More than just a game

Baseball long has been woven into the fabric of Americana. It’s “our” game; the one we grew up playing in backyards, parks and vacant lots; the one whose players we idolize and emulate; the game that brings us together.

This was perhaps never more evident than in the days and weeks that followed the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Mired in shock and disbelief over the horrific events that had unfolded live — and replayed incessantly — on TV, the nation clamored for something to take its collective conscience off the tragedy. That diversion was found in the form of baseball and was centered in New York — not only the site of the most destruction, but also home to the two teams who had battled the previous fall in the 2000 World Series.

Baseball returned to New York 10 days after the terrorist attacks. The teams wore FDNY and NYPD hats and gear, American flags were everywhere and patriotism was at levels not seen since World War II. While the pennant race allowed New York and the rest of America to think about something other than planes crashing into buildings, it was the World Series — and the potential for another crosstown throw-down — that caught the nation’s fancy.

Both the Yankees and the Mets were expected to return to the World Series again in 2001, but only the Yankees made it. I can’t even imagine what that city (and the nation) would have been like if it were a replay of 2000, but it was not in the cards. It was the Yankees matching up against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and outside the Phoenix area you were hard-pressed to find many people rooting against New York. I happened to be in New York City for much of the series, and can still feel the electric feeling you could feel no matter where you went.

A day or so after 9-11, a friend from Washington, DC, and I were talking on the phone and decided the best way to show support for New Yorkers was to plan a trip ASAP. We arbitrarily picked the last week of October, thinking that things would be back to “normal” by then.

While life in the Big Apple was anything but normal by late October 2001 — this was during the anthrax scare — we did find upon our arrival a city that was baseball-crazy — more so than usual. I also had been in New York the previous year during the “Subway Series” and the atmosphere in 2000 couldn’t hold a candle to that of 2001.

The Yankees were down two games to none when the series returned to New York on Oct. 30, 2001. I spent that evening with my friends at a karaoke bar in Elizabeth, NJ (that experience deserves a whole different blog post …). As I am not a fan of karaoke, I sat at the bar, watching Game 3 with the locals. In addition to Yankees fans, I recall sitting amongst fans of the Mets, Phillies, Orioles and several other teams. To a person, everyone was rooting for the Yanks. If you’re a baseball fan, you know this doesn’t happen often. But, it happened that night, and when Mariano Rivera got the final out the place went nuts. I’m getting chills just thinking of that night.

Game 4 was the following night, Halloween. My friends and I spent the day touring New York, including a stop at Ground Zero, which at the time was still smoldering and dust from the towers’ collapse still was evident. Nearby storefronts remained boarded up; in the few whose glass wasn’t blown out by the towers falling, you could see evidence of a hasty evacuation. It was perhaps the most emotional day of my life — I will never forget the stench of burning building materials and the sight of people openly weeping as they paid their respects.

That night we attended a concert at the Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey, but because of some connections I had we were able to sit backstage for large portions of the show to keep an eye on the Series. The show had been over for some time and we were sitting in a roadside diner near the arena when Derek Jeter hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning to tie the series at 2-2. There was no TV, but the diner had the radio broadcast on. The place went absolutely nuts, and I can still see the owner, Yankees hat atop his head and tears welling up in his eyes, saying “God bless America and God bless New York” over and over again.

We were heading back to DC the following night during Game 5, but listened to the game on the radio as we drove. For the second straight night, the game was decided in extra innings. I remember how loud the New York fans were chanting “Paul O-Nee-eel” (for the outfielder) in the bottom of the ninth — you could barely hear the radio announcers! The Yanks’ Scott Brosius hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game, and the Yanks went on to win in 12. New York was taking a 3-2 series lead back to Arizona, and it seemed like destiny was taking hold and would bring New York perhaps its most-deserved championship.

But it was not in the cards. Arizona won Game 6, and came back to beat the Yankees in seven, thanks to a Luis Gonzalez bloop hit in the bottom of the ninth. While it was not the storybook ending that so many had hoped for, it was evidence that baseball’s impact on our society runs deeper than an allegiance to a certain team or player — it is a tie that binds us all.

I’ll never forget those weeks in the fall of 2001. Do you have memories of baseball in the aftermath of 9-11 (or other historical events) that you like to recall fondly?