Baseball symbolized resiliency after 9/11

Baseball symbolized resiliency after 9/11

Frail but forceful, sick but steadfast, 77-year-old Jack Buck stood before the microphone that night in St. Louis, six days after a series of terrorist attacks rocked the repose of a nation.

To the thousands of fans gathered at Busch Stadium and the thousands more tuned in elsewhere, Buck, battling the lung cancer that would claim his life less than a year later, read a poem about America's convictions and connections, its ability to give to those in need and defeat those who strike.

But then, just as importantly, Buck acknowledged the question that undoubtedly hung in the air in those first awkward and upsetting days in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

"The question has already been answered," Buck said. "Should we be here? Yes!"

With that, baseball was back. And you could argue that the sport's return served as a symbol of the spirit of the nation itself.

In times of trouble, the United States turns to its institutions for stability. And while no trivial task, sporting or otherwise, could heal the wounds of those who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks, baseball was, for many of us, at worst a diversion from the devastation and the specter of death and hate that hung in the air, and at best a reminder of the country's ability to carry forward.

Ten years later, we remember, first and foremost, the nearly 3,000 victims who lost their lives to the senseless violence of the attacks, as well as the thousands more who have lost their lives in the ensuing and ongoing War on Terror. We remember the emergency and rescue workers who died trying to save others, and we pray for the families whose lives were permanently altered when four hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

But we also remember the way our country banded together in those days, weeks and months after 9/11. We remember the outpouring of patriotism that reminded us what matters and helped us heal.

And in so doing, we remember the part the national pastime played.

9/11, 10 Years Later: We Shall Not Forget
MLB.com's 2001 coverage after Sept. 11
Baseball showed USA's post-9/11 resiliency
Castrovince: Public finds solace at ballparks
Bauman: However small, diversion is welcome
Noble: 10 years later, bagpipes and baseball
Giuliani recalls baseball's impact after 9/11
Baseball recalls wide-ranging emotions
Bauman: Game shaken, resolved in aftermath
Mets' memories remain vivid
In New York, Cubs remember 9/11 heroes
Torre: Emotions from 9/11 remain today
Tragedy strikes 9/11 'Faces of Hope'
Where were they? Players recall 9/11 events
Events left impression on Fall Classic
  Sights & Sounds: 2001 | 10 years later
  Baseball Remembers: Pt. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5
 Vin Scully on 9/11, 10 years later
 Jack Buck's speech, poem
 Giuliani on baseball's impact on recovery
 First pitch: Shea Stadium | Yankee Stadium
 Baseball's Best: Piazza's homer
 Galleries: Tributes | First game back in NY
How you can help
9/11 Memorial in New York
Flight 93 National Memorial
The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial

"In baseball's function as a social institution," said Commissioner Bud Selig, "we wanted to be not only sensitive, but we wanted to play our little part in the recovery process. It was a painful time, an emotional time, but we did fulfill that role."

From the American flags on all the uniforms to chants of "USA! USA! USA!" in the stands to "God Bless America" supplanting "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at the seventh-inning stretch to the Mets and Yankees wearing FDNY and NYPD hats to President George W. Bush tossing out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the World Series (a perfect strike, no less), the ballpark became a stage on which America displayed its resilience.

"The thing that I remember," said Indians slugger Jim Thome, "is how it brought everybody together. The unique thing is that baseball, as special as it is, gave people that chance to get back to normal living. Now, whether it actually did or not, who knows? But I think it felt good to come back and to see people really appreciate what baseball gives them.

"It doesn't compare to what those families went through, but if we, as athletes, could make somebody smile by coming to the ballgame, that was pretty special."

The tail end of that 2001 season was filled with special moments, both memorable and surreal. Buck's poem put the nation's will into words. Red Sox fans sang "New York, New York" at Fenway Park, proving our country's camaraderie exceeds even the game's most storied rivalry. Sammy Sosa, a native of the Dominican Republic, sprinted around Wrigley Field waving a tiny American flag.

