The preface of at least one history course taken in your lifetime will include the phrase, “one incident can change the course of events.” Some will resonate forever in the annals of time and alter the beliefs we hold true.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were this generation’s Pearl Harbor: a day that lived in infamy but would not be forgotten. The world as we knew it no longer displayed the same innocence it once evoked. Thousands of lives were lost and some witnesses to the bloodshed and destruction at the World Trade Center. The country stood still as it attempted to regain a sense of normalcy in the weeks that followed. Organizations and companies pondered their role in the recovery effort. Where did they fit in? Major League Baseball, a pillar of the American culture and recreation, assumed a responsibility many could not fathom by assisting those in need where the sole outcome would be perseverance and healing.
The 2001 season marked a crossroads for Major League Baseball. Nearly seven years removed from the 1994 strike, the game was on the verge of another potential work stoppage within a year. As the New York Yankees dominated the sport with four World Championships in five seasons, the revenue gaps between the large and small market teams began to grow. Teams with lower payrolls could not compete with the league heavyweights both on the field and in the checkbook.
Whispers regarding the growing size of the game’s elite became louder one season after sixteen players hit upwards of 40 home runs. The game would continue to transition into the twenty-first century headlined by the final seasons of Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn. Ripken and Gwynn would bridge the gap to the next generation of stars, led by Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Grizzled veterans Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds experienced an unexpected resurgence in their late 30s, turning the clock back on father time and obliterating the record books.
On the night of September 10 that fateful year, the game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees was postponed due to severe weather in the New York area. Yankees pitcher Clemens was vying for his 20th win of the season and would have to wait another start. The Seattle Mariners had already compiled 100 wins and were within striking distance of the 1998 Yankees for the American League record of 114. Bonds paced baseball with sixty-three home runs, just seven shy of the single-season record set in 1998 by the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire.
The next morning began peaceful and tranquil, but quickly turned bleak. Four planes were hijacked by terrorists, two of which crashed into each of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Michael Pomeranz, a former minor league pitcher and future Padres broadcaster, would be one of the first voices to report the news as an anchor for WCBS-TV in New York.
After initial thoughts of pilot error, the second strike and the subsequent ones into the Pentagon and Shanksville, PA, confirmed the attacks were deliberate, and many, including those in baseball, were in disbelief in the sudden turn of events.
In the absence of social media, television provided the callous and vidid images of the terrorists attacks. In New York City, members of the Yankees witnessed the tragedy through the windows of Manhattan apartments and structures. Yankees catcher Jorge Posada spent the morning in a New York hospital at the aid of his two year son, who was slated to have surgery after a setback with treatment for craniosynostosis. Posada’s son wanted to watch cartoons but instead saw reality flash before his eyes.
“We were there for almost a month and half,” Posada said. “I remember watching the Twin Towers, the airplanes and everything.” (FOXNews.com).
Shortstop Derek Jeter was waking up when the attacks occurred and realized its severity from a cell phone call from a friend.
“The message was, ‘Let me know if there is still a game tonight because something happened at the World Trade Center,'” Jeter said. “I turned on the TV and I saw what everyone else saw. It was on every channel so it didn’t really make a difference what channel you had on.”(ESPN.com).
Unlike the Yankees, the New York Mets were on the road on September 11, heading back to New York following a series in Pittsburgh. The soot, ash, and smoke remained affixed in the sky as the Mets returned home. Manager Bobby Valentine remembered vividly the environment surrounding New York City the day after 9/11 as the team bus pulled into the George Washington Bridge and wondered whether baseball could serve any role in the recovery process.
“I remember wondering, ‘What do we do with the group?'” said Valentine. “If we were going to just be a Band-Aid over this gaping wound or were we going to actually make a difference?” (Hartford Courant).
Mets second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, along with his teammates, began the process by distributing goods to the victims of the attacks outside of Shea Stadium.
“A lot was done here. Each and everyone of us helped distribute things to people that were in need at the moment and to those that were working there,” Alfonzo said. “It was a way for everyone to contribute from their heart. We did it willingly. At that moment the city needed us. Everybody did their part.”
