Ten years ago, Americans were drawn to baseball stadiums by something more profound than pennant races or home runs. Our national pastime offered a chance to cheer, to unite and to be distracted from the fears and horrors that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
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And during that unsettling month, then through a seven-game World Series wrought with emotion, no team symbolized our nation’s resolve more than the New York Yankees.
A decade later, only three players remain with the team: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada. Still, remembrances of how baseball helped America cope were found throughout the Yankees’ clubhouse on Monday. A number of voices there offered thoughtful perspectives following the demise of Osama bin Laden, architect of the attacks that killed thousands of innocent civilians.
"The word ‘heroes’ are used far too often when you talk about athletes and actors," Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez said. "The real heroes are out on the battlefield, protecting our well-being, allowing us the opportunity to play Major League Baseball, or take our kids to the park. They’re the real heroes.
"I remember last year, going to Walter Reed (Army Medical Center), spending almost a full day with those heroes. It makes you pretty emotional — very proud to be an American."
New York was at the epicenter of the attacks, literally and symbolically, as nearly 3,000 people perished when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. MLB commissioner Bud Selig suspended play for one week, a move that was both unprecedented and appropriate. Rivera recalled trips the team made in the days following the attack, to comfort families of the missing and support the first responders.
"What came to my mind was, ‘What can we say? What can we say that would bring peace or joy or hope to these people?’" Rivera remembered. "Just being there, put (an) arm around them, that’s what we hoped to (do)."
Said Posada: "The thing I remember is people’s faces. I will never forget that."
And when the games resumed, the nation adopted the New York teams as never before.
"It feels like yesterday," said Rodriguez, then a member of the Texas Rangers. "I think we all remember that very clearly. I think the country was confused. Usually, people want to hate the Yankees. I was one of them. And that World Series, you found yourself cheering for the Yankees."
"For us, we almost felt like we were representing New York,” Jeter said. "I’m not sure about the whole country. I don’t know if the whole country was pulling for us. But I was well aware of what it meant to New Yorkers at the time. We had a lot of people come up to us on the streets and say that they weren’t necessarily baseball fans, but they found themselves pulling for us, at least during the postseason."
Rodriguez said he was riveted to every game of that World Series, which he called "one of the greatest ever played." The Arizona Diamondbacks prevailed after a stunning Game 7 comeback against the seemingly unbeatable Rivera.
But Rodriguez said a different New York baseball memory — one that didn’t involve the Yankees — stood out above the others: On Sept. 21 of that year, the Mets hosted the Atlanta Braves in the first pro sports event held in New York after the attacks. American flags, big and small, swaddled the Shea Stadium stands. As if drawn from a divine script, Mets star Mike Piazza struck a stirring, game-winning home run in the eighth inning.
Braves center fielder Andruw Jones was the closest player to the ball before it dropped out of sight. Jones, now a Yankee, sat a few feet away from Rodriguez in the locker room as A-Rod recalled the moment on Monday.
"It was dramatic," Jones said. "People were just excited to move on. You didn’t want to keep dragging yourself into the whole situation. It was a good thing that we got going (again). The fans came out and supported us. We wanted to put it behind us and move forward.
"(The home run) was a great moment. We wanted to win. But for him to do what he did, and give the fans something to cheer about, was special. It was good for the game. A lot of memories happened in that field, because a lot of (rescuers) worked (at Shea after the attacks). It was emotional."
Several Yankees players said they reflected back to Sept. 11 after learning that bin Laden had been killed by U.S. special forces. Team personnel heard the news along with the rest of the country, as the details emerged late Sunday night. The Yankees had already arrived at their Detroit-area hotel, having finished their homestand with a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays that afternoon.
Jeter found out while having dinner with teammates. Jones saw the news on the BlackBerry Messenger status of Oney Guillen, son of White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. Rivera watched President Obama’s speech on television.
"All I said was, ‘Justice. Justice prevailed,’" Rivera said. "You do something like that, somewhere along the way, you’re going to pay. This was the time. This was the time. I’m glad this thing’s over. At least the people that lost their loved ones on Sept. 11, I would say they have a little peace of mind, knowing that person has been brought to justice."
"One of those steps we needed to cross," Posada said. "It’s good to see."
As the Yankees prepared to play the Detroit Tigers on Monday night, both television sets in the visiting clubhouse were on. And the channel selection reflected the national paradigm that existed in 2001 and again in 2011 — one tuned to baseball, the other to the national news.