America’s Games: Finding Peace Amid Chaos

It’s a clear, brisk morning across New York City and Long Island on November 4th, 2001. Millions of New Yorkers are getting set for a football Sunday, and there is no reason not to. The reigning NFC Champions, the New York Giants, are trying to get back to .500 and are taking on their fierce rivals, the Dallas Cowboys. The New York Jets, led by rookie head coach, Herm Edwards, are on their way to a playoff berth – their first since 1998 – and will be taking on the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome in front of a national audience on Sunday Night Football. In a perfect world – one without evil, religious zealotry or war – it should be the only thing that is on the mind of New Yorkers. But for the past two months, the world has been anything but perfect.


It’s a clear, warm morning across New York City on the morning of September 11th, 2001. The skies show only a trace of the clouds that brought enough rain to postpone the previous night’s scheduled Yankees-Red Sox game. It’s a Tuesday, the first full week of school for many children. In the ten years since the end of the Cold War – a fifty year period that brought two nations and philosophies to the brink of nuclear obliteration all too often – there has been a period of relative peace that the world had not seen since the 1920’s. For many men and women going to work on that late-summer day, the world very well could have seemed perfect.


In light of recent events over the past two months, football is not the only sporting event that is taking place today. The nation’s past time, baseball, has still not yet crowned a champion. A few nights earlier, November had its first taste of baseball. Somehow, the World Series survived to a Seventh game. Even after the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks took a commanding two games to none lead a week ago, and even after the New York Yankees had battled back to win three games at home, the last two coming in unfathomable fashion. A lot of unfathomable things have occurred in the past two months.


It isn’t long before things are spiraling out of control across the United States on September 11th. The plan had been hatched, to near perfection. Shortly just before, and shortly just after eight in the morning, two planes took off from Logan International Airport in Boston. The city that fostered American freedom from Britain over two hundred years ago was now being used as a staging ground for one of the greatest attacks against freedom. Less than an hour later, at 8:48 eastern time, everything becomes hell.


The fact that the Yankees are playing in the World Series, let alone having two games to win their fourth consecutive championship, is stunning. Their play in the postseason is reflective of the mentality of a city that had seen such tragedy over the past two months. Even though the Yankees finished the 2001 regular season with the second-best record in the American League, they certainly did not start their title defense in the best way. The Oakland Athletics and two of their “Big 3” pitchers have had their way with the Yankees in the first two games of the series. The Yankee offense has been held to just three runs, all of which came in a Game One defeat. It’s not the fact that the Yankees trailed 0-2 in a Division Series – teams have overcome that in the LDS’ short history – it was that no team had ever lost the first two games at home and gone on to win the final three games of the series. That was the position that the Yankees were in when Jason Giambi caught Scott Brosius’ pop-up on Thursday, October 11th, 2001. The low-point in the Yankee season was nothing compared to the pain from one month earlier.


Immediately, something was wrong, but no one was quite sure what. There had been a plane crash, explosion, a fire, and then confusion in Tower One of the World Trade Center. It could have been an accident, a mechanical gremlin, or merely human error – albeit, quite a terrible error to make. But sixteen minutes later, it became evident that this was no mistake. At 9:03, the South Tower of the World Trade Center, suffered the same fate. A clear and deliberate strike from an airplane in the mid-section of the tower. As the famous skyline was set alight in the early morning, it became obvious that this was deliberate. Already, two planes had struck the World Trade Center, and who knows how many more were being used as suicide weapons. A half hour would go by before the next attack, this one aimed at the nation’s fortress, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. By this time, all civilian flights are suspended from taking off. Less than ten minutes after the crash at the Pentagon, all airspace above the United States is shutdown. There is one rogue flight still in the air. Flight 93 has ignored the command to land at the nearest airport, and is rumored to have targeted either the White House or the United States Capitol Building. It is in limbo, as is rational thought.


