Baseball to mark solemn anniversary

Baseball to mark solemn anniversary

The first thing you notice is the sky. It is at once filled with all the promise of the future and yet so horribly big, as if Montana were relocated to Lower Manhattan. Once upon a time, the sunlight fought to pierce through to the street here, shrouded by silvery monoliths standing 1,362 and 1,368 feet tall. For now it remains a gap in life, sky all around you. As the teeming masses stride purposefully around you the way they once did, carrying their briefcases and computer bags, business as usual and never looking at you, you look at them and see the same collective visage that would have been on those faces here in the last hours of innocence early on Sept. 11, 2001. Then you lean against the viewing fence that rings Ground Zero and realize that someone has just placed a freshly symbolic red heart onto it, five inches tall, affixed with wire and love. Written in black marker on the heart is this inscription: THEY WILL ALL BE IN OUR HEART ALWAYS AND THERE WE WILL GUARD THEM. 5 YR 9-11.

An anniversary is defined as "the annually recurring date of a past event, especially one of historical, national, or personal importance," and the one that will be recognized in the United States of America on Monday covers all three of them. It will be five years to the day that terrorist hijackers crashed commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon and also onto a field in Shanksville, Pa. At least 2,973 lives were lost, including 343 fire and police rescue workers -- transforming a nation's psyche and forcing everyone to look at the world in a different way, in their own way.

Baseball was such an unnatural thing in that moment. Who could cheer or indulge in simple pleasures, when we were learning the distinction between "rescue" and "recovery?" The national pastime was set aside and real-life heroism was honored. Six days later, the need for baseball again became apparent.

On Sept. 17, the games resumed and vitality re-emerged, if only for a few hours at a time. It would come back in the shape of a Mike Piazza home run to deep center at Shea Stadium. It would come back in the shape of young Brielle Saracini -- daughter of the captain aboard the flight that crashed into the South Tower -- writing a letter to her favorite player and receiving Derek Jeter's phone call to come to Yankee Stadium to visit with the team. It would come back in the shape of a World Series that stirred the spirit of everyone and brought three unimaginably beautiful home victories to a battered metropolis.

On Monday, as a nation recognizes the fifth anniversary of 9/11, there will be a special place for remembrance at each of the nine Major League Baseball stadiums that are host to home games. "We Shall Not Forget" is the theme that will appear on player uniforms, on the sides of bases, on lineup cards and elsewhere. "Never Forget" are the words on the placard that greets visitors now to the PATH train station's information desk in front of Ground Zero. "Gone . . . Never Forgotten" were the words inscribed that fateful day on the last standing steel column, written on duct tape beneath "RES5CUE" and photos of that FDNY unit's 11 lost men.

"It was a day I'll never forget. I hope that in our own little way, we helped the country maybe to a catharsis," Commissioner Bud Selig says now, recalling the obvious decision to cancel games from Sept. 11-16, and the extremely difficult decision to resume them.

"I remember how I agonized about when to come back. And that was tough, because you really didn't know and you wanted to do the right thing. You know when I knew? I got home that Monday, when we came back. I went upstairs and turned on the satellite dish to watch all the games, very nervous as to how this was all playing. And Jack Buck wrote a poem. He said in the middle of it [at old Busch Stadium], 'Should we be here tonight?' And the crowd cheered. There was a lot of emotion, a lot of tears. I called Jack the next morning. He sent me the handwritten copy of the poem, and I keep it at my desk. It meant a great deal to me, because that said it best.

"This horrible tragedy had seared this country, and certainly what it did to me was beyond description. I watched with great interest when the Mets came home and Piazza hit a home run to win a game. What I really saw was during the World Series. I had never seen anything like the emotion in New York. You could see how much it meant to people -- just to give them a chance to be together, to cheer for their hometown team. I was proud then, because I said to myself, 'Well, if we can help in the healing process, be part of the catharsis, then that is our role.' This is a social institution with enormous social responsibility."

"He was an 18-hour workaholic like so many other stockbrokers. . . ." Four women are taking turns reading passages from a book called "Portraits: 9/11" as people walk briskly past, each story the profile of a lost soul. Giant-sized photographs adorn the viewing fence, images from the disaster. One photo is an aerial shot of New York City sometime before the attacks, on a day when New York City is completely shrouded in clouds. The only exception is the top 15 or 20 stories of each Twin Tower that surface above the clouds, like a fairy tale -- above it all. And along the fence is the story of 9/11, told in photos and cold phrases. For example:

8:46 a.m.: American Airlines Flight 11 hits 1WTC, the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The plane enters the north face at floors 94-98.

9:03 a.m.: United Airlines Flight 175 crashes into 2WTC, the South Tower of the World Trade Center. The plane enters the south face at floors 78-84.

9:37 a.m.: American Airlines Flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

9:59 a.m.: The South Tower of the World Trade Center collapses in 10 seconds.

10:03 a.m.: United Airlines Flight 93 crashes in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

10:28 a.m.: The World Trade Center North Tower collapses.

All over Major League Baseball on Monday, the memories of the fallen will be similar yet unique. In Atlanta, for example, Braves players -- such as John Smoltz, who was pitching against Piazza that night when baseball returned to New York -- will sign autographs throughout Turner Field from 5:35-6:05 p.m. ET, immediately following Braves batting practice and before the game, for a $5 minimum donation to send proceeds to the WTC Memorial Fund. Metro Atlanta police and firefighters will take the diamond from center field.

