09/07/11 10:00 AM ET
Events of 9/11 left impression on Fall Classic
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
On Sept. 10, 2001, the Yankees appeared well on their way to another chance to earn the game's greatest prize, standing at 13 games up on the rival Red Sox with 19 to play and primed for a run at their fourth consecutive American League pennant.
On Sept. 11, 2001, none of that mattered.
The Twin Towers had fallen that morning in the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and New York was suddenly a profoundly different place. At that point, the Yankees' annual quest for October glory couldn't have been less important to anyone in New York -- or anywhere -- including the Yankees themselves.
"It was in the part of the season where you're starting to concentrate on postseason and the World Series and all the things we were accustomed to," recalls Paul O'Neill, then the Yankees' veteran right fielder. "All of a sudden, for a while it was the last thing on people's minds. You were in shock, along with everybody else in the country."
Some six weeks later, the shock hadn't nearly worn off, but baseball had returned to the fields, finished out the season and narrowed down to two teams to play for the 2001 World Series title: the Arizona Diamondbacks, a new franchise with the oldest roster in baseball, and the Yankees, a baseball powerhouse representing a city still reeling from attacks that took the lives of so many of its citizens.
This would be a World Series beyond compare. A decade later as the world pauses to reflect on 9/11 and its aftermath, it stands out as a unique confluence of America and its pastime. The 2001 World Series delivered exactly what a city and a nation needed from it: a full seven games of glorious drama and constant reminders of a time and a place unlike anything before or since.
Says O'Neill: "That was my sixth World Series, and the World Series is something you never take for granted. It's not like it was my one and only World Series. That's why I can say it was so different."
Different, it was, in ways that couldn't have been imagined.
Imagine: The biggest pitch being delivered not by any of the half-dozen or so Cy Young candidates on both sides but by a 55-year-old man wearing a Kevlar vest. The Yankees, for all their history on the game's biggest stage, producing their greatest comeback -- and then doing it again the next night. And an ending with a player who hit 57 homers in the regular season dropping in a bloop single with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7.
Four of the games were played in Arizona, where it ended with the flourish of that World Series walk-off. But it's impossible to think about this World Series without thinking of New York City, where the heart of a country was so profoundly wounded but continued to heal in ways that sometimes seemed magical. It's impossible to forget that New York was the stage, and how New Yorkers were central characters in an uplifting display of resilience.
It's no wonder the winning team's most precious memento from that World Series includes an indelible message, one forever linked with what transpired in Lower Manhattan that fateful Tuesday.
"On the inside of our World Series ring, we have 'Never Forget,' " says Luis Gonzalez, the slugger who blooped home the Game 7 winner. "It's obviously not the fact we don't want to forget that we won the World Series. This was a life-changing experience that we went through, not just us as players but the whole world."
Ultimately, the 2001 World Series became an unforgettable tile in the mosaic of healing experiences that followed America's darkest day, and the most resonant example of how baseball in its own way helped heal a city and a nation.
"I've said it many times: I've never been prouder to be a part of the game of baseball," said Bob Brenly, then the first-year manager of the D-backs. "We are entertainment. We are a distraction. America needed something at that point in history."
The Yankees, with much the same roster that had won the World Series the previous three seasons, clinched their 14th AL East title exactly two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, in their first home game back at Yankee Stadium.
Obviously, it was an emotional night, one that began with a tribute to victims and rescue workers, punctuated by cheers for Mayor Rudy Guiliani and chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" The Yankees, whose players had taken to the streets and firehouses to support their neighbors, lost but clinched when the Red Sox lost to the Orioles. There wouldn't be any champagne in the clubhouse anyway, not this year.
The D-backs were a team full of veterans who possessed All-Star credentials, awards and lofty stats -- but only one of them, second baseman Craig Counsell, had what they all wanted: a World Series ring. After clinching the NL West on the final weekend, they beat the Cardinals with a walk-off win in Game 5 of the NL Division Series and then took the Braves in five of a seven-game NL Championship Series, reaching the World Series in the franchise's fourth year, the fastest such path in history.
The Yankees had trouble out of the postseason gates, losing the opening two Division Series home games to the upstart A's. As they boarded the bus for their charter flight to Oakland, New Yorkers had a message for them.
"One person after another said, 'We will see you back here,' and 'There will be a Game 5,' and 'New Yorkers never say die.' It was that type of mentality," said Scott Brosius, the third baseman who would be on his way to his fourth and final World Series in pinstripes.
The Yankees won twice in Oakland, kept alive by Jeter's otherworldly pick-and-pitch play in Game 3. A two-inning save from Mariano Rivera in Game 5 sent them to the ALCS, where they met the Mariners, dispatching the winners of 116 regular-season games in five.
Along the way, the intensity on and off the field was a lot to digest for everyone in pinstripes.
"You go to the ballpark, especially as you get to the playoffs and into the World Series, you're geared up and the games are important," Brosius said. "But then during batting practice you're meeting the child of one of the pilots who died in one of the crashes, or you're meeting other people who suffered these tragedies or were directly affected by all this.
