Smoke rises over the ruins of the World Trade Center, four days after the terrorist attack Keith Meyers/The New York Times/Redux
Joe Torre talks about being in the Armory right after 9/11
Marcos Breton talks about how America needed to go back to the ballpark after 9/11.
Doug Glanville talks about his experience after 9/11
September 11, 2001, would have been a beautiful day for baseball in New York City. Instead, like so many other New Yorkers, Mets and Yankees players were left scrambling to do what little they could to ease the pain of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. With the city and the nation in shock, Major League Baseball quickly canceled all games until further notice.
"They're still trying to find people," said Derek Jeter, a resident of Manhattan. "I really don't think it's the right time to play baseball."
"Everybody peeked out the windows and saw the smoke. Everybody was silent," said John Franco, a Mets reliever and New York City native, describing the team's return to the city by bus. The coach of Franco's son's Little League team was a firefighter; he did not return after answering the call to the World Trade Center. In the following week, New York's ballparks became rallying points for the stricken city. Yankee Stadium would host a mass multi-faith memorial service, while the Shea Stadium parking lot would serve as a clearing station for relief goods, with Mets manager Bobby Valentine serving as supervisor. Players from both teams visited hospitals and the Park Avenue Armory, where the families of the missing were waiting for DNA results.
On September 17, one week after the terrorist attacks that had killed nearly 3,000 people, baseball resumed play. At PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pirates management handed out "I Love NY" buttons to fans, and a banner in left field read, "NYC, USA, We Are Family." The Mets wore caps with the insignias of the New York firemen, police officers, and emergency workers who had suffered such devastating losses. The next night in Chicago, where the Yankees were playing, a fan bellowed into the weighty, pre-game silence, "We love you, New York!" and the crowd exploded in cheers.
"In Boston they were playing "New York, New York" [on the ballpark organ] and that type of stuff…just gave you goose bumps when you realized that it was just a country coming together," remembered Joe Torre. "And our baseball was there to distract the people from thinking about the horrors that just went on."
The games were back on, serving once again in their best role, as a welcome respite from the harder facts of life. The Mets, who seemed to be out of the pennant race, made a gallant run at the Braves before falling short. The Yankees clinched their sixth consecutive American League East Division title but it appeared as though the team would exit the playoffs quickly, losing at home in the first two games of the five-game Division Series against Billy Beane's carefully crafted Oakland A's.
Then, in Oakland, came a play that nobody could remember seeing before and that may never be seen again – one more reason why those who love baseball keep watching the game. With the Yankees clinging to a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning, Oakland's Terrence Long poled a double into the right field corner, where Shane Spencer quickly recovered the ball but missed the cutoff man on the throw home. As the ball bounced away toward the first-base dugout and Oakland's Jeremy Giambi rounded third, it looked as if the A's were sure to tie the game.
Bob Costas talks about Jeter's flip in the 2001 World Series
But shortstop Derek Jeter, improvising brilliantly, appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Sprinting across the first-base line, he grabbed up the errant ball and, in virtually the same motion, flipped it backhanded twenty feet to catcher Jorge Posada. Posada tagged out Giambi, who had neglected to slide. The side was retired, the Yankees' 1-0 lead stood up, and New York beat Oakland handily in the next two games to win the Division Series.
Their momentum carried the Yankees on through their league championship series against Ichiro's record-setting 116-win Seattle team. When they came to New York, the Mariners did their best to honor the stricken city, visiting Ground Zero and speaking sympathetically about all that its people had been through. The Yankees dispatched them with typical efficiency, and near the end of the fifth and final game of the series the raucous, capacity crowd at the Stadium broke loose at last, mocking Ichiro and the rest of the respectful, overachieving Mariners with raucous chants of "Over-rated!" and "Say-o-nara!"
It was perfect. New York, its fans were saying, was back, no longer anyplace to be pitied.
In the World Series, the Yankees would face the Arizona Diamondbacks, one of two more expansion teams that baseball had added just three years before. The Diamondbacks were powered mainly by two of the best pitchers in baseball, the former Mariner Randy Johnson, a.k.a. "The Big Unit," a ferocious, six-foot-ten southpaw with an intimidating fastball and an Old West goatee; and Curtis Montague Schilling, a brash, gregarious right hander, with a love for the history of the game and a wicked split-finger fastball.
Asked before the World Series if he was intimidated by the Yankees' "mystique and aura," Schilling scoffed, "Those are dancers in a nightclub…not things we concern ourselves with on the ball field," and in the first two games of the Series, Johnson and Schilling dominated a helpless looking New York lineup.
The Series moved back in the Bronx, where President George W. Bush threw out the first ball, and Yankee Stadium was blanketed with security. Over 1,000 city police officers patrolled the House That Ruth Built, while Secret Service snipers prowled nearby rooftops and dogs sniffed through the stands for explosives. The seventh-inning stretch was marked by a lavish display of patriotism, courtesy of George Steinbrenner, that included the flight of a trained eagle named "Liberty," and the singing of "God Bless America."
Amid all the distractions, the Yankees produced a streak of magic. In two consecutive games, down to their last out in the bottom of the ninth inning, Yankees Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius each hit two-run game-tying home runs off Arizona's ace reliever, Byung-Hyun Kim. New York went on to win both games in extra innings, and as if on cue, a handwritten sign appeared in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium: "Mystique and Aura Appearing Nightly."
Tom Boswell talks about how fast baseball came back after 9/11
Tom Verducci talks about how the Yankee team changed after Paul O'Neil left
Back in Phoenix's quirky new "BOB" ballpark, the Diamondbacks turned once more to Johnson and Schilling. The Big Unit pitched Arizona to an easy win in Game Six. In the final game, Schilling would face Roger Clemens, who had once served as his mentor in the Red Sox organization, and who had just turned in a record-setting sixth Cy Young Award season.
The Yankees managed to gain a tenuous lead against Schilling. But then, far from Yankee Stadium, mystique and aura proved fickle mistresses. Randy Johnson came on in relief…and a little squall swept out of the desert, pausing just long enough to knock down what looked like a certain Yankee home run and wet the grass enough for Mariano Rivera to mishandle a bunt in the ninth. The Diamondbacks, playing with the same plucky opportunism Torre's Yankees had made their trademark, pieced together two runs for a stunning ninth-inning win.
Randy Johnson had become the first pitcher to win three games in a World Series since Mickey Lolich, 33 years earlier. He had beaten New York as both a starter and a reliever, just as he had done while saving the Mariners for Seattle, back in 1995. For the Yankees, it was the end of the road for a veteran team that had won three, straight world championships. There would be no tickertape parade down the "Canyon of Heroes," and past the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center – a fact that was probably something of a relief for New York's exhausted police force.
Much of the team's core – Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Brosius – would either retire or be traded in the years immediately ahead, and the franchise's operating philosophy would revert to trying to replace them with gaudy, free-agent signings.
"It was just so sad saying goodbye to everybody," remembered Torre. "Even though the memories were great, that night was about as sad as it gets."
Excerpt from Baseball: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns (with a new chapter by Kevin Baker).