09/07/11 10:00 AM ET
Baseball recalls wide-ranging emotions of 9/11
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
Ten years later, it doesn't seem like 10 years or even 10 days have gone by since the horrific, unspeakable images were first seared into our collective psyche for as long as we live.
Ten years later, the players, managers, coaches, broadcasters and team employees of Major League Baseball recall the tragedies but also the heroism of Sept. 11, 2001, and they do it with the somber recognition that what they do for a living is a mere game and not very important in a world that still contains evil, heartbreak and loss.
The first thing they remember, like all of us, is the brilliant blue sky over Manhattan that became so scarred and smoky so quickly on that bright morning, and the phone calls that flooded in from friends and family members telling them that they, too, had to bear witness to this catastrophic moment in history.
Texas Rangers third baseman Michael Young was with his wife, Cristina, in a hotel room in San Francisco during his team's trip to Oakland to play the A's. He got the word from a teammate to flip on the TV, a bit startled to be called so early on the West Coast, not even 7 a.m. PT.
He had the same reaction as many of us.
"My wife and I didn't even talk," Young said. "We just stared at the TV in disbelief just like everybody else. ... It was a jolt."
It was unbelievable. It was devastating. Could it possibly be real?
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, then the skipper of the Cleveland Indians, watched it while being treated in a hospital, and he had to turn it off and turn it on again to make sure it wasn't "a fiction movie."
But it was happening, and for those who lived in New York at the time, it was right there in front of them. In fact, two current members of the New York Mets could see it in the sky.
Relief pitcher Pedro Beato was a high school student at Xaverian in Brooklyn, and he and his friend sneaked out of an assembly to climb on the roof and take a look. Outfielder Mike Baxter could see the smoke from his neighborhood of Whitestone in Queens.
|"It was really, really a trying time for New Yorkers and Americans, and it's something that you'll never forget where you were when that happened."|
|-- Mets rookie Mike Baxter|
"The hardest part is looking at your friends whose parents were firefighters or people in finance downtown. Communities were hit hard. ... And I went to school with kids whose families were affected by it, and I think that's really when it set in, when you realize the magnitude of what happened. ... I think it kind of stays with you forever. You're always going to remember that, and it's hard to shake that."
Soon the crushing reality set in, and the world realized that the United States had become the victim of the largest terrorist attack on its soil, that thousands of lives were lost not only in New York but in the Pentagon and in the wreckage of a crashed jet in a field in Shanksville Pa., that these attacks might be just the beginning of more terrorism or even a larger war.
That's when baseball and a lot of life's other luxuries, diversions and simple pleasures were pushed aside, if not forgotten altogether.
"Naturally, we weren't thinking about baseball," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "We were reflecting about not only the lives lost, but where do we go from here? Was it going to change our lives dramatically? What was the security of the country like?
"There were a lot of things that came to mind when that attack happened, and fortunately we've moved forward as a country and are still mourning the loss of the lives, and we're going to make this a better world for our children, so that's where our thoughts were."
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the baseball players who were in New York -- the Yankees and Chicago White Sox, getting ready to start a series at Yankee Stadium that night -- were thrown into a maelstrom of fear and confusion as all of baseball was put on hold and routine travel logistics became huge question marks.
The White Sox stayed in their hotel, the Grand Hyatt at Grand Central Station, and wondered if the famous transit center adjacent to where they were lodging was a potential target. Unable to fly out of New York, the White Sox were given the opportunity to take a bus back to Chicago. They took it, embarking on an 18-hour journey home.
"I remember looking out the window down the Hudson River," former White Sox outfielder Aaron Rowand said. "The whole skyline of New York City minus the two towers that I had just seen two nights before. Just a huge plume cloud of smoke, and the wind was carrying it down toward the Statue of Liberty. It was smoldering and burning and everything else as we went over the bridge."
In Milwaukee, where the stately downtown Pfister Hotel was in the midst of hosting Owners Meetings, Commissioner Bud Selig viewed the disaster on television, reeled in shock and sadness, regrouped and began thinking about what baseball would do.
