Yanks learned their importance on 9/11
Players found solace in their ability to provide joy, distraction
NEW YORK -- When the Yankees took the field in Chicago on Sept. 18, 2001, Bernie Williams couldn't understand why he was about to play a baseball game.
Only one week had passed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought down the Twin Towers, and with New York City still in the midst of its anguish and mourning in the aftermath of the horrific events, playing the White Sox just didn't feel right.
Until he took the field.
"When we started playing, I didn't see the sense of it," Williams said. "We were playing games and resuming our season, and it seemed ridiculous to me.
"It started making sense when I saw the faces of people who had lost loved ones, people who needed something to take them away for a few minutes and see something else," he added. "We helped bring some sense of normalcy to the whole thing."
Of course, normalcy would never be defined quite the same again.
On Monday, Sept. 10, the Yankees and Red Sox had their game at Yankee Stadium rained out. New York held a 13-game lead over Boston in the American League East, so there wasn't much drama to the series. When both teams woke up on Tuesday, the pennant race seemed like a distant memory.
"It was like I was watching a movie or some primetime drama, but it was 9:00 in the morning," Mike Mussina said. "I just stayed at the house for about three days. No one had any idea how long we would be out; the airline industry was shut down, the city was shut down. It was a strange week."
"It was so surreal," Williams said. "It seemed like it couldn't be happening; it was like a bad dream. Unfortunately, it was real. I was home, and by the time I turned the TV on, the first tower was already hit. When the plane hit the second one, I thought I was watching a replay. People were debating whether it was an accident, but once the second one was hit, we knew we were being attacked."
Derek Jeter remembers waking up between 10 and 11 a.m. -- well over an hour after the Twin Towers had been hit -- and hearing a message from his teammate and close friend, Jorge Posada.
"It was kind of eerie," Jeter said. "I had a message from Jorge asking if our game had been canceled. I had no idea why he was asking that until I turned on the TV. Then I couldn't turn it off after that."
By the time Jeter turned his television on, the World Trade Center had been reduced to a smoking pile of ash and debris. Later in the day, Jeter made his way out of his Upper East Side apartment to get some food, and he couldn't believe what he saw.
"It felt like I was on a movie set," he said. "There were no cars on the streets of Manhattan. It was weird."
Baseball postponed its entire schedule following the attacks, as the Yankees gathered in the Bronx for a workout on Saturday, just five days after the attacks.
"Hopefully we can get back to baseball, but I don't think things will be normal for a long time -- if ever again," Torre said that day. "The strangeness of coming together after not seeing each other, it was like we were complete strangers, though we weren't. We were in a baseball clubhouse and I don't think we talked about baseball at all."
After the workout, Torre, Williams, Jeter and other members of the Yankees visited the rescue staging area at the Javits Center, the Armory and St. Vincent's Hospital, though they were unsure of the roles they were supposed to play. Most of the people they were set to encounter had either lost loved ones or were holding out hope that their family members would emerge from the disaster from five days earlier.
"At the Armory, I felt very uncomfortable, like we needed someone to go in and test the waters to see if we had any right being there," Torre said. "One family looked up at us, and with their eyes, asked us to come closer. I remember Bernie going up to someone and saying, 'I don't know what to say, but you look like you need a hug.' That was probably the most emotional part of the whole thing."
"My role in the world seemed very insignificant; I hit a ball for a living," Williams said. "There are people out there who have great jobs that impact people in a way I could never imagine, and it took this incident to realize what kind of impact I actually did have, just by playing for the Yankees."
Jeter remembers feeling uncomfortable during the trip downtown, but he knew that, despite his own feelings, it was a trip he had to take.
"What do you say to someone who just lost a family member?" Jeter said. "It made you feel good, though, because there were people who were happy to see us. It put a smile on some faces, so I was glad we were able to go."
After a Sunday workout, the Yankees boarded a plane and headed for Chicago, where they would restart their season on Tuesday night. There were American flags all around the ballpark, as fans chanted "USA! USA" throughout the game.
Firefighters and police lined the infield before the game, prompting a standing ovation from the fans -- and the players. The Yankees wore NYPD and FDNY hats in honor of those still working back in New York.
"I told them, 'The NY on our hats represents the people of New York, not just the Yankees,'" Torre said, recalling his pregame speech. "We needed to help people get distracted from what they've gone through. We weren't asking them to forget it; we just tried to give them a few hours of enjoyment."
"It was just a somber week," Mussina said. "Getting back on the field may have brought us -- and other people -- some relief from all the stress, all the anguish and all the emotion. We got out there, did what we were supposed to be doing and got away from it for a couple of hours."
The Yankees played three games in Chicago and three in Baltimore before returning home. On Sept. 25, two weeks after the attacks, Yankee Stadium opened its doors for business once again, hosting one of the most emotional nights in the ballpark's storied history.
During pregame ceremonies, players joined members of the police, fire department and rescue teams on the field as a giant American flag covered the outfield.
"It was emotional," Mariano Rivera said. "A lot of people were crying."
Despite losing to Tampa Bay that night, the Yankees clinched the AL East title after Boston lost its game. The celebration in the clubhouse was subdued, as players congratulated one another, hugging and shaking hands. No champagne corks were popped, though each player was given a bottle of champagne by the team in honor of the title.
"It was secondary," Jeter said. "It was a little different, especially playing in New York. It was great for the fans, because it gave them something to cheer for, even if it was just for a couple of hours each day."
Five years later, the memories are still crystal clear.
The Yankees may not have been able to help heal the wounds inflicted on families as a result of the events of Sept. 11, but they were able to provide a distraction -- no matter how momentary it may have been -- to those people looking for something else to focus on.
"I never realized how much of an impact I had as a player, what I represented to the city in a situation like that," Williams said. "It's obviously a time I will never forget."
"Baseball was the furthest thing from our minds, but then we realized how important it was," Torre said. "It seems so long ago, yet it seems like it was 10 minutes ago. It will always be a vivid memory."
Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.