JOE DIMAGGIO once explained why he played hard every game this way: "Because there might be someone who never saw me play before."

It is instructive that DiMaggio won nine championships during his 13-year major league career and his closest contemporary, Ted Williams, won none. While the premise that Williams played on inferior teams is valid, his teams were not without talent as surely as those Yankees of the 1930s and 1940s were not without flaws. But Williams would rather take the collar than admit he cared what the paying customers thought of him.

"Gods do not answer letters," the author John Updike once wrote of Williams' disdain for his public.

Many of us are familiar with DiMaggio's quote. Some of us have used it as a motivational tool. Try hard always, because always there is an effect.

Live like you were dying, as Tim McGraw sang.

It all sounds so jingoistic and unreal.

Until you realize how many DiMaggios there are out there, living each day as if it's their first, or last.

"He felt if he didn't go, somebody else would have to," Travis Manion's father, Thomas, said after hearing of his son's death in Iraq.

By now, we know all about Thomas Manion's son. He starred in three sports at La Salle High School. He was an honors student who graduated from the Naval Academy and followed his father into the Marines. In his second tour of duty in Iraq, he was 26 when he died of a sniper ambush.

It was a full-bodied 26.

A day earlier, there was a story of a suburban kid set to graduate on time despite spending most of his high-school years surviving leukemia. Anyone who has battled cancer or been around someone battling cancer can attest how difficult even the most simple tasks are. For Haddonfield's Sam Johnson to take on a full course load, including advanced courses, well . . . wow.

Then there is Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer, his wife Karen and Camp Erin. Named after Erin Metcalf, who passed away in 2000 at age 17 after a prolonged battle with cancer, the camps, spread over six states, attempt to help children from the ages of 6 to 17 come to grips with the death of someone close to them. Sixty kids are expected to attend Camp Erin-Philadelphia from Aug. 17 to 19.

"Are we going to change the world?" Moyer asked in a Daily News story last week. "No. But we can try to change some lives."

That is, of course, changing the world - as Moyer readily admitted when it was mentioned the day the story appeared.

It's another jingle, yes, but we all change the world just by living in it. The question always is, how and to what degree? Will we create chaos and heartache, like the madman at Virginia Tech?

Are we content to operate at half-speed? Or do we go all-out? Do we live like we are dying?

Because, well, we all are. The where, when and how are the variables.

DiMaggio's father, Giuseppe, was an immigrant fisherman who worked long hours for little pay and supported nine children. Because he did not understand and appreciate baseball, he thought his eighth child to be on the lazy side, especially when Joe resisted attempts to be integrated into the family business. At one point he urged the son to go into bookkeeping, because bookkeepers could earn their money sitting down.

You think that wasn't in his mind every time he took the field?

Summer mornings are special for everyone. But if you live along the coast, with the mix of plant life and ocean air, well, the early-morning smell of that seeps into your every cell, lives inside of you for life. I took that for granted until one day, sitting with a sibling beaten down by radiation and chemotherapy, she said, "Just one more time I would like to feel that."

She died a month later.

I try to take it all in now - the good, the bad, the indifferent - knowing there are people out there who would trade spots with me in a second, the way fans would with DiMaggio.

And knowing there are people like Travis Manion, who would return to that Mideast hell hole and fight, so someone else didn't have to.

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Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/donnellon.