"That wasn't only for America," Sosa would say later. "That was for all over the world."

Maybe these moments didn't matter in the grander scheme of life and death. How many moments on a field of play really do? But those involved sensed a purpose in playing, no matter the scale.

"If anything," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said at the time, "playing again will give people an option to watch something else on TV."

Selig agonized over the decision of what would be, as he called it, "the appropriate time" for the season to resume, consulting other sports' commissioners and even President Bush. Throughout the sporting world at large, a self-conscious feeling forced its way to the surface -- a sense of guilt in going forward with such frivolity when the whole country was still grieving and the World Trade Center site was still burning.

Ultimately, the show had to go on, if only to provide the comfort of assembly. For MLB, the show resumed Sept. 17, and a patriotic display emerged at ballparks across the country. Fans held signs with slogans such as "In Baseball We Trust." And "USA! USA!" chants were commonplace after the "God Bless America" renditions that became standard seventh-inning fare.

"At the ballpark in Chicago [the first game back]," then-Yankees manager Joe Torre recalled in a first-person piece he wrote for MLB.com, "there were banners: 'We love New York.' You knew most of these people couldn't be Yankees fans because it wasn't easy to travel. But they were just people showing support. And to this day I get thanked by people for the role baseball played at that time when we all came together as a country."

Of course, just because baseball resumed didn't mean those who took part in it -- from the players on the field to the folks in the stands -- quite knew how to act. On Sept. 21, the Mets and Braves played the first post-9/11 professional sporting event in New York City, and the scene at Shea Stadium, which had served as a staging area for rescue supplies in the first days after the attacks, was an uneasy one for several innings. Planes would fly in and out of nearby LaGuardia Airport, and it was natural for those in attendance to fear their presence.

"That was the time we were in," then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani said.

The players could be forgiven if their minds were elsewhere, too.

"It really wasn't a feeling of going out and trying to win the game," Chipper Jones recalled. "It was basically a feeling of trying to go out and entertain the people of New York, trying to take their minds off of what happened. Winning and losing didn't matter."

But in the bottom of the eighth, with his Mets trailing, 2-1, Mike Piazza, who lived in a Manhattan apartment that had previously had a view of the Twin Towers, smacked a two-run home run off Steve Karsay to put the Mets ahead.

Spontaneously, the crowd erupted. Baseball -- and, for the moment, America -- felt normal again.

"It really did a lot for the morale of everyone," Giuliani said. "Because it was something that reminded you that life goes on and that the good things in life still go on."

The 2001 postseason would often be cited as essential in helping New York City cope. The Yankees' run to the World Series -- and the dramatic seven-game set with the D-backs that ensued -- was a welcomed diversion from the eerie air that permeated the city.

"The reservoir in Central Park is under guard, and people still wear surgical masks downtown, and anthrax-laced envelopes arrive in the city's newsrooms," Steve Rushin wrote in Sports Illustrated that October. "Conversely, for many fans an escapist pastime -- baseball -- has taken on a strange gravitas this postseason."

Though they ultimately came up short in Game 7, the Yankees helped provide a reminder to hold onto the little things, moments that had once seemed so ordinary before the attacks altered our existence. And that, in its own humble way, was how MLB played a role in post-9/11 America.

"The legacy is a wonderful one," Giuliani said. "It is how much baseball means to people and what it can do for a community, what it can do for a country. ... I think it was just wonderful that baseball came along at the right moment and reestablished itself as the national pastime."

Ten years later, baseball remains a respite and release from the uncertainties of the world at large. Construction continues at Ground Zero, battles are still being waged in the Middle East and the threat of stateside terrorism remains ever-present. Baseball's place in the picture is only as large or as small as the beholder deems it to be.

But across America this weekend, the sport will pause to salute those we've lost, honor those who risk their lives for the greater good and remember how the crack of the bat can allow us to crack a smile when we need it most.

Should we be here? Yes.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. Reporters Mike Bauman and Bryan Hoch contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.