In the hours after the attacks, Major League Baseball needed to figure out a course of action for the sport in its aftermath. Forty years earlier, the National Football League was faced with a similar circumstance following the assassination of President Kennedy. Commissioner Pete Rozelle, unlike his counterparts in the American Football League, choose to have the games proceed as scheduled to overwhelming criticism and scrutiny. Shortly before his death, Rozelle said his decision for the league to play two days after Kennedy death was his sole regret as commissioner of the NFL.
Major League Baseball, unlike the NFL, had shut down the sport during a tragedy before in the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco during the 1989 World Series. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig acted swiftly following the 9/11 attacks by postponing a week’s worth of games, resuming play on September 17.
When play resumed, Major League Baseball assumed the responsibility of creating a diversion from the tragic events to aid the healing process. The Mets and Yankees replaced their caps with those of the New York City Police and Fire Departments. Each Major League club would wear an American flag on the back of each jersey and on the left side of each cap for the remainder of the season. The song “God Bless America” would be be played in every ballpark during the seventh inning stretch alongside “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”
The St. Louis Cardinals returned to Busch Stadium on September 17, where revered broadcaster Jack Buck delivered a patriotic poem to help alleviate the distress of a fallen nation. Buck’s words assumed greater meaning after his passing less than a year later.
Both New York clubs resumed their respective regular seasons on the road, before the Mets returned to Shea Stadium to face the Braves on September 21. The contest marked the first game played in city of New York following 9/11, and the fears of another terrorist attack were prevalent. Major League Baseball implemented security measures regarding bags, bottles, and containers, which remain in place today. Staten Island native Jason Marquis took the mound for the Atlanta Braves against journeyman Bruce Chen for the New York Mets. The rivalry between the clubs was cast aside. Booing would be non-existent and the most boisterous cheers were reserved for the police, firefighters, and paramedics.
With the Mets trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, catcher Mike Piazza blasted a two run home run off another Staten Island native, Steve Karsay, to give the city of New York a victory in recovery.
Although the Mets made a spirited run towards the end of the season, the Yankees would be the sole franchise to represent the city in the postseason. Yankee Stadium served as a setting for healing and perseverance. The traits were inherent during the Division Series against the Oakland A’s. After dropping the first two games at home and facing elimination, a flip play and a tumble into the stands by Jeter allowed the Yankees to survive the series and eventually take it in five games.
Outgoing A’s Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon spent time at firehouses appreciating and understanding their role and efforts. New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani, a renowned Yankees fan, became “America’s Mayor” by assisting the citizens of the Big Apple in returning to a sense of normalcy while reflecting on the events.
The Yankees clinched the American League pennant against the Mariners and appeared destined to win their fourth consecutive World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Once again the Yankees dropped the first two games in the series, but returned to Yankee Stadium for Game 3. President Bush threw a perfect strike from the mound for the ceremonial first pitch, followed by a flyover from the bald eagle Challenger at the conclusion of the National Anthem. The Yankees leaned on the inspiration, winning all three games at Yankee Stadium, two of them in walkoff fashion against closer Byung-hyun Kim. Derek Jeter’s game winning home run in Game 4 gave him the nickname “Mr. November.”
The Yankees were in familiar territory, just one victory away from a championship, but the stellar pitching of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling proved too great for the Bronx Bombers. The D-Backs took Game 6 behind Johnson and clinched the series the following day on a bloop single by Luis Gonzalez against Mariano Rivera. The Yankees dynasty would come to an end but won over the country in their valiant effort facing adverse circumstances.
The game of baseball transcended the country following 9/11 and made us realize why it is held in the highest regard. Statistics and milestones are usually the standards used to measure heroism and greatness. In 2001, achievements such as 73 home runs for Barry Bonds and the Mariners 116 victories were largely ignored by the general public. The true heroes and leaders were the service men and women who served our country and the first responders in the city of the New York. The public was reminded about the finite nature of life and the reality of death.
Baseball returned to the state of being a game in the days following 9/11. Labor issues, steroids, and finances were pushed aside as baseball served the role it does best by uniting individuals and creating a shared interest. In turn, lasting memories are created and serve to remind us of the power of the game of baseball and its lasting impact on our culture.