Baseball Helped A City Heal

BaseballNew York YankeesNew York MetsWorld SeriesMass MediaArizona DiamondbacksArts and Culture

— Into the gloom the Yankees players walked, trying to make as quiet and solemn an entrance as they could.

They had stopped to visit and offer encouragement to the volunteer workers at the Javits Center, and it seemed comfortable. Now, they were outside the Armory on 26th and Lexington where, inside, were photos of thousands of missing people and relatives who had been waiting several days for miracles that weren't to be. The players waited several minutes on their bus, wondering if they would even be welcomed inside.

"It was awkward," Derek Jeter recalled before a recent game at Yankee Stadium. "What can we say? What can we do? How can we help? … Why would these people want to see us?"

But word was sent out that, yes, the people inside did want to see the Yankees.

And so they walked in to see the shattered looks on the faces, and stopped just inside the door, still not sure how to proceed. The people came over. One woman, with a look of devastation on her face, could do little more than stare.

"I don't know what to say," Bernie Williams told her, "but you look like you need a hug."

A young boy who had lost his father approached Paul O'Neill and asked how his injured foot was feeling, rendering O'Neill speechless.

"It went from not knowing what to expect to being glad you had the opportunity to do that," Jeter said.

It was then the Yankees realized they had a job to do, something above and beyond the usual task of winning baseball games. They had to keep playing as well and as long as possible to help heal the city.

"We had a sense of what it meant to people," Mariano Rivera said. "They let us know that."

The morning of Sept. 1, the Yankees were defending world champions, in first place in the AL East. The night before, their game against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium was rained out, but it was a late night for team employees and the reporters covering the beat.

George Steinbrenner was in town to receive an award in lower Manhattan on the 11th, and with the contracts of both general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Torre soon to expire, any word from "The Boss" figured to be big news the next morning.

But Steinbrenner didn't want to talk Monday night, and he stayed in his office until the last of the reporters camped outside had given up, sending a spokesman out at one point to ask them to "disperse."

Meanwhile, the Mets were in Pittsburgh, far behind in the playoff race a year after losing to the Yankees in the World Series. After the attacks, the Mets were unable to fly and took the bus back to New York and saw the massive smoke rising from the spot where the towers were.

"There was a sudden quietness," pitcher John Franco, a native New Yorker, recalled during a conference call with reporters this month. "You could hear a pin drop."

In the days that followed, players dropped their usual baseball routines. When the Mets' home, Shea Stadium, became a depot for supplies, manager Bobby Valentine — a Stamford native who had lost a close friend at the World Trade Center — infielder Todd Zeile and Franco were among those who went out and helped load the trucks.

"I remember wondering, 'What were we going to do with this group'?" said Valentine, now director of public safety in Stamford and an analyst for ESPN. "If we were going to be a Band-Aid over this gaping wound, or if we were going to make a difference."

CLICK HERE TO COMMENT ON THIS STORY ON OUR FACEBOOK PAGE

Four days later, on Sept. 15, the Yankees returned to Yankee Stadium for a light workout. It began with a prayer, all the players and coaches gathering on the mound and kneeling, as snipers positioned themselves on rooftops providing security, something that would become a familiar sight in the coming weeks. After practice, they boarded buses for Manhattan.

They resumed their season in Chicago Sept. 18.

The Mets returned to Pittsburgh, but Valentine stayed behind an extra day to continue his work in the Shea parking lot. On Sept. 21, the Mets, wearing the hats of the New York's police and firemen, played the first-place Braves in the first sporting event in New York since the attacks. Mike Piazza, the team's star, won the game with a dramatic home run and the Mets started winning games, nearly pulling off a miracle, but fell short of winning the NL East.

The Yankees made the playoffs and made a run at a fourth title in a row. After losing the first two games of the Division Series to Oakland, they won the next three to advance. In the AL Championship Series, they played the Mariners, who won a major-league record 116 games, and beat them, 4-1.

They lost the first two games of the World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and came home for Game 3, the president of the United States warming up under the stands to throw out the first pitch.

"The blood was pumping through my body so hard, the ball felt like a shotput," President George W. Bush told USA Today. "I said, 'Pal, you used to be a mediocre pitcher. Don't bounce it."

Despite the helicopters circling the stadium, the snipers, and the exhaustive searches everyone passed to get into the Stadium, the president's appearance — and his willingness to jog out into the open — seemed to reassure everyone in the packed Stadium that nothing bad would happen that night.

The Yankees won 2-1 and then came two of the most dramatic baseball games ever played. In Games 4 and 5, the Yankees were trailing and down to the last out, but tied both games on home runs, first by Tino Martinez and then by Scott Brosius, and they won both in extra innings to take the lead in the Series.

In both games, the tying and winning hits brought such stomping, the upper and middle tiers of the Stadium literally shook, something Stadium regulars remembered happening only a handful of times.

"It was as loud as I ever heard it in Yankee Stadium," Jeter said.

As the ongoing efforts to clear ground zero, treat the wounded, find and identify the victims went on, the fear and the sadness was put on hold each night at 8:30 p.m. as the city watched to see if the Yankees could win the championship. Even on the road, the Yankees, normally heckled, were cheered as their bus pulled up at airports, hotels and ballparks, because they were representing New York in a way they never had before, or had since. They nearly did it, but the Diamondbacks rallied in the ninth inning of Game 7 to win that World Series on Nov. 4.

"Our goal was to win the championship for the city and we came up a little short," said Rivera, who lost that game. "We took them away from reality for a while, for just a little while."

CLICK HERE TO COMMENT ON THIS STORY ON OUR FACEBOOK PAGE

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading