President's first pitch provided healing image
Bush's strike reaffirmed influence of baseball in troubled times
We watched baseball through wet eyes for much of the autumn of 2001, but nothing soothed the healing more than President George W. Bush's appearance at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 30.
Baseball has a way of doing that.
It's our national pastime.
In America's darkest moments, from World War I to the Great Depression to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, baseball has been an escape, preserving and helping our country through its most difficult times.
It was Game 3 of the 2001 World Series, Arizona Diamondbacks vs. the New York Yankees.
Politics were forgotten that October night when Bush went to the mound to deliver the ceremonial first pitch. There could not have been a better setting or a more appropriate stage.
It was especially important to New Yorkers, but millions more watching on television undoubtedly got the same patriotic feeling.
Rescue workers were still sifting through the ruins of the once stately twin towers of the World Trade Center only about 12 miles away in lower Manhattan.
During two previous interviews with Bush, he told me that night was one of the most moving and memorable of his term in office.
"The crowd was chanting 'U-S-A, U-S-A,' and it was very emotional, a very alive experience," he said. "It's something I'll never forget. Thinking about it still brings goose bumps. That was a very memorable night."
In his book, "Decision Points," Bush talks about a CIA report that more attacks were coming.
George Tenet, the CIA director at the time, briefed the president citing "a highly reliable source warning there would be an attack on either Oct. 30 or 31 that was bigger than the World Trade Center attack."
18891197 Bush writes that "after several false alarms we believed this could be the real deal."
Even though the Secret Service advised Bush to leave the White House and move to an undisclosed location, he remained.
He went to Yankee Stadium on Oct. 30 for one of the most important events in the recovery process.
I remember watching him go to the mound that night and throw the first pitch. I've covered nearly 50 World Series, but that moment will always stand out. It was so important to our nation and baseball was deeply involved. Yes, our national pastime.
"Seven weeks after 9/11, it would send a powerful signal for the president to show up at Yankee Stadium," Bush writes in his book. "I hoped my visit would help lift the spirits of New Yorkers.
"We flew to New York on Air Force One and choppered into a field next to the ballpark. I went to the batting cage to loosen up my arm. A Secret Service agent strapped a bulletproof vest to my chest. After a few warmup pitches, the great Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter dropped in to take some swings. We talked a little. Then, he asked, 'Hey, President, are you going to throw from the mound or from in front of it?' I asked what he thought. 'Throw from the mound,' Derek said. 'Or else they'll boo you.' I agreed to do it."
"Nine months into the presidency, I was used to being introduced to a crowd. But I'd never had a feeling like I did when Bob Sheppard, the Yankees legendary public-address announcer, belted out, 'Please welcome the President of the United States. I climbed the mound, gave a wave and a thumbs-up, and peered in at the catcher, Todd Greene. He looked a lot farther away than 60 feet, six inches. My adrenaline was surging. The ball felt