The Yankees’ season is in limbo, having to face Barry Zito in Oakland on Saturday, October 13th, 2001. The Yankees have gotten lucky. Jorge Posada hit a solo home run over the centerfield wall in the fifth inning to give the Yankees their first lead of the series. Aside from that, it has been all quiet. The A’s have had few chances, the best coming in the fourth inning when they put two men on with one out against Mike Mussina, but two groundouts ended the threat. They would not put another baserunner on until the bottom of the seventh inning, when Jeremy Giambi hits a two-out single to right. Up comes Terrence Long, who is batting .400 in the series, gets another hit, this one into the rightfield corner. Immediately, everything has gone wrong for the Yankees. Shane Spencer races to field the ball, but Giambi is well on his way to third, and shows no sign of slowing down. Spencer’s throw comes soaring in, way above the heads of Alfonso Soriano and Tino Martinez, the two cut-off men. It hops halfway between first base and home plate, and as it falls to the ground, the thought takes hold: Oakland is going to tie the game. The Yankee season is crumbling to the ground.


Shortly after 9:59 AM on September 11th, 2001, the New York skyline changed forever. The South Tower of the World Trade Center begins to crumble to the ground. Those trapped inside, business men and women, emergency responders, firemen, police officers, all who are desperately trying to evacuate and help evacuate, perish with the building. Moments later, the courageous passengers of Flight 93 stage an uprising, and force the hijackers to crash-land in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. No one survives.


The Yankees needed their own metaphorical version of the Flight 93 passengers to escape the heart-wrenching scenario of a tied game. Out of nowhere came Derek Jeter. From his shortstop position across the field, the future captain saw the play develop, saw Spencer’s throw be launched much too far, and saw that he needed to intervene. He raced in, was not even halfway up the first baseline when he gloved the ball. Still speeding away from the field, he pulled the greatest magic trick in baseball, sending a back-hand flip of the ball across his body towards Posada at home plate. The ball, somehow, found Posada’s glove, and that had, somehow, found the leg of Jeremy Giambi an eyelash – and barely that – before he had touched home plate. The call was cemented by the emphatic call of Kerwin Danley, who took a step toward third before pounding his fist down, signaling Giambi to be out, and the Yankees to be alive.


As news broke of the plane crash in Pennsylvania, emergency workers in New York were still trying to evacuate the North Tower of the World Trade Center. How much longer would the tower hold? How much longer would the trapped civilians and police officers have before they suffered the same fate? Already the whispers and rumors of who planned the attack were beginning to surface. The name Osama bin Laden first becomes a household name as news networks, who have been covering the story since the first plane struck, interview political pundits and experts on world politics. Finally, the day has a constant. One name: Osama Bin Laden. Osama Bin Laden.


In the aftermath of the incredible play at home plate, there was one name being repeated throughout the stadium, throughout the broadcast, throughout the country. Derek Jeter. Derek Jeter. If Twitter had existed in 2001, the name would have trended nationally. How had he done that? The rest of the game, now that the Yankees sucked all the momentum away, was a formality. Mariano Rivera pitched the final two innings and recorded the save. The Yankees still breathed. Game 4 would be the next day, and as if last night’s events weren’t enough, Oakland suffered another critical hit in the third inning. Jermaine Dye, one of Oaklands most feared hitters, fouled a ball off of his leg, resulting in a break of the bone. Dye was done for the series, and after the Yankees scored three runs in the 4th to take a 7-2 lead, it looked like Oakland might be done too. The Yankees fell behind 2-0 in Game 5, which took place in New York. But the offense, aided by an Alfonso Soriano 2 RBI single and an error on a groundball hit by Scott Brosius, they found a way to overcome it. When David Justice hit a solo home run to extend the Yankee lead to 5-3 in the sixth, all the Yankees needed was the dagger. Again it was Jeter, who tumbled into the third base stands after catching a pop-up off the bat of, you guessed it, Terrence Long. When Rivera struck out Eric Byrnes an inning later, the Yankees had overcome Oakland, and moved on to the ALCS.


