Baseball shaken yet resolved in 9/11 aftermath
Commissioner and game faced uncertainty hours after attacks
When an act of terrorism killed thousands of Americans and forever altered our perceptions about our personal and collective safety, what possible importance could be attached to a sport or a game?
That was one of the questions that Major League Baseball wrestled with 10 years ago, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The answers remind us of the place that baseball has held, and still holds, in American life.
On that September morning, there was an owners' meeting scheduled in Milwaukee, at the Pfister Hotel. Before the meetings started, the Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig, was attending to his morning ritual, an hour of riding his exercise bike, while watching sports and news on television. What he saw was what we all eventually saw; two planes crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
"It was mortifying," Selig said. But he had decisions to make regarding the immediate future of his sport. The airports were closed. The nation held its breath. There was anger, alarm and pain. What there wasn't, what there couldn't be, for the moment, was business as usual.
"I went down to the Pfister," Selig says, "and people were just milling around, bewildered. Nobody knew what to do. The Seattle people bought a car and they ended up driving home. They bought a car and they literally drove home. Nobody knew what to do."
Where did baseball fit in this chaotic situation? Or did it fit at all? Selig agonized over these issues. There were arguments that the game should not resume for some time. Or perhaps, the regular season should not be resumed at all. On the other side, there was the suggestion that for the reassurance that normal activities, including baseball, would continue and the season should resume as soon as possible. The terrorist attacks had occurred on Tuesday. Perhaps, as air travel gradually resumed, the games themselves could resume as soon as the weekend.
Selig was guided in his decision by a clear precedent. In his office there is a framed copy of a letter sent by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Kenesaw Mountain Landis, which features the president imploring the commissioner to have baseball continue during World War II. Using this presidential stance as a guide, Selig determined that baseball should have a role in the resumption of American life after the terrorist attacks. Life in America would never be completely the same after those attacks, but some staples of American life would not be altered.
"In baseball's function as a social institution we wanted to be not only sensitive, but we wanted to play our little part in the recovery process," Selig said. "It was a painful time, an emotional time, but we did fulfill that role."
"I thought, I re-thought, I thought again. Some people were saying Friday, but I that was too soon. It was a subjective decision, but I thought we needed to do what we could do in our little way to be helpful," the Commissioner added.
Selig chose to have the games resume the following Monday, six days after the attacks. The games that were missed were subsequently added to the end of the regular season.
In the interim, the baseball personnel who had been on the road on Sept. 11, scrambled to find ways to get home. Subsequently, teams reassembled over the weekend for workouts. It was a difficult time in many ways, and emotional, particularly for the New York teams.
Then-Yankee manager Joe Torre said of a workout at Yankee Stadium: "The strangeness of coming together after not seeing each other, it was like we were complete strangers, though we weren't. We were in a baseball clubhouse and I don't think we talked about baseball at all."
With travel plans being improvised on the fly, the pressure was on the directors of team travel. The Texas Rangers, for instance, were in Oakland. On Thursday, Chris Lyngos had three buses ready in front of the team's San Francisco hotel. But would the buses go to Seattle, for the resumption of the season on Friday, or would they go home to Texas?
Rudy Jaramillo, then the Rangers' hitting coach, had a death in the family, and couldn't wait for a final decision. He went to a Greyhound station and bought a bus ticket to go home. The Rangers eventually received word that the games in Seattle were off so they headed for home. But before leaving town, then-Rangers manager Jerry Narron told the driver of his bus to stop at the Greyhound station.
"Jerry Narron literally ran into the bus station and grabbed Rudy before he got on a bus," Lyngos recalls. "It was amazing."
But the Rangers were looking at a 40-hour bus trip back to Texas. "All the guys, they didn't care how we got there, they just wanted to go home," Lyngos said. On the bus, Lyngos was also on his cell phone. "I was hammering all my airline contacts," he said. "I went through four cell phone batteries. You know, the cell phones weren't like they are today. Now I'd just text somebody."
Lyngos finally found a charter company that was just getting airborne again. Conveniently enough, the company could get a plane to Bakersfield, Calif., which was essentially on the way home. The Rangers were safely home in Texas by Thursday night.
The tragic news of the terrorist attacks came in vastly different ways to players, just as it came in different ways to millions of Americans. The Seattle Mariners, on their way to a 116-victory season, were in Anaheim. Ichiro, who would become both the 2001 AL Rookie of the Year and AL Most Valuable Player, awakened to find a piece of paper that had been shoved under the door of his hotel room. The note, in Japanese, said:
"Tonight's game has been canceled because of tragedy in New York." It turned out that the note had been written and delivered by Hide Sueyoshi, Ichiro's interpreter, who had written the note because he had not wanted to wake Ichiro.
