Baseball played part in 9/11 healing process
When an act of terrorism killed thousands of Americans and altered forever our perceptions about our personal and collective safety, what possible importance could be attached to a sport, a game?
That was one of the questions that Major League Baseball wrestled with 10 years ago, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil. The answers remind us of the place that baseball has held, and still holds, in American life.
On that September morning, there was an owners' meeting scheduled in Milwaukee, at the Pfister Hotel. Before the meetings started Commissioner Bud Selig was attending to his morning ritual -- an hour of riding his exercise bike while watching sports and news on television. What he saw was what we all eventually saw; two planes crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
"It was mortifying," Selig said.
But he had decisions to make regarding the immediate future of his sport. The airports were closed. The nation held its breath. There was anger, there was alarm, there was pain. What there wasn't, what there couldn't be for the moment, was business as usual.
"I went down to the Pfister," Selig said, "and people were just milling around, bewildered. Nobody knew what to do. The Seattle people bought a car and they ended up driving home. They bought a car and they literally drove home. Nobody knew what to do."
Where did baseball fit in this chaotic situation? Or did it fit at all? Selig agonized over these issues. There were arguments that the game should not resume for some time. Or, perhaps, the regular season should not be resumed at all. On the other side, there was the suggestion that for the reassurance that normal activities -- including baseball -- would continue, the season should resume as soon as possible. The terrorist attacks had occurred on Tuesday. Perhaps, when air travel fully resumed, the games themselves could resume as soon as the weekend.
Selig was guided in his decision by a clear precedent. In his office there is a framed copy of a letter sent by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the President imploring the Commissioner to have baseball continue during World War II. Using this presidential stance as a guide, Selig determined that baseball should have a role in the resumption of American life after the terrorist attacks. Life in America would never be completely the same after those attacks, but some staples of American life would not be altered.
"In baseball's function as a social institution, we wanted to be not only sensitive, but we wanted to play our little part in the recovery process," Selig said. "It was a painful time, an emotional time, but we did fulfill that role.
"I thought, I re-thought, I thought again. Some people were saying Friday, but I thought that was too soon. It was a subjective decision, but I thought we needed to do what we could do in our little way to be helpful."
Selig chose to have the games resume the following Monday, six days after the attacks. The games that were missed were subsequently added to the end of the regular season.
In the interim, the baseball personnel who had been on the road on Sept. 11, scrambled to find ways to get home. Subsequently, teams generally reassembled over the weekend for workouts. It was a difficult time in many ways, and emotional, particularly for the New York teams.
Joe Torre, the manager of the Yankees at that time, said of a workout at Yankee Stadium: "The strangeness of coming together after not seeing each other, it was like we were complete strangers, though we weren't. We were in a baseball clubhouse and I don't think we talked about baseball at all."
Everywhere, the focus was on heightened security. Baseball's point man on that issue was Kevin Hallinan, then MLB's senior vice-president for security and facility management. Working closely with local and team officials, Hallinan managed to put in place security measures that made ballparks considerably safer without allowing those measures to intrude on what is supposed to be an entertaining experience.
"We wanted to make sure that the level of security met the needs of our customers and of our communities," Hallinan said later. "We received tremendous cooperation and input from everyone. Our intent, absolutely, was to be as efficient and complete as we could possibly be without the fans believing that they were in an armed camp. We're in the entertainment business, and we depend on return business."
When the national pastime resumed, it did so to an outpouring of emotion. In his pre-game remarks to his players as the Yankees resumed play, Torre suggested the real and symbolic value of baseball.
"I told them, 'The NY on our hats represents the people of New York, not just the Yankees,'" Torre said. "We needed to help people get distracted from what they've gone through. We weren't asking them to forget it; we just tried to give them a few hours of enjoyment."
In St. Louis, just before the resumption of play on Sept. 17, Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck recited a poignant poem. He paused at one point to ask the question that everyone was asking: "Is it right for us to be here?"
The Busch Stadium crowd responded with a resounding ovation.
"When Jack Buck asked, 'Is it right to be here?' and the crowd roared, it was a very emotional time," Selig said. "I don't mind telling you I cried that night.
"All the way through that wonderful World Series -- and those games in New York were truly moving, emotional experiences -- my thought was that we helped bring some normality back. It gave people a reason to come together and celebrate. I think it offered a catharsis; a productive, positive catharsis. So I think that in our little way, we did play a role in the healing."
Like the rest of American society, baseball found its way through this crisis. Like the rest of society, it had been saddened, but it had not been diminished.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.