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9/11 Changed N.Y. Sports Forever

2:26 PM, Sep 8, 2011   |    comments
Photo by Associated Press
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On the day the towers fell, the games stopped.

The familiar faces of sport became united New Yorkers, hearing not cheers, but sobs. All-Stars and Pro Bowlers became healers, coaches became mourners. The 10th anniversary of 9/11 touches them, too. Games might fade into the past, but not this. How could it, ever?

"This thing for me," former Jets coach Herm Edwards said over the phone, "it never goes away."

So the occasion can be marked with memories. Flashbacks to when a sports-mad city counted its dead, while the teams it loved understood that every helping hand and soothing voice and heartfelt act would be needed.

Including theirs.

It is Sept. 9, 2001, on the New Jersey Turnpike across the Hudson River from New York City.

The new Jets coach, having lost his first game, is driving his mother to the airport. The afternoon's score against a young Indianapolis quarterback named Peyton Manning might have been ugly, but the late summer evening is not.

"You look at the beautiful skyline, you look at the World Trade Center and you're saying, 'How pretty is that?'" Edwards said. "That's on a Sunday. Tuesday, those buildings are gone.
"The next few days, when I was going to work (past a commuter parking area), I noticed there were certain cars that never left that lot. Within three days, you figured it out. Those people ain't coming back home."

Early encounter

It is nearly 5 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Newark airport.

A charter jet pulls up to the gate, bringing the New York Giants back from a Monday night defeat in Denver. Next to the charter, according to the team's executive vice president, is a United Airlines plane being prepared for service later that morning. Flight 93.

Hours later, flight 93 would crash as passengers fought terrorists. The vice president would be perched in Giants Stadium, watching the unfolding horror story in Manhattan.

"The sight of standing at the top of the stadium and watching those buildings on fire is something I will never forget," said John Mara, now one of the Giants owners.

By nightfall, he is at church, with much of America, "wondering who I was going to see and not going to see at that service. Sure enough, there were a number of people from the parish who perished that day."

It is Sept. 12, 2001. The Jets practice.

"You've still got smoke in the air," Edwards recalled. "I got the team together and said, 'Boys, let me tell you something. If you're not focused today, I get it, because I ain't focused.'

"We went out on the field and it took about 45 minutes. I called off practice. I said, 'You guys go home. What we need to do right now is pray. We need to pray as Americans.'"

It is the first days just after 9/11, and no one is flying anywhere.

The Mets' hotel in Pittsburgh is next to a government building, as reliever John Franco recalls, so Major League Baseball hustles them to a more remote location in the hills, where Al-Qaeda might not be looking. By the time the team returns home, Shea Stadium has been turned into a staging area for the recovery effort at Ground Zero.

"It all didn't seem real," Franco said. "But it was."

Supplies stack up in the parking lot and exhausted relief workers sleep in the corridors, where pitchers and shortstops usually roam. The manager of the Mets, Bobby Valentine, is in constant motion, on an endless mission to help the hurting.

"He was all over the place. Everything he could do, he did," Franco said.

"It was almost impossible to go to sleep," Valentine said. "How many funerals can you go to? How many times can you hold a hand and look into empty eyes that show you nothing but a broken heart?"

It is the weekend after 9/11, and the NFL has canceled its games.

For the Jets, there was no debate. "I was at a point personally, that if we were going to play, I was willing to forfeit the game," Edwards said. "Maybe get fired. But that was OK because I didn't think it was right."

Emotional visit

It is Sept. 15, 2001, Yankee Stadium.

The team is piling into vans to visit lower Manhattan. They will encourage shaken rescue and recovery workers, hoping pinstriped fame might lift spirits. And they will stop at an armory where the families of the missing thousands maintain a tortured vigil, waiting for word.

"I didn't even know if we belonged in there because it was such a personal time," Joe Torre said. "(Team president) Randy Levine went in and said they really wanted us to come in, so we did.

"I remember one woman looked up and asked us to come over, and Bernie Williams said to the woman, 'I don't know exactly what to say, but you look like you need a hug.'

"There were so many pictures of family members dressed in Yankee paraphernalia they were showing us. 'My brother, my son was a big Yankee fan. My sister.' I don't know how long we stayed, because nobody was looking at their watch."

They were all there trying to find the right words to help; clergy, counselors, and Yankees.

"What do you say?" Derek Jeter remembered. "It was pretty uncomfortable at the beginning, but then they started opening up and telling us how much they appreciated us coming. But you don't understand why at the time.

"I think after that we had a better appreciation of what we represented."

It is Sept. 17, 2001 and the Mets are back in Pittsburgh for their first post-9/11 game.

They take the field wearing New York caps honoring firefighters, police and other emergency personnel. The Pirate fans gave them a standing ovation, even if there is some question whether the Mets are breaking league dress code rules.

"When (Mets player) Todd Zeile said they would have to rip those hats off of our heads, I thought that was a big statement and real symbolic," Valentine said. "We told the league we were going to wear those hats regardless."

Game on

It is Sept. 21, 2001, and the first major post-9/11 sports event in New York City is a Mets game against the Atlanta Braves.

There is searing emotion, ceremonies of revival, and a game-winning Mike Piazza home run at the end. It is as if the team is reassuring the city, and the city is reassuring the team.