At the Marlins game in Florida, a pregame ceremony will honor the Miami-Dade Urban Search & Rescue Team -- one of the first groups outside New York to respond to Ground Zero after the attack. Jeffrey Kidwell, representing Cantor Fitzgerald -- the firm that lost 658 employees in New York -- will sing "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America." All area law enforcement and emergency rescue personnel will be admitted free with immediate family members, asked to dress in uniform.

The Pirates will honor and pay respect to those whose lives were lost in the attacks in a special pregame ceremony prior to the team's home game at night against the Brewers. More than 50 Flight 93 family members will be in attendance for the game and participate in the ceremonies. The passengers and crew members on that flight thwarted a plane attack on the nation's capital by causing their plane to crash in Shanksville, east of Pittsburgh in Somerset County.

"The people aboard Flight 93 were true heroes," Pirates CEO Kevin McClatchy said. "They gave their lives, so that others would not be taken. We are honored to host so many of their family members at PNC Park on this anniversary date."

"It seems so long ago, yet it seems like it was 10 minutes ago," Yankees manager Joe Torre says now. "It will always be a vivid memory."

His Yankees will be on the road on Monday, as will the Mets -- marking only the second time this season that both New York teams play on the road the same day. There will be a 9/11 tribute as well when the Yankees return home Tuesday against Tampa Bay. Five years later -- even as perceptions about the world in general have changed for so many -- the healing process will continue to happen for some in slow measure at a ballpark. Friends and family who lost loved ones will be back, together in a setting that helped get them through 2001.

"You can mourn, you can be very, very sorrowful, and at the same time you can go on with your life," said former New York mayor and renowned Yankees fan Rudolph Giuliani in the HBO documentary "Nine Innings From Ground Zero." "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.

"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."

Like Giuliani, Mets fan Elizabeth Feld attended that "Piazza game." In the same documentary, she recalls: "We almost had to go ... You cling to things that are familiar and comfortable to you. ... people came to Shea Stadium to be together. And that sense of unity at a time like that is empowering."

As a player, it was not so easy to slip back into that empowering role like a comfortable uniform. The game seemed small and concern for safety was still high; whenever a jet would fly over Shea from nearby LaGuardia Airport, nerves were rattled. But players quickly understood what impact they were having just by being back in the familiar environment for relief.

"That's a game that none of us who were there will ever forget," Atlanta's Chipper Jones said of the first game back. "It's probably the only time in my career when it's been less about baseball and more about entertaining people. No matter how minor the game of baseball is, it still gave people something to get their minds off it for a couple of hours."

"We were in Boston, and I saw a sign that said 'Boston loves New York.' I've never seen that before -- and I don't think I'll ever see it again," Jeter said. "At least for some time there, we weren't Public Enemy No. 1. People may have wanted us to lose, but they weren't as nasty as they can be."

Jeter gave New Yorkers many moments of relief. There was his backhand-flip relay that proved pivotal in the American League Division Series. There was his "Mr. November" at-bat in Game 4 of the World Series, when he hit a walk-off homer against the Diamondbacks not long after the clock struck midnight on Nov. 1. The game was the first ever to be played in November and made it a 2-2 World Series, which was eventually won in seven dramatic games by the Diamondbacks.

"It motivated me to do even better," Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams said of the post-9/11 thirst for relief from life and the constant TV replays. "My role in the world seemed very insignificant; I hit a ball for a living. There are people out there who have great jobs that impact people in a way I could never imagine, and it took this incident to realize what kind of impact I actually did have, just by playing for the Yankees."

Beneath the big, open sky, Ground Zero is encircled by buildings that once were dwarfed and now seem taller, one still cloaked in screening and scaffolding for restoration work. Visitors just stare into the expanse, through the fence, the haunting reminder of hollow and hallowed ground, with visible exposed foundation and some covered in moss. Ultimately, there will be a Freedom Tower here, projected to rise 1,776 feet, like a new day. In front of you is the steel cross of two beams, now an iconic and permanent symbol, with material welded onto it by fate. There is a "Heroes" list of all the names, and one of them also appears just down the viewing fence in the giant photograph of that last standing column. He is one of many who were just doing their jobs: Brian Hickey, Rescue 4. Beside his picture are the words: "The Best of the Best. Son, Brother, Husband, Father, Friend, Hero, Angel. Loved By All." People take pictures here. They gaze at nothing, because nothing is all that is left.

"My wife and I went down to Ground Zero before the third game of that World Series, and it was very emotional," Selig says. "My wife thought I was nuts, but I stopped and read the notes that people had left to their Dads. There was a little stand right outside, flowers all over it, notes all over it. There was a young policeman and a young fireman, one a young man and a young lady, and they showed us all around. They were just wonderful. You were proud to be in their company. They had been down there almost every day. When I say it was emotional, believe me, I'm not kidding. And I said to them, do you want to go to the World Series game tonight? I think they were both married. Well, their eyes lit up. The young lady started to cry. He said, 'We can go, really?'

"I was thrilled. We took care of it, they were just so thrilled, and I felt so good about it because they had given their lives. It was almost six weeks later, and they had been literally living down there. I was an emotional wreck when I left there that day. They both wrote me notes after the game to tell me that, given everything, 'What a night that was.' So in our own little way, I hope that we helped in the healing process, and that's a privilege."

The world is so different five years later, in baseball and in general. Ballpark security and screening is a fact of life, and especially for jewel events.

"Security people are very careful, like the people in this country are," Selig said. "No question, life changed forever."

It is a reminder of what happened on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. "It's tough to remember that stuff," Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera says, but there will be reminders at all nine ballparks where home games are played on Monday. An entire nation will pause to think again about the unthinkable, when there was no one there to guard them, when time stood still and eventually a sport helped it move again.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. Mark Feinsand and Mychael Urban of MLB.com contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.