impulse was to say that it wasn't, that post-terror America had already enjoyed a World Series, a Super Bowl, and the Olympics. Spring training was just a continuation of America getting on with its sporting life.

But spring training is, in some ways, different this year. You can see it at precisely 1 o'clock in the afternoon every day in Tampa and Dunedin, in Tempe and Tucson. You can see it when the national anthem is sung.

Players hear that song so many times in a season that they seem to grow deaf to it. Not anymore.

Now, they are on the top step of the dugout, heads bowed, absorbing the words.

You can also see the solemnity in the stands. Hats over their hearts and standing tall, more fans than ever help sing the national anthem. And in these quaint little spring training ballparks, you can hear every voice, some of which are completely off-key.

It's a beautiful thing.

Oh, spring training hasn't completely changed. It is still about getting the players ready for the season, and it's still about the joy of being a fan.

The intimacy is wonderful. You can see it in the expression on the face of a kid who gets a wink from Jimmy Rollins as the Phillies' leadoff man walks to the on-deck circle.

This is something that doesn't always happen during the regular season, when the stakes are high and the intensity is heated.

Spring training is a beautiful time of the sporting calendar. It's sunshine and swaying palms. It's the promise of a highly touted rookie and the dream of an unknown minor-leaguer. It's a unique slice of Americana that lives on six months after that terrible, terrible day.

But is it different now?

Yes. Just a little.

Especially around 1 o'clock each afternoon.

Contact Jim Salisbury at 215-854-4983 or jsalisbury@phillynews.com.

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