"You're crying before the game, you're geared up during the game, and then after the game you're emotionally just absolutely shot. Then you turn around and do it again."
The message had become clear: The Yankees were part of the fabric of New York, and the Yankees were helping mend that damaged fabric.
Recalls star shortstop Derek Jeter: "I don't know if the whole country was rooting for us, but I was well aware of what it meant to New Yorkers at the time, because we had a lot of people come up to us in the streets and say they weren't really baseball fans but they found themselves pulling for us, at least in that month there in the postseason."
For the D-backs, who otherwise would have been the popular underdogs against the vaunted dynasty, it was an understandable case of role reversal.
"I think for once, in recent history anyway, the Yankees were the team that everybody wanted to win -- for the city, for the country, for everything that had happened," said Matt Williams, Arizona's third baseman then and currently the team's third-base coach. "We were kind of the hated team because we were trying to beat the beloved Yankees. But baseball's baseball, and we wanted to win and they wanted to win."
The first two games were in Arizona, and the home team won both, thanks to superb pitching from their dynamic duo.
Curt Schilling allowed just one run on three hits in a 9-1 victory in Game 1, which included a Gonzalez homer in a four-run third and a Mark Grace double in a four-run fourth. Randy Johnson was even more dominant in Game 2, allowing just three hits while striking out 11 in a 4-0 victory.
But the World Series changed when it moved to New York. So would the D-backs.
"We voted before we took off to New York that we wanted to go to Ground Zero to pay our respects first of all, but secondly see all the workers who were putting in all that time through this difficult situation," Gonzalez said.
Those who went came away changed men.
"The lasting memory that I've got initially is driving in the bus to go to Ground Zero, and as we got closer, the window sills started getting higher and higher with dust," Williams recalls.
Then the bus stopped, and the team filed outside and into the wreckage that still existed after weeks of tireless efforts from thousands.
"For the short time we were there, you see these rescue workers with soot on their faces and dirt on their clothes and climbing out of that hole, and then you see the smiles on their faces when they had a chance to meet Randy Johnson or Curt Schilling or Luis Gonzalez and once again take their minds off the awful duty that they had at that time, even for a few minutes," Brenly said.
Workers dialed up their kids, put them on the phone with players. Brenly's son, Michael, took the hardhat given to him and had workers sign it, a tribute to the true stars. And the baseball stars were humbled -- faced with humanity like never before.
"It was very dark, it was very sad, but it was also incredibly uplifting, because the emergency workers, the firemen and policemen, were so upbeat," recalls Grace, Arizona's first baseman at the time and a broadcaster for the team now. "They were so proud not only of the people they lost trying to help people, but of the people that were saved."
Said Brenly: "The ride back from Ground Zero to the hotel afterwards was as quiet as I've ever heard a team bus in my life."
When the players on both sides arrived for Game 3, they encountered bomb-sniffing dogs in the clubhouses, and an increase over what already were tightened security measures. In the bowels of Yankee Stadium, President George W. Bush prepared to deliver the most important and historic pitch of the World Series.
"When we went in to talk to the umpires before the game, I knew all the umpires except one," then-Yankees manager Joe Torre recalls. "I thought it might have been somebody at the time I didn't know. It turns out it was one of the Secret Service agents who was going to be out on the field with the President."
The President of the United States reached the mound for the ceremonial first pitch and, underneath a tattered flag atop the famous Yankee Stadium façade, he gave a thumbs up.
"It was like he was standing on the tallest point in the ballpark and almost like challenging everybody: We're here and we're not going away, and we're going to stand our ground and be proud of our country and do what we have to do to defend our country," Brenly said.
Famously warned by Jeter that he'd be booed if he didn't throw from the mound or if he bounced it to home plate, the President did throw from the mound. And he did throw a strike, right over the plate.
"I know it was important for the President to make sure he threw a strike," Torre said. "It wasn't easy with that bullet-proof vest on."
Recalls O'Neill: "I can still remember running sprints with Scott Brosius before the game, getting loose and just absolutely stopping and watching President Bush walk to the mound. To be honest with you, I was in awe of that, but then I was so happy when it was over and he was off the field. Those are the weird things that enter your mind when you don't know exactly where the world is going at that point."
Almost a footnote, yet so important on a baseball level, the Yankees won the game, 2-1, Mariano Rivera relieving Roger Clemens with a two-inning save that included four strikeouts.
Game 4 will be remembered for two things: The last blown save of October and the first World Series homer ever in November.
Brenly pulled Schilling after seven innings and 88 pitches in favor of closer Byung-Hyun Kim, who promptly struck out the side in the eighth inning in his World Series debut. But in the ninth, O'Neill's broken bat single with one out set up a two-run homer from Tino Martinez that tied the game and shook the very foundation of Yankee Stadium.
Kim remained in the game in the 10th inning, and with two outs -- just after the stroke of midnight, pushing the World Series into November for the first time -- Jeter hit an opposite-field homer to send the Stadium into a frenzy again, evening up the series at 2-2.
The next night would prove even more dramatic, and touching.
