JOPLIN, Mo. -- To understand this idea of new normal, you best drive the 3.39-mile route that connects past and present most vividly for the people of Joplin, Mo.
The start is a sprawling shopping district, which, if you refrain from circling around to the backside of Northpark Mall as you pull into town, suggests little could be awry in a city that boasts a population of 45,054.
Shoot down the main thoroughfare of Range Line Road and the scenery is much the same. A mega church dominates one street corner. Restaurants and specialty shops line the other. Traffic is thick, especially around lunch hour.
The route continues south, where the American Mattress store provides the first hint of what is but one right turn away. What was once a brick outer wall is now rubble, which appears to have gone untouched for quite some time now.
The turn onto East 20th Street brings a new landscape. This one is flat. If you didn't know better, you'd consider this to be no geographical anomaly, as Joplin is, of course, located in southwest Missouri, a part of the country where plains and a sight line of several miles are to be expected.
This appears no different. Not until someone tells you to turn to your right and explains that a little more than five months ago, houses stood there. The same if you look left. And straight ahead.
Take that road a little farther, and you start to get it. Signs bear the words: "Coming Soon" or "Temporary Location." Shattered glass rests in concrete lots.
Pull off on the side of the road and the two most prevalent sounds -- aside from gusting winds on this particular afternoon -- are chainsaws and bulldozers.
On the left is Commerce Bank, housed in a trailer. A few feet further sits another trailer. This one holds Dillon's Pharmacy. Across the street, God's Kitchen advertises free food seven days a week.
Your route ends when East 20th Street intersects with Indiana Avenue, where, on your left, chain-link fences surround one of the most impactful reminders of May 22, 2011.
At 5:40 p.m. CT on the day its seniors held graduation ceremonies at a nearby university, Joplin High School took a direct hit from an EF5 tornado that spanned a mile wide, destroyed close to 7,000 homes and took the lives of 162 city residents.
Five months later, Joplin High is very much back in session. But there are no students here, not at what was a decades-old landmark that was as well-known as any in town.
No, these students are actually back at the starting point of this drive.
They are having class in the mall.
New normal, you see, involves many things.
It includes classes in a defunct Shopko department-store-turned-temporary high school, where classroom walls can't go to the ceiling because of fire code and where the façade has been painted in the red and blue school colors.
It includes the dilemma of whether to buy or rebuild, one that resident Fred Warden is currently weighing. Warden's house exploded around him -- to use his words -- on that late Sunday afternoon in May. Locking arms and legs with his wife, son and son's friend as they huddled in a hallway, Warden arose from the minutes-long nightmare to find a car in his kitchen, another one no more than 10 feet away from him and someone's boat in the backyard. There was no longer a home.
It includes an influx of eager-to-help out-of-towners, particularly this week with the "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" crew in town. They're rebuilding seven homes in seven days just blocks down from the old high school site. All around the area, less-publicized construction sites have also popped up.
There is also a place for baseball -- a prevalent place -- in this new normal. In fact, it serves as one of the strongest ties from Joplin past to Joplin present, a tie that this community, quite frankly, has needed as it attempts to move on.
The sport has a deep tradition in Joplin, where Mickey Mantle made a Minor League stop on his way to New York. It's been nearly a half-century since the Joplin Miners left town. Baseball, though, most certainly did not.
From 2001-06, the city served as the host for the Tournament of Stars, a USA Baseball event, hosted by Major League Baseball, that gathers the nation's best high school talent. According to Mike Greninger, who serves as administrator of the Missouri District 2 Little League District, 29 current Major League players participated in the tournament while Joplin was still its home.
But the core of baseball history in Joplin has much more to do with the everyday folk. Take Sonny Jim Park, a 61-year institution in town until the tornado ripped it apart. The left-field foul pole landed blocks away. The right-field one still hasn't been found. Part of the bathroom tore through the roof of a nearby house.
"Generations upon generations of families have played there," Greninger said. "We want to get families back there again."
They will. Eventually. Donations will ultimately determine how quickly. In the meantime, baseball, thanks to surrounding Little League programs, has still touched local kids, whose seasons were unfairly interrupted.
One of the most poignant stories is the one Greninger tells of an elementary-school-age boy whose home was destroyed. As his family dug through the debris, the boy sat down at where the front porch had been and started to cry.
"Mom, it's not here," he said.
She asked what was missing.
"My ball glove," he answered. "It's gone."
That boy was one of many who got a new one this summer after an equipment drive turned up a healthy collection.
"For just a small portion of time," Greninger said, "his mind was taken off the tornado."
Baseball has done much to assist in the healing and rebuilding process. MLB and the Players Association joined together to pledge an immediate donation of $200,000 toward relief efforts and encouraged fans to support the victims via MLB's national television partners, MLB.com and MLB Network. In addition, relief efforts have been promoted with behind-home-plate signage and public-service announcements during game broadcasts.
In July, MLB and the Arizona Diamondbacks gave a group of 11- and 12-year-olds from the Joplin South Little League a star-studded surprise welcome to Phoenix, Ariz., where they competed in the Jr. RBI Classic and attended events leading up to the All-Star Game, including the All-Star FanFest and the chance to mingle on the field before the Home Run Derby.
"It's all about giving back to the community," said Tom Brasuell, MLB vice president of community affairs. "And we have a connection with the people of Joplin."
Eighteen members of the Joplin High School baseball team made a mid-June trip to St. Louis, a journey that, for many of them, represented their first opportunity to leave the city since it had become a shell of its former self.