"In our function as a social institution -- and baseball is a social institution -- we wanted to be not only sensitive, but we wanted to play our small role in the recovery process," Selig said in 2006. "It was a painful time, an emotional time, but we did fulfill that role."
The game would return, but not right away. Games were slated to begin again Sept. 17, six days later, with an altered schedule throughout the Major Leagues. And while the players might not have grasped it fully at the time, it was the right thing to do.
Ten years later, they realize it.
"I think it was a good idea to cancel the season for a week," White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko said. "Truthfully, I think it could have been a bit longer. I don't think anybody was looking forward to going back and playing. It shook up a lot of guys and it was a tough couple of days.
"The reason that we came back -- and I think I speak for a lot of players -- is that the people that go to baseball games and sporting events go there to kind of escape and get away from the everyday stuff. ... I think it supplied something for those people to come and watch and get away for three or four hours of the impact of all that. So I think that's how most players looked at it.
"It wasn't that your heart wasn't into it, just that you were afraid or felt bad almost, enjoying it and being normal when so much wasn't normal everywhere else. I think a lot of it was players, fans, everybody trying to show who did it that you're not going to affect the way we live here, even though maybe on the inside, you didn't really believe that. ... You had to stand up and be tough, even though it was a tough time to be tough."
Everyone stood up.
Rival teams joined one another on the fields, holding American flags in emotional pregame ceremonies. The words of legendary voices such as Jack Buck and Vin Scully boomed over P.A. systems, urging all of us to return to our normal lives. And great baseball returned to the diamonds of the Major Leagues.
The first game back in New York took place at Shea Stadium between the Mets and Atlanta Braves. The Mets trailed, 2-1, heading into the bottom of the eighth inning. The crowd was quiet.
"I think the first day back ... was a lot of uncertainty," said John Franco, a Mets reliever at the time. "We weren't sure how the crowd was going to react or how the city was going to react, but once the Mayor [Rudy Giuliani] and President [George W. Bush] said, 'Let's get back to work, let's get back to normalcy,' we came back and we played the game, and it was kind of a different crowd. It wasn't really as loud as usual."
Then the Mets got a runner on first base. Then Mike Piazza stepped up to the plate and hit a ball way beyond the center-field wall onto the camera scaffolding, a resounding, majestic go-ahead shot that gave the Mets a victory and New York a long-awaited reason to smile.
"That jog around the bases, I think people kind of forgot for a second what was going on in the real world and kind of just embraced the fact that life was moving on, but never forgetting," said New Jersey native Mark DeRosa, a member of the Braves at the time.
"You looked in the stands and you saw people hugging and cheering and crying, and I'm sure all the players, myself included, we had the goosebumps," Franco added. "You couldn't have written a better script, a better ending for that."
|"You looked in the stands and you saw people hugging and cheering and crying, and I'm sure all the players, myself included, we had the goosebumps."|
|-- Former Mets reliever John Franco|
"I was thinking to myself ... that it would be divine intervention if the Mets won that game. And when the ball came off Mike Piazza's bat in the bottom of the eighth inning, I was like, 'Man, that's so apropos.' And the expressions that the New York fans gave us ... where it's usually chaotic and mean-spirited, it was a lot of thank yous and there were a lot of tears in peoples' eyes. We were just kind of doing our duty to restore some normalcy to the city of New York."
But not even a great, fun game could do that, and baseball people saw it firsthand.
Over the next few months, players, coaching staffs and executives were asked to visit Ground Zero and spend time with firefighters, police officers, rescue workers and volunteers offering their services in the cleanup and recovery effort.
The images and experiences were startling and moving and remain vivid 10 years later.
"The one thing I really remember is that it was the first time that I've really smelled death," said Mark Grace, who was with the Arizona Diamondbacks. "It smelled like death. And I don't ever want to smell that again, to be honest with you. "
Grace's teammate back then, third baseman Matt Williams, recalled an overwhelming sense of emptiness as he rode in a bus toward the rubble.
"As we got closer, the window sills started getting higher and higher with dust," Williams said. "And that was eerie because everything was gone. And that was all that was left.
