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ESPN's 'First Pitch' is a perfect way to mark 9/11

ESPN's 'First Pitch' is a perfect way to mark 9/11
President George W. Bush warms up at Yankee Stadium just before opening Game 3 of the World Series in October 2001. (ESPN Films)

"Post-9/11" has become almost a tagline in this country, a way to describe everything from foreign policy to generational zeitgeist. Fourteen years after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, those numbers still provoke many emotions: sorrow, anger, outrage.

But pride should be in there too, and amazement at how, in those dark days, Americans put aside their internecine quarrels  to support the "United" part of our country's name and the fundamental freedoms it stands for.

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ESPN's new "30 for 30 Short" documentary, "First Pitch,"  helps us remember.

Six weeks after the attacks, President George W. Bush stepped onto the mound in Yankee Stadium, amid warnings of an imminent threat to New York, and threw the first pitch of the third game in the 2001 World Series. "First Pitch" documents that moment, the days and decisions leading up to it and what it meant — to the people involved and the United States.

Using news footage and interviews with a wide variety of people who were there, Oscar-winning director Angus Wall and executive producer Jim Gray capture the shock, fear and resolve of that time. They also show the humanity of those days leading up to the pitch, when everyone wanted to help, but many weren't sure what to do.

It's a stirring little film, describing this one relatively small event with such precision that the larger thing it stands for assembles itself.

Baseball remains this nation's defining sport, and as interviews with Derek Jeter, Joe Torre, Billy Crystal and others make clear, the sport played an important part in the nation's recovery. During those first awful days when it seemed that nothing would ever be the same, the decision to resume the season offered Americans a way to support their country — the dreaded Yankees have never been so popular — while showing the world that our essentials had not changed.

The real strength of "First Pitch" is the glimpse it offers of President Bush. Members of his security team offer behind-the-scenes details, First Lady Laura Bush and daughter Barbara discuss the obvious safety concerns and just as obvious refusal to bow to them. But it's the former president who gives the film it's humor and humanity.

Though he and the first lady were mindful of the physical danger, Bush himself was more concerned about throwing a strike; he, like his father before him, had famously bounced first pitches in the past.

At this particular moment, it was not enough for the president of the United States to walk out, alone, into the middle of a packed stadium of a city that still feared it was under siege. He also had to throw a strike.

Which he did. And, as Crystal says, no matter how one might feel about Bush's politics or presidency, it's good to remember that too.

ESPN, 5:45 a.m.; ESPN2 4:30 and 10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 11; ESPN.com and Grantland.com any time after

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