Friday, September 12, 2008

A 9/11 Baseball Story

In the spring of 2001, my wife and I attended a silent auction fundraiser. One of the items up for auction was a set of 4 tickets to a Boston Red Sox game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on September 18th, 2001. Clearly the owner of the tickets felt a September game against the inconsequential Devil Rays would be easy ones to sacrifice for a worthy cause (my how times have changed). My wife and I are big Red Sox fans, and love attending games, but tickets were hard to come by back then (not like now). And these were good seats too, about 10 rows behind the third base dugout! We also realized that our two daughters, aged 6 and 4, had yet to attend a game at Fenway Park. So, we cleverly maneuvered around those tickets, watching the clock count down to the end of the auction. Our plan was to wait until the last minute, and up the final bidder with no time left on the shot clock. We dribbled the ball up the court, passed it back and forth, avoiding a foul that would stop the clock. Finally the clock approached the time limit. My wife drove to the basket, I tossed her the pen, and she hit a perfect swish shot just as time ran out. We had won the tickets!

After the traditional high fives and champagne dousing, our lives went back to the old normal routine. The year passed, and everything was just wonderful in our neck of the woods. That is, until the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I was at a client site in Rhode Island at a big insurance company, and we were taking a break from an all-morning meeting. As we filed out of the conference room, we sensed a sharp buzz in the air. The buzz said something about a news report. Apparently, a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. That's odd, we thought. The image in my mind was of a small two-seater plane that went out of control and hit the building. As we walked down the hall, we saw someone had found a television and had set it up in the hallway where a dozen people had gathered to watch. I thought, "a small single engine aircraft has an accident, and people are watching it on TV in the middle of the work space?". I had to see what these people were up to.

As I approached and peered over some one's shoulder, my whole life changed in a flash. The news report was just beginning to re-run footage of the event that occurred only minutes earlier. As I watched, I saw, not a small single engine aircraft, but a full sized commercial airplane bank across the sky. With the rapidly growing realization of what I was about to see turning my stomach into a knot, the plane plummeted into the tower, slicing into the building in a plume of smoke and flame. My eyes would not blink. Just as I was trying to process what I saw, they showed film footage of the SECOND plane colliding into the other tower. "What the hell is going on?", I thought. Before I could catch my breath, the scene went back to the towers, and as a scream went out from someone near me, we watched in horror as the first tower suddenly began to collapse.

The company made an announcement - everybody who is not essential, please go home and attend to your families. As I headed down the highway, I passed two separate military convoys rolling in the other direction. Something was wrong, very wrong. Well, the story unfolded as the days passed. My wife followed all the suggestions and stocked our basement with survival gear. We smile about that now, but back then, no one knew what to expect next. One of the things I will never forget is the odd quiet in the air as we sat on our deck over the next couple of evenings. The government had grounded all flights over US soil. It had been days since our ears had registered the sound of planes high over head on their way to Logan Airport. Once or twice, we sat up straight as a formation of military fighter jets whizzed by, but otherwise, the skies were silent.

Not only were the airlines grounded, but so was Major League Baseball. Days had passed, and folks who were too tired to talk about the horrific events that had transpired began to debate how long we needed to shut down baseball. Wouldn't it be a boost to our morale to bring it back? Well, sure enough, an announcement was made. Baseball would resume again on Tuesday, September 18th. As we heard the news, the date rang a bell. Why does that date sound familiar? Then it dawned on me. I dug out the tickets we had won so many months ago, back when we felt safe in our own country. The date on the tickets matched. Sure enough, we had tickets for the first game back after 9/11.

Friends and family were worried. They were not sure we should go. Security would be heightened, crowded venues like that would be prime terrorist targets. We'd be walking into the face of danger, and doing so with our young children. So, we sat back and thought about it. At first, we were indeed worried. Then, the more we thought, the more angry we got. How could they do this to us? We are cowering in the corners of our homes, peeking out from behind the shades, worried about getting on a bus, afraid to attend a baseball game. A BASEBALL GAME. Nothing is more deeply rooted in the heart of America than baseball (just watch 'Field of Dreams'). That settled it. In our minds, we, along with much of America, saw the light.

