NEW ORLEANS -- The tour was coming to an end and Zephyrs executive director/tour guide Ron Maestri turned to his rapt audience and said, "I know that was depressing, but you guys, on and off the field, can have a big impact."
This was not your usual tour, both in terms of the tourists and the sights. The bus was full of members of the 2006 Zephyrs staff and the tour route included the areas most devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods. It's likely an experience none of the participants will ever forget.
The start of a baseball season is often a symbol for the beginning of spring, of things blooming, of a rebirth. Never has that been more true than in this city right now.
But what kind of impact can a sport have in trying times? Can baseball truly help a community heal? Can someone who makes a living hitting and throwing a baseball really make a difference?
It doesn't really matter what I think. The opinions of those who are only passing through this reality, in many ways, are not valid. If the Zephyrs and the community can come together to even just temporarily ease the suffering that is still ongoing, then baseball indeed can help lift a city.
There's no question the Zephyrs have been committed to that lofty goal, nearly from the moment after Katrina hit. Owner Don Beaver announced the Zephyrs would be playing here all season, and the staff worked day and night for the past six months to make sure Opening Day would be a success.
"We knew we had a chance to achieve this back in September," Zephyrs general manager Mike Schline said. "We've all had this big thing to look forward to.
"There were pretty miserable living conditions when we first got back here. It's all worth it today. Sleeping on my couch here for a month and a half, it's all worth it."
Workers were nailing up the roof hours before game time. It wasn't certain the new scoreboard, a necessity since the old one was damaged by the hurricane, was going to work until right before game time. None of it mattered when the first pitch from Steve Watkins hurtled through the air toward Round Rock leadoff hitter Charlton Jimerson. From that point at least until the end of this opener, the New Orleans residents in attendance were able to forget about their collective reality and simply enjoy a baseball game.
I know what critics will say. The influence of sports, especially when it comes in contact with a serious issue such as this, is way overblown. Something as silly as a baseball game can't have any kind of lasting impact. I mean, what can a dizzy bat race or a big furry mascot do to build houses or provide much-needed supplies?
People who say that are missing the point. The Zephyrs' dedication to the community is unquestioned and they will provide help in those important areas more than perhaps any professional sports team ever has. Case in point: When asked to partner with Magical Builders to renovate a local Boys & Girls Club, there was no hesitation in saying yes.
But aside from that, it's time to stop downplaying the importance of sports. Trust me, I used to be one of those dubious people. Then I covered the first game at Shea Stadium after 9/11, the first event in New York after that tragedy. No one was exactly sure how many people would show up that night. A crowd of more than 40,000 cheered on the Mets as it never had before. Anyone who experienced the electricity in that park from the first pitch until Mike Piazza hit an eighth-inning homer can never question how sports, even if only for a short time, can lift people's spirits.
Those who came to Zephyr Field tonight aren't expecting miracles from this team; they only want to be entertained. A full house came, despite every reason not to. For the 11,006 or so provided with the one-evening escape, their reasons for being here boil down to the simple motto the Zephyrs players wore on the pullover warmup jackets they tossed into the crowed just before game time:
"Proud to call New Orleans home."