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Yankees became America's team in 2001
There was a huge sign in right field at Chicago’s new Comiskey Park.
The sign said, “Chicago loves New York.”
The date was Sept. 18, 2001, seven days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Another fan held a sign that said, “We are all Yankees.” When the teams lined up along the foul lines for pregame introductions, the pro-White Sox crowd gave the Yankees — the hated, dreaded Yankees, winners of three straight World Series — a standing ovation.
“We go places, they either love you or hate you,” Yankees closer Mariano Rivera says. “This time was different. This time, everybody was basically almost cheering for us. It was great. It was wonderful, a good feeling. Everybody was optimistic. Everybody was nice.”
It would remain that way through the rest of the regular season, through a dramatic comeback from a two-games-to-none deficit against the A’s in the Division Series, a five-game elimination of the 116-win Mariners in the ALCS, then a crushing seven-game defeat against the Diamondbacks in one of the most emotional World Series ever played.
The Yankees weren’t exactly underdogs during that time. But as Rivera recalls, opposing fans actually viewed them with sympathy after 9/11. For once, the team represented not simply the spending might of its owner, the late George Steinbrenner, but the resilience and spirit of New York, a city with a broken heart.
Outfielder David Justice, who joined the Yankees in a trade in 2000 and played his only full season with them in ’01, chuckles when he recalls the reversal among opposing fans.
“It just seemed like they were not as angry with the Yankees as they were in the past,” Justice says. “It was tempered a little bit.”
Back home in New York, though, the reaction of the team’s own fans was anything but tempered.
The fans loved the Yankees — needed the Yankees — more than ever before.
Baseball resumed six days after the attacks. Even then, there was considerable debate about whether enough time had passed, whether playing so soon was appropriate.
“All the players were asking at some level, ‘What are we doing? Is baseball really that important? Should we be playing again?’” recalls Scott Brosius, the Yankees’ third baseman at the time.
“But when we got back and started playing again, we realized how important playing was to the healing process, especially in New York. People thought, ‘We’re going to overcome. We’re going to get our lives back.’ For a few hours a night, they weren’t thinking about all of that other stuff.”
But goodness, it was difficult.
Rivera recalls the team’s visit to the Jacob Javits Convention Center, a staging area for rescue operations. Firefighters were present, policemen, volunteers from all over the country. And people who had lost their loved ones, too.
“We couldn’t say anything,” Rivera says. “But just being there, a lot of people said, ‘Thank you for being here. Thank you for your support.’ That was the least we could do. It was a tough situation, a rough situation. Sad. Sad.”
Joe Torre, the Yankees’ manager at the time, frequently tells the story of how center fielder Bernie Williams approached a woman at an armory where the families of the missing were maintaining a painful vigil.
“I don’t know exactly what to say,” Williams told the woman, “but you look like you could use a hug.”
The families shared stories with the players, stories about missing relatives who were Yankees fans. The players could not help but make a connection. Once the games resumed, they came to understand that they were playing for something bigger than themselves.
“Heck, yeah. Absolutely,” Justice says. “We were playing for all the families who had lost relatives, all the people who were negatively impacted by that event.
“If we could give them something to smile about, to feel good about, give them something to minimize — if it was even possible — a little bit of the grief that they had in their lives, then that is what we wanted to do.”
At a time of such unity, such emotion, there was only one way for the season to end, wasn’t there?
“If baseball was fair and right, that was a year we should have won,” says Brosius, who now is the baseball coach at his alma mater, Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore. “Everyone was pulling for us, pulling for New York.”
Brosius recalls losing the first two games of the best-of-five Division Series to the Athletics, then hearing the fans yelling as the players walked out of Yankee Stadium, “See you back here for Game 5! You’re going to be back!”
Shortstop Derek Jeter made one of his most famous plays — “The Flip” — in Game 3, and the Yankees indeed brought the series back to New York for a decisive fifth game.
They quickly fell behind 2-0, but Alfonso Soriano tied the score with a two-run single in the second inning. Brosius still remembers standing on second base after Soriano’s hit, the crowd roaring, creating a sensation that he had never experienced at an outdoor stadium.
“The ground was shaking,” Brosius says.
The Yankees’ dispensing of the Mariners was next; left-hander Andy Pettitte earned series MVP. Then came the Diamondbacks, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, Luis Gonzalez and Mark Grace. They were a team of hardened veterans who wanted no part of the feel-good New York saga.
Schilling, in fact, mocked the legendary atmosphere of Yankee Stadium before the Series even began, saying, “Mystique and aura, those are dancers in a nightclub, not things we concern ourselves with on a ball field.”
He spoke too soon.
The Diamondbacks won the first two games in Arizona but then dropped the next three at frenzied Yankee Stadium. Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez and Brosius each hit game-tying, two-out, two-run homers in the ninth innings of Games 4 and 5, helping the Yankees take the Series lead.
“You get those walk-off home runs, you’re thinking it’s destiny — not only are you going to win the World Series, you’re going to do it in dramatic fashion,” Justice says. “Those home runs lifted us, made us believe we were destined to win.”
Only it didn’t happen.
The Diamondbacks won Games 6 and 7 in Arizona, the latter on a ninth-inning comeback against the seemingly invincible Rivera.
“Losing the Series still hurts, even to this day,” Brosius says.
Justice, too, was crushed.
“I just remember feeling, ‘Gosh, we let down everyone in New York,’ ” he says. “I just couldn’t believe it. I was in a state of shock for a good week.”
Yet Rivera, even 10 years later, is philosophical about the outcome. The loss stung, of course. But even in defeat, the Yankees had achieved one of their biggest goals. They had provided a needed diversion for New York, rallying the city.
“We gave everything,” Rivera says. “We did everything and beyond to bring some hope — not hope, but at least take their minds away from reality. We did. Even though we lost the Series, we did.
“To me, it was one of the best World Series I ever played in. It was too bad that we lost. But it was wonderful. A wonderful World Series. I think this city was able to forget a little bit.”
It was no small triumph, not at that moment, amid all the heartbreak and pain.