"I thought it was divine intervention," Piazza recently told SNY. "When the game started, I didn't know whether I was going to have the strength to get through the night.

"I feel blessed to be remembered for a home run that helped the city heal."

It is Sept. 23, 2001, and the Jets win at New England while the Giants win at Kansas City.

For that matter, the Jets, Giants, Yankees and Mets all win their first post-9/11 games, as if each is playing for something vastly larger.

Mara remembers the roar the Giants got from the Chiefs fans. New York teams were everyone's favorites, for awhile, anyway. Even the Yankees. "It was a feeling of embracing us," he said. "It was almost like we were home."

"I thought, we were back on our feet, and that's the New York spirit," Edwards said. "We were compelled to do something. We've got to help this city. We've got to get to the playoffs."
Which they do, on the season's last day.

Perfect pitch

It is Oct. 30, 2001, Yankee Stadium. Game 3 of the World Series.

The Yankees have lost the first two Series games in Arizona, but this night is about a city and nation regaining its balance, and George Bush is there, the first sitting president to throw out the first pitch at a World Series game in 45 years.

"He had that fire in his eyes," Torre said. "He was determined to sort of elevate the mood of the country. He went out there and threw a strike, and I knew it was important for him to throw a strike. He was in our batting cages throwing to get loose. He had to try to do that with a bulletproof vest on, which was no easy task."

Added Jeter, "There was no need to be scared. That's what I got out of it. He came out for the first pitch, and we went back to playing baseball."

"It was the most nervous I ever was during my presidency," Bush told USA Today. "My blood was pumping through my system so hard that the ball felt like a shot put.

"It was a very dramatic moment. . . . I'm saying to myself, 'Hey pal, you used to be a mediocre pitcher. Don't bounce it.'"

Before the game, the managers meet in the umpires' office to go over ground rules, and Torre notices an umpire he didn't recognize. Who's the new guy?

A Secret Service agent in disguise.

The Yankees won all three Series games in the Bronx, up the river from Ground Zero, two with dramatic late-inning rallies. Even Mets fans had to appreciate the symbolism.

It is Nov. 4, 2001. The New York City Marathon.

Thirty-thousand competitors hit the streets, partly to send a message of rebirth, even as they run across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and see a hole in the skyline where the World Trade Center should be.

"Americans are defiant," race director Allan Steinfeld told reporters then. "New Yorkers are even more defiant."

Looking back

It is 2011. Ten years later, some of sport's healing efforts have faded away.

You don't hear "God Bless America" at so many ballparks anymore. But other meaningful legacies go on.

The Mets remain a pillar for Tuesday's Children, an organization that provides support, counseling sessions, trips to games, meet-and-greet opportunities with players, and other services for families impacted by 9/11.

Brought together, they can share the pain and the long road back.

Jay - he prefers not to use his last name - was a sergeant for the NYPD on 9/11. "I was there as the bodies fell and the people were jumping," he said. Now he has fought cancer and various other health issues, possibly as a result of so much time spent at Ground Zero.

"Without a doubt, with the many days and nights I slept down there," he said. "But I wouldn't trade it for anything.

"There's always something to remind you, always something to bring it back, no matter how hard you try to forget it. Within the last couple of weeks, I had a dream of a plane crashing into a building."

He has two teenage sons, Andrew and Todd, beneficiaries of Tuesday's Children. "It makes them feel good about themselves," he said. "I think it's more important for the children than the elders."

Marianne Fitzpatrick's husband, Thomas, was working on the 104th floor of the south tower that day, and left behind two infants. Caralyn is 10 now and Brendan 12, and just the other day, Marianne took them to a Mets game.

"My husband was a big sports fan so he certainly would have been taking the children to the games if he were around," she said. "Since he's not, that gives us an opportunity to do some things he would have done with them."

"It also shows them they weren't the only ones affected by Sept. 11."

Drying the tearsSo while the teams of New York could not stop their city's tears, at least they could help dry them. Even if the Yankees lost Game 7 of the World Series, and the Jets were quickly knocked out in the playoffs.

For this, too, is part of the aftermath: One of the most cherished items in Brendan Fitzpatrick's room is a David Wright jersey.

Sept. 11 intersected with New York sport in the oddest places. Last week in Williamsport, Pa., the Little League World Series honored Michael Cammarata, who played outfield there for Staten Island in 1991. He was, at 22, the youngest fireman to die on 9/11.

Ten years later, no one is untouched.

Not Valentine: "I keep feeling that I came up really short. I saw a need that I couldn't fill. I saw devastation that I couldn't correct. I saw hearts that were broken that I couldn't mend. I felt individually that there was so much to do, and so little I could do.

"But collectively, the way the team responded and the symbol that we were a helping hand was very powerful."

Nor Mara: "One of the positives that came out of it in this city is a sense of patriotism and respect not only for the military but police officers and firefighters, for first responders and people who gave so much in the aftermath of 9/11."

Nor Torre: "I realized at that point in time how much we mean to their lives. It took onto all of us the obligation we had, and the job we had to distract them from their grief."

Nor Edwards: "Every season after opening day, I've always thought about it. We take things for granted. Well, I don't assume things anymore.

"Every day, in my opinion, is special."

They understand how their world - and their games' place in it - changed after a sunny morning in September, when New Yorkers had to huddle together in the dark.

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