As part of a united effort between the Cardinals and Royals to raise money and awareness for one of the worst natural disasters in state history, the Joplin team was invited to Busch Stadium for special recognition. There, nine players took defensive positions in the top half of the first inning, where they had their hats autographed by Cardinals players.
"I had Sharpie marks all over my hand because I couldn't get the lid back on," said senior Dayton Whitehead, who met Colby Rasmus, a Cardinals outfielder who has since been traded to Toronto. "I was just scared I was going to trip or something."
In the bottom half of the inning, a second group took the field. They were greeted by the Royals' starting nine.
"It was probably the highlight of my summer because, I mean, everything else that happened was all negative," senior outfielder Colin Hughes said. "Just for a day we got to kind of get away from it. It was needed. When we went up there, nobody talked about the tornado."
After the team made the drive back to Joplin -- a drive that included, of all cruelties, a tornado warning as they passed through Marshfield, Mo. -- it was back to the diamond. Their high school coach, Kirk Harryman, made sure of that.
In his 13th season as head coach, Harryman also runs the local American Legion baseball summer league. Less than two weeks after the tornado struck, Harryman and others decided it was imperative that the summer baseball season go on.
"We made a commitment to start getting the kids that were ready to start playing going," Harryman said. "The resiliency of our kids to show up and get to play baseball for a couple hours in the evening allowed them not to have to deal with things they shouldn't have had to deal with."
Though a few games had to be canceled, the season did resume. Harryman's team moved its games from the high school field, on which only the backstop remained, to a city field. Several area programs donated money to help out with finances and equipment costs.
Every tournament the boys played in was free, as tournament fees were waived.
The impact of these seemingly minimal gestures is still recognizable.
"It would have been a lot different summer if I hadn't been able to play baseball," said 16-year-old Brett Graham, who boasts about being named after former Royal George Brett.
Added Joplin teammate Bryce Ash: "Having something to do instead of thinking about what just did happen was nice."
The high schoolers will continue to have seasons, even though the 11th and 12th graders will be going to class in a mall until a new school is erected. The target date for that is fall 2014.
In the meantime, a temporary field has been built by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That's not to say inconvenience is absent. The school must still shuttle kids to and from the makeshift school and the makeshift athletic facilities. And all that recent work to install new dugouts and a new backstop at the high school field now seems a waste.
There is the task, too, of finding a way to replace equipment and uniforms. All were destroyed, as nothing from inside Joplin High School proved salvageable.
Two hundred and eighty-four miles away from the center of Joplin, nearly 50,000 people will pack into a baseball stadium and hope that their Cardinals will warrant being described by any number of adjectives -- like resilient, resolute, unified, clutch. Adjectives that, in the context of the rebuilding efforts still going on in Joplin, seem entirely misplaced.
The magnitude of the game, though, will indeed be felt here in Joplin, where residents insist that Cardinals fans largely outweigh Royals ones. Over the past 157 days, distractions have been essential. For some, this Cardinals baseball team -- one that beat its own set of unthinkable odds to reach the World Series -- has provided such an outlet.
"For anybody who can say that they're from Missouri, what a blessing to know that the World Series is in your state," said Robin Sigars, a local pastor and life-long Cardinals fan who spent Tuesday on a construction site for "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."
"The Cardinals did something that Joplin did. When everyone thought we were down, Joplin took a stand."
"Joplin is Cardinals country," added Greninger. "I think it's kind of fitting that through all the devastation we went through this summer that our Cardinals are in the World Series."
Cardinals baseball has been assisting with the healing process for a while now, beginning with its fundraising efforts in the immediate aftermath of the Joplin disaster. Adam Wainwright, Kyle McClellan and David Freese, along with members of the team's front office, traveled here shortly after the tornado to announce the organization's "Teams Unite for Joplin" initiative.
While in Joplin, players signed autographs and listened to stories, including that of one young boy who told McClellan he would have worn his McClellan jersey that day if it hadn't been destroyed, along with everything else in his house.
Several organization-initiated fundraising and auction efforts followed, with the Cardinals collecting over $200,000 in relief money. Michael Hall, vice president of community relations and Cardinals Care, said the club will sit down with Joplin city officials this winter to determine the best use of the funds.
Some might go to baseball fields or programs, though the main interest is in directing the money to where the most children will benefit. Hall said he expects the organization to be ready to make an official announcement next spring.
While the financial aid cannot be understated, the Cardinals have managed to, though unintentionally, also provide welcome emotional assistance to some residents. In these cases, simply the normalcy of a baseball season sufficed.
Andy Wilson set his DVR and left his untouched Joplin home almost immediately after the tornado barreled through the city. He was integrally involved in setting up a disaster relief center in his church and lived there for five days.
Running on minimal sleep, Wilson returned home and opted not to head straight to bed. Rather, he went to the couch.
"I didn't go to the news or CNN. I went to the DVR to catch up on the Cardinals," Wilson said. "That's normal for me. That was my comfort to know they're still there."
While Wilson sat there and watched, it brought him back to the idea that James Earl Jones spoke of in the 1989 movie, "Field of Dreams." This idea that the one constant through the years has been baseball. That baseball, as Jones described it, reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.
It's an idea that the people of Joplin understand all too well as they adapt to this new normal, a normal that integrates unbelievable and unwavering hope for the future without forgetting the past.
"That connection with the Cardinals returned me to a safe place," Wilson said. "The Cardinals were OK. They were playing ball, and we were going to be OK. I know that sounds cliché and cheesy, but sometimes you have to grab a hold of something."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less