Once again, the Yankees were down by two runs, this time thanks to fifth-inning solo homers by Steve Finley and Rod Barajas. As the game entered the top of the ninth, Yankees fans brought another dose of humanity to a series already overflowing with it.
"Paul O'NE-ill," they began chanting in the sing-song way they traditionally chant "Let's go, YAN-kees!" -- an impromptu tribute to a stalwart for nine years through five World Series appearances who was about to retire.
"It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it," O'Neill, now an analyst for Yankees games for the YES Network, recalls. "It was such an unscripted thing that happened. At the time, we were losing the game, and I was always taught that's not the time to be waving at the crowd when you're losing Game 5 of the World Series.
"That cannot happen anywhere else in baseball, I truly believe that. That's easy to say and it might be a cliche: Only in New York."
But O'Neill's career wasn't over, because neither was the game. Once again, magic struck in the bottom of the ninth.
Kim, back in the next day after his Game 4 struggles, allowed a leadoff double to Jorge Posada but then recorded two outs. Up came Brosius, and he delivered a two-run homer to the left-field bleachers to tie the game.
Only in New York. But who would have believed this one, there or anywhere else?
"That was what was going through my head as I was rounding the bases: No way did this just happen again," Brosius said.
What was going through his body were the reverberations of 57,000-plus fans at Yankee Stadium whose mending hearts were being poured out in cheers and shouts, hugs and high-fives.
"New York is a loud, intense place to play a game anyway, but that Series just took it to a whole other level," said Brosius, who since retiring in 2001 has been coaching baseball in the quieter climes of his alma mater, Linfield College in Oregon. "There was just so much emotion at the park.
"I had never really felt vibration in an outdoor stadium before, but I felt that for the first time in the first round. It almost got louder as we got through, and it really just peaked in Game 5."
Again, the game went into extra innings. Again, the Yankees found a way to win, with Alfonso Soriano singling home a sliding Chuck Knoblauch for the winning run, sending the series back to Arizona with the Yankees holding a 3-2 lead.
By the end of those three days in the Bronx, it was clear something special had happened in the wake of something still horrifying.
"Bar none, those were the three most exciting World Series games that I ever played in," said O'Neill, who played in five Fall Classics with the Yankees and one with the Reds. "It's like New York changed then. You saw people hugging, you saw people cheering. There was just a feeling."
History will show that when the 2001 World Series left New York, it ended up belonging to Arizona.
But even as the series changed venues, the specter of 9/11 followed, with Mayor Giuliani making the decision to leave town for the first time since the attacks to go to Arizona -- bringing families of 9/11 victims with him -- only to have to return to New York because there was an anthrax scare right in his own building, City Hall.
From a baseball standpoint, history must show also that the D-backs, with most of the baseball world rooting for their powerful opponents, used every bit of their vast veteran experience to muster up a huge Game 6 victory to turn the tide back in their favor.
"We were down, 3-2, coming back to Arizona, so that was a must-win game," said Johnson, who was the winning pitcher in a 15-2 victory. "I think people might have forgotten that, because we did win that game and Game 6 was a bit of a blowout.
"Heading into the game, if anything the only momentum we had was we were back at home playing in front of our fans. But beyond that we had lost our last three games in heartbreak fashion. It went from everything was great to now it was a must-win game."
The D-backs did win it, chasing Andy Pettitte after two innings. Johnson dominated for seven innings before handing off after 104 pitches -- leaving a few available for the next night.
And come Game 7, the Yankees did have to face not only Schilling but also Johnson -- they wound up being co-Most Valuable Players. After shutting down the eighth inning once the Yankees had taken a 2-1 lead, the Big Unit retired the side in order in the ninth.
Still, that left the D-backs in the unenviable position of needing to come back against one of the all-time great closers in Rivera. But a throwing error by Rivera on a possible double-play ball and a Tony Womack double later, the game was tied. With one out, the bases loaded and the infield drawn in, Gonzalez delivered one of the loudest bloop singles in the history of the game for a 3-2 victory.
The D-backs danced on the field, and their fans roared.
"I honestly in my heart believe that if we had won in New York City, we wouldn't have celebrated the way we did in Phoenix, just out of respect for what went on there and the fans. The whole city of New York -- and the world, really -- was pulling for them," Gonzalez said.
In the end, it was a fitting finale for a World Series without compare.
"I was fortunate enough to be in six of them and won four of them," Torre said. "We lost that one, but it still the most exciting and emotional World Series I was in."
That the Yankees lost, well, perhaps that's not the way everyone would have written the script.
"As a player, not that you ever don't want it, but if there was ever a year that deep down you really wanted it that much more, you wanted the city to have that, you wanted to bring the championship back to New York and have the parade and all those types of things, that was it," Brosius said. "If the game was fair at all, we would have won that series. But that's not really how it works."
No, it wasn't the year for the Yankees, bested by a deserving opponent in one of the most thrilling and emotional World Series ever contested.
That's life. That's baseball.
And like never before, life and baseball intertwined at the 2001 World Series, and a changed world, or at least the corners of it baseball touches, began to heal.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. Hal Bodley, Steve Gilbert, Bryan Hoch and Carrie Muskat contributed to this article. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.