At 10:28, time had run out for those inside the North Tower. It, like its twin, relented to the flames and cascaded down. The New York skyline looked empty. How was the city supposed to overcome this? A tower of cloud and smoke lingered above the site formerly known as the World Trade Center. It had ceased to exist, its name having been changed to Ground Zero. No one could begin to process the numbers. When asked to take a guess at the number of casualties, Mayor Rudy Giuliani responded “more than any of us can bear”. There had to be thousands dead, many wounded, and countless people who were missing in the rubble. City firefighters tried to put out the rest of the flames and police officers tried to restore order. All bridges and tunnels in and out of the city had been closed, and an uneasy silence gripped the city and the nation. Well in to the afternoon, despite the innumerable amount of speculation and guessing, there had been no word from President George W. Bush. Bush had began the day in an elementary school in Florida, and while he was briefed on the situation throughout the day, it was not until the evening that he arrived back in Washington. At 8:30, he confirms what many had already known: “Our fellow citizens… came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist attacks”.

Major League Baseball had suspended all action for an indefinite period of time on the afternoon of September 11th. The National Football League would soon postpone its second week of the season. Sports took a backseat, and despite politicians urging Americans to not live in fear of the terrorists, no one knew what to feel. When was the appropriate time to resume baseball and football? How long would it be before we had something else to think about? On September 17th in Saint Louis, broadcasting legend Jack Buck, behind a roaring crowd at Busch Stadium, answered the question. “I don’t know about you, but for me the answer has already been answered: Should we be here? YES!”

The first game to be played in New York after September 11th wasn’t held at Yankee Stadium, but at Shea Stadium on September 21st. The New York Mets, a franchise often on the backburner when compared to the Yankees, took centerstage as they faced the Atlanta Braves. A tight pennant race was coming down to the wire and the Mets, for more than one reason, needed a win. They would get it in one of the most dramatic ways. Before Steve Karsay was a bad free agent signing by the Yankees, he was a shutdown reliever for the Indians. After posting a 1.25 ERA early in the 2001 season, he was traded to Atlanta for John Rocker. He had a difficult time in Atlanta, with his ERA increasing by over two runs. On that September night, he gave up his most famous home run. With the Braves leading 2-1, Karasy faced Mike Piazza with one on and one out. Piazza took an 0-1 pitch and drilled it over the centerfield wall for a home run, giving the city something to cheer for after a week and a half of trepidation.


The American League Championship Series was underwhelming. The Yankees faced the Seattle Mariners, who had won an American League record 116 games in the regular season. But the series began as lopsided for the Yankees as the Division Series began for the Athletics. The Yankees took the first two games in Seattle, and although the Mariners would convincingly take Game 3, Alfonso Soriano’s walk-off home run in Game 4 effectively ended it. The Yankees clinched the following night, a 12-1 victory to capture their fourth straight pennant. The Yankees would meet the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team built on starting pitchers Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, in the World Series. The Yankees carried the heartbeat of an entire city in their hands.


Football resumed action after a one week hiatus, and among the Week 2 match-ups were the New York Jets travelling up to Foxboro to take one, who else, the New England Patriots. The game was special for both sides – The Jets represented a city in grief. The Patriots’ family was almost directly affected. Joe Andruzzi, a guard on the Patriots offensive line, had three brothers who were New York City firefighters. One of them, Jimmy, escaped moments before the North Tower fell. The Jets would win 10-3, and, like the Mets, gave New Yorkers something to cheer about.