"I woke up about 9 o'clock and the first thing I usually do is turn on the TV," Sueyoshi said. "So I turn on the TV, see a building with smoke coming out of it and I could not comprehend what was going on. The next thing I see is an airplane hitting the building. I thought I was watching a movie or something."
But this, unfortunately, was not a film.
"When I read the note, I thought he was crazy or was playing a joke on me," Ichiro said. "I couldn't figure out why the game would be called off. But then I realized Hide would not make that kind of a joke."
Ichiro turned on the TV set inside his room and discovered what had occurred.
"If something like that happened in New York," he said, "it could happen anywhere to anybody. I just stayed in the hotel room with my wife until going downstairs for a team meeting. I am glad my wife was there with me. That made it easier on both of us."
Trot Nixon, then an outfielder with the Boston Red Sox, was in Florida where the team was to play the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But Nixon had made the team aware that he might at a moment's notice to attend the birth of his child. He received the call he was waiting for from his wife in Boston at 6 a.m. on Sept. 11. He got on a 7:05 a.m. flight to Boston. But he wasn't going to get back to Boston by air on this day.
The flight was forced to land in Norfolk, Va. He called his wife, Kathryn, to tell her that he would not be able to be on hand for the birth of their child, but he with her in labor. He did not think he could be completely specific about the tragedy that had disrupted travel.
"Then she called me. I remember it was 1:32 p.m. and she told me we had a little baby boy, Chase," Nixon said. "I started crying. I am not afraid to cry. She put him up to the phone. He was screaming and yelling. It was awesome. Just to hear him was a relief. To know that Kathryn was fine and everything went well during the delivery, and [the baby] was healthy. He's got 10 fingers, 10 toes -- everything that you sit there and pray day in and day out that you have a healthy baby."
The one fortunate part of the story was that Nixon had family in the area. He recruited his mother, father and sister to drive with him to Boston. There were highway closings and related complications along the way, and Nixon had only two hours of sleep the previous night after traveling to Tampa. But Nixon got to Boston about 3 a.m. the next day, and he got to hold his newborn son. In the midst of a day of death and devastation, his family had been given the gift of life.
"We will not forget what happened that day," said Trot Nixon. "We will not forget the people -- the men and women who sacrificed their lives to save others, who where there working 24 hours a day, seven days a week since it happened. We will honor those people. But we are also going to treat it as a celebration of Chase's birthday."
Everywhere after Sept. 11, the focus was on heightened security. Baseball's point man on that issue was Kevin Hallinan, then MLB's senior vice president for security and facility management. Working closely with local and team officials, Hallinan managed to put in place security measures that made ballparks considerably safer without allowing those measures to intrude on what is supposed to be an entertaining experience.
"We wanted to make sure that the level of security met the needs of our customers and of our communities," Hallinan said later. "We received tremendous cooperation, and input, from everyone. Our intent, absolutely, was to be as efficient and complete as we could possibly be, without the fans believing that they were in an armed camp. We're in the entertainment business, and we depend on return business."
When the national pastime resumed, it did so to an outpouring of emotion. In his pre-game remarks to his players, as the Yankees resumed play, Torre suggested the real and symbolic value of baseball.
"I told them, 'The NY on our hats represents the people of New York, not just the Yankees, '" Torre said. "We needed to help people get distracted from what they've gone through. We weren't asking them to forget it; we just tried to give them a few hours of enjoyment."
In St. Louis, just before the resumption of play on Sept. 17, Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck recited a poignant poem. He paused at one point to ask the question that everyone was asking: "Is it right for us to be here?" The Busch Stadium crowd responded with a resounding ovation.
"When Jack Buck asked: 'Is it right to be here?' and the crowd roared, it was a very emotional time," Selig said. "I don't mind telling you I cried that night."
"All the way through that wonderful World Series -- and those games in New York were truly moving, emotional experiences -- my thought was that we helped bring some normality back," the Commissioner said. "It gave people a reason to come together and celebrate. I think it offered a catharsis; a productive, positive catharsis. So I think that in our little way, we did play a role in the healing."
Like the rest of American society, baseball found its way through this crisis. Like the rest of society, it had been saddened and it had been changed, but it had not been diminished.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.