Baseball was coming back, and we were going to be there. America was lifting her shades, rising from the corners, coming out of hiding. We brushed aside the loving concerns of those who cared about us, pulled the kids close, and said, "we are going to a Red Sox game - let's get ready". The kids ran for poster board and markers. In no time, we had two signs. They proclaimed, "God, Bless America", and "Go Red Sox".

Yes, we were nervous heading in to Fenway Park, and security was indeed heightened. Were we really doing the right thing? Then, we found where our seats were located, and nervously started up the ramp, worried as if the Taliban themselves may be waiting to check our ticket stubs at the top. But, as we approached the top of the ramp, the bright lights of Fenway had turned night into day. The color green began to grow until I could see the field laid out in all its glory. I glanced quickly down to the children, tightly holding on to our hands, and clasping their posters with pride. I saw their eyes grow wide with wonder and awe as they took in their first sight of Fenway's lawn, the Green Monster, and the heart of America, and I knew we did the right thing.

The game itself had little meaning. The Red Sox had lost 13 out of their last 14 games, and were playing the Devil Rays. Hideo Nomo was pitching, and Manny Ramirez was the DH. Other than that, the lineup was far from world class. We had Isreal Alcantra at first, Angel Santos at second, Lou Merloni at short, Shea Hillenbrand at third, Brian Daubach in left, Trot Nixon in center, Troy O'Leary in right, and Scott Hatteberg behind the plate. That lineup would be destroyed by today's Tampa Bay team. But, it was good enough to win back then.

The game was very inspiring. The Red Sox did a great job - the National Anthem sent chills through us all. The kids got themselves on TV holding up their signs, and we sang God Bless America at the tops of our lungs in the 7th inning. Eerie moment of the night came mid-way through the game. Remember all aircraft had been grounded? Well, they still were on 9/18. Then as the crowd watched Nomo twist into his unique windup, we heard a soft, but familiar sound coming from above. My eyes went up and in the distance, I recognized a helicopter slowly approaching. The sound of the rotors beating through the air was slowly getting louder. I glanced around, and more eyes began to catch on. Thousands of faces, one at a time, turned up. We had all temporarily put the horror of 9/11 out of reach for a little while, thanks to baseball, but suddenly, you could see on all those faces, that it was all coming back.

Smiles quickly faded, and Fenway Park got uncomfortably quiet. No one had heard a helicopter for 7 days, why are we hearing one now? It got closer and closer until it was overhead. I could feel mothers forcing themselves not to grab their children and run, and fathers telling themselves that there is nothing to worry about, we are all safe (right?). Then, the 'copter slowly continued on its way, and everyone realized they had not been breathing. A nervous sigh went out, and everyone glanced at their neighbors with silly looks in their eyes, as if to say "I wasn't scared at all, were you?".

The Sox won that game 7-2. Hideo Nomo was terrific, and Manny Ramirez thrilled the crowd with a 2 run home run, his 40th of the season, in the 6th inning. It was Manny's first year in Boston, and we were glad to have him. Trot Nixon had a nice day, going 3 for 4, and showing us all how to fight like a Dirt Dog to win. We went home, somewhat healed, and proud to have been a part of baseball's (and America's) comeback. My children's first game at Fenway was truly memorable.

That is what life was like in late September of 2001. Never forget.


Suldog said...


I've read a number of 9/11 stories over the past day or so - all meaningful, all heartfelt - but yours was one of the few to send a chill up my spine. The vision of your kids seeing Fenway for the first time, combined with the circumstances, was both profound and moving. Thank you for sharing this with me.

Rooster said...

You know, I kind of felt the same way writing it. Thank you for the nice words.

BTW, I loved your post on Si Rosenthal on your site. I encourage others to check it out - very nice article about a (nearly) forgotten Red Sox hero.