But the talking points weren’t all about the New York Jets, or September 11th, or terrorism. No, the main storyline on SportsCenter was an injury to Patriots quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, who took a brutal shot from linebacker, Mo Lewis. Before he became one of the best coaches in the game, Bill Belichick had to answer for how his team gave up four turnovers in the loss. He also had to come up with a long term solution to replace Bledsoe, who was one of the most respected quarterbacks in the game. The solution, however grim it seemed, was Tom Brady, a sixth round draft pick out of Michigan. Tom Brady would become this generation’s Joe Montana, but on September 23rd, 2001, he looked more like Joe Jabroni – a nobody quarterback that was just going to endure the snaps he took until the Patriots drafted someone better. Except the Patriots started to win. Slowly at first. The Patriots went 4-3 in their first two months with Brady, but rattled off six consecutive wins to end the season at 11-5 and win the AFC East. The legacy of Brady was born, first in a snowy January night in Foxboro Stadium. The Tuck Rule became the NFL’s most infamous rule, and overshadowed Tom Brady’s last-minute drive to tie the game. Adam Vinatieri would kick one of the most clutch, if not the single-most clutch kick in NFL history, a 45 yarder through a blizzard. The Patriots would win in overtime. After sitting out most of the AFC Championship win with an injury, Brady would return for the the Super Bowl. The realization set in: would the script be set for a team called the Patriots to win the Super Bowl? It would take nothing short of a miracle, considering they were going against the St. Louis Rams, a team looking to win their second title in three years. But Brady, with help from his defense, held the Rams in check. The game was tied with under two minutes remaining, and Brady had the ball. John Madden, who was commentating the game for FOX, optioned that the Patriots play cautiously and opt for overtime. But Brady led the Patriots right down the field, and Vinatieri’s 41 yarder would indeed win the Super Bowl for the Patriots and send a parade through America’s most Patriotic City.


But the lasting image of sports following the attacks of September 11th were the World Series. The Diamondbacks, behind Schilling and Johnson, won the first two games in Arizona. The Yankees, largely offensively anemic throughout the playoffs, looked to not stand a chance. Although they would take Game 3 of the series, they won barely, 2-1. The image of President Bush throwing a perfect strike for the ceremonial first pitch captured the strong sense of patriotism that had taken the country by storm. The following night, Halloween Night, with the Yankees down to their final out in the ninth inning, staring a 3-1 deficit in the face, they needed magic. Magic like they received from Derek Jeter two weeks earlier. Tino Martinez, with a runner on base, blasted a shot into the bleachers, tying the game and sending the New York crowd into a frenzy. Jeter, like only Jeter would, ended the game an inning later on a home run of his own at 12:03 AM, November 1st, 2001. The following night, again down by two runs, again with two outs in the ninth, Scott Brosius, who had been supporting the Port Authority of New York since the terrorist attacks, cemented his legacy in New York with a no-doubt home run down the line in right. The Diamondbacks’ closer, Byung-Hyun Kim, who gave up all three home runs, fell to the ground in disbelief and grief. The Yankees, when they had no business to, were going back to Arizona with two shots to win the championship.

Game Six was anything but a game. Andy Pettitte, in his lowest Yankee moment, was tipping his pitches and the Diamondbacks were hitting him, and any other pitcher the Yankees dared to put on the mound. When it was all said and done, it was a resounding 15-2 win for the Diamondbacks. Game Seven was an epic.

Most of the country should have been watching Kyle Turley’s on-the-field antics as the Saints lost to the Jets. The fiery offensive lineman for New Orleans got into an altercation with Jets defensive back Damien Robinson, who had grabbed quarterback Aaron Brooks’ facemask during the course of the play. But Turley protected his quarterback by grabbing Robinson’s facemask and then savagely flinging it across the field. In a perfect world, that is what the city of New York should have been watching on November 4th 2001.

But the world, as it so often cruelly is, was not perfect.

I know this was (another) long post, but I felt that a day of this significance needed to be told this way. The reason I chose to give a play-by-play of the day’s events is because we should not, and must not forget what happened on September 11th, 2001. If we forget that it happened, then it fades from our memories and ceases to exist. As much as we may not want that day to exist, the cold fact is that it does. Please keep all the victims, their families, and the nation in your thoughts today and may God Bless this wonderful nation that we call America.

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