On Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 souls were claimed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
Some who perished were local sports fans, rooting hard for their New York Yankees, New York Mets, New York Jets or other major affiliates. Baseball season was fast approaching the Fall Classic and the NFL season was just underway.
The Chicago White Sox were in town to battle the Yanks when the towers fell. Jose Valentin, then infielder for the White Sox, voiced his fears to NBC Sports soon after the attacks.
“I just want to get out of here,” he told reporters.
It was understandably so.
Newly hired New York Jets Head Coach Herm Edwards was driving his mother back to the airport after a drubbing to the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts. It was Sept. 9, 2001; the towers still graced the New York City skyline.
“You look at the beautiful skyline, you look at the World Trade Center and you’re saying, ‘How pretty is that?’” Edwards told newsleader.com on Sept. 3, 2011. “That’s on a Sunday. Tuesday, those buildings are gone.”
Of all the sports teams affected, the Yankees (who then played just minutes away from ground zero) stand out.
Mariano Rivera, elite closer and one of three remaining Yankees from the 2001 team, retold his initial thoughts of the attacks to foxsports.com on May 3, 2011.
“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 said. “Just being there, put (an) arm around them, that’s what we hoped to (do).”
The Yankees went on to the post-season and were part of what is arguably one of the greatest World Series of all time, losing in dramatic fashion as Rivera blew a late lead to the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 7. Twice in the series New York won in extra innings from walk-off homeruns.
“For us, we almost felt like we were representing New York,” shortstop Derek Jeter told foxsports.com on May 3, 2011. “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.”
While President George W. Bush urged the country to return to normalcy soon after the attacks, teams found it difficult to focus on practice and the coming games.
“You’ve still got smoke in the air,” Edwards said to newsleader.com on Sept. 3, 2011. “I got the team together and said, ‘Boys, let me tell you something. If you’re not focused today, I get it, because I ain’t focused.”
“We went out on the field and it took about 45 minutes,” he said. “I called off practice. I said, ‘You guys go home. What we need to do right now is pray. We need to pray as Americans.’”
Joe Torre, then skipper for the Yankees, voiced the same concerns in the days that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It was certainly solemn in the clubhouse,” Torre told NBC Sports in Sept. 2006. “It was like we were complete strangers.”
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani revealed in an HBO documentary titled “Nine Innings from Ground Zero” what helped him make it through not only one of the toughest moments in the city’s history, but also one of the nation’s worst disasters.
“The only two things that got my mind off it at any period of time in the fall of 2001 were baseball and my son’s football games,” Giuliani said. “There was something about baseball, which is the American sport. And it’s outdoors, and it’s in the fall, and it was right in the city that had been brutally attacked. It had a wonderful impact on the morale of the city. It was exactly what they needed to get their eyes up off the ground and looking into the future.”
Two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, New Yorkers had reason to cheer again.
On Sept. 21, 2001, the first professional game held in New York City after the attacks was baseball’s New York Mets hosting the Atlanta Braves.
What would have been another regular season game to New York was a reason to believe again.
As the first major sporting event since the attacks, the Mets went all out in showmanship. Pregame homage was paid to those who had lost their lives. Liza Minnelli sang a charged version of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” during the seventh inning stretch. Thousands came out to support not only their team, but one another during trying times.
Down 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Mets’ Mike Piazza came to the plate against reliever Steve Karsay with pinch runner Desi Relaford on base. Piazza took a fastball right down the middle for strike one.
He didn’t make the same mistake twice.
On the next pitch, Karsay dared Piazza to take another fastball, only this time Piazza delivered a cathartic blast to centerfield over the head of Andruw Jones to secure a 3-2 lead and give joy to the fans who needed something to cheer for after a week of misery and despair.
Now a reserve outfielder for the New York Yankees, Jones recounted his tale to foxsports.com on May 3, 2011 about the historic homerun.
“(The homerun) was a great moment,” Jones said. “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.”
Minnesota Vikings Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter talked to the Bismarck Tribune following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“When you are talking about human life and the sorrow the country feels … I think this is a perfect opportunity to let people know that athletes really aren’t the heroes,” he said.
But in one fell swing, Piazza was everything New York needed.
He and several other athletes that year helped New Yorkers and Americans realize life could be normal again.
The country could move on. And, indeed, has moved on.