"And then getting a chance to go to those command centers ... where they knew where their guys were, but they just couldn't get to them. ... And that's the most helpless feeling -- knowing that your guys are there, knowing that people have died, but you just simply can't reach them. So it put everything in perspective, for sure, because baseball didn't mean much at that point."
Cubs manager Mike Quade was an Oakland A's coach when his team came to New York to start the American League Division Series against the Yankees that October. He said he'll never forget visiting Ground Zero, either.
"Even after seeing it, getting there, going there and seeing everything that happened -- and having been in New York a million times and seeing the towers and everything else -- to see it reduced to rubble and the damage to the buildings around ... I was angry. I mean, real angry.
"As it should have been, to me, the people around that area that day, everybody who went there, it was like a funeral. There was quiet. Reverence. ... It was mind-boggling to step off the train and take the walk to see that. It left me speechless. ... It was more, for me, a quiet time to reflect on the evils of the world and the fact that they are real, and then take a moment to remember all the people who lost their lives."
Pittsburgh Pirates president Frank Coonelly was working for Major League Baseball at the time. He would commute via train from a stop near the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border all the way into Manhattan. He remembered what it was like to walk the streets in the shadow of the World Trade Center site.
"It wasn't business as usual in Manhattan, I can assure you of that," Coonelly said. "Our train from Hamilton, N.J., had armed National Guard members on the train with MK16s for weeks, if not more than a month, and you just walked through the streets of New York, and posters of missing people who obviously had perished lined every street corner, every wall, every fence. Flowers, other memories of loved ones who had passed away, pictures ...
"It certainly gave you a different perspective on life, on the frailty of life and on what's important in life."
And somehow, once again, throughout all of this suffering and pain, baseball, while not important in the grand scheme, became something to celebrate.
The Yankees made it to the World Series against Arizona and put on three of the most memorable games in the history of the Fall Classic for the New York fans, replete with a bald eagle flying in from center field, President Bush throwing a strike for the first pitch, stirring renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America" and raucous, passionate crowds soaking in every pitch.
"Everybody's emotions were just ... they were right at the surface," recalls then Arizona infielder Craig Counsell. "That was the big thing you remember -- just the heightened sense in the city, still shock, but at the same time, people trying to move on and enjoy a baseball game, enjoy some great baseball games and some memorable baseball games.
"People that were at the games, I guarantee you they'd say it was the best baseball game they'd ever seen. And any night they could have picked in New York, for sure."
Ted Lilly was a young Yankees pitcher during that World Series and said he remembers the unity of the crowd more than anything else.
"It was electric," Lilly said. "It wasn't so much the game of baseball. For some reason, I don't know, it was the people all being in one place at one time more than the game on the field. It was the 50,000 people in the stands all feeling like we're together and we're part of the U.S. And throughout the city, sensing the pain that our country was going through.
"There was no doubt, being a Yankee at that time, it kind of felt like, in a sense, we were playing baseball for our country. "
The Yankees didn't win that World Series. They lost in Phoenix in a memorable Game 7 that saw the great Mariano Rivera falter in the final inning. New York didn't get its championship that year. But New York and the rest of America had begun the healing process. Victory would come in the will to fight, the will to rebuild, the will to not be defeated and the will to never forget what had happened.
Ten years later, no one has forgotten -- not in baseball and not anywhere.
"You take nothing for granted," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "I think that the families, especially the kids that lost a parent -- now there's one parent in a home when there were two. There were so many lives that could have helped shape the world that were lost. You wonder how something like that could happen.
"But one thing about the United States, we try to continue to live our lives through all types of adversity that may happen to us, and it was a good thing to be able to get back. ... We survived and we're certainly more aware now."
Those sentiments were echoed by Padres coach and former big leaguer Dave Roberts, a cancer survivor whose father served his country in the Marine Corps.
"I think if there's any positive ... in the sacrifice and unfortunate circumstance, it is that this country has banded together and come closer," Roberts said. "You see it everywhere. We think about the lives that are lost all the time.
"From on the baseball field to off the baseball field, the soldiers are protecting us and making what we do possible. It's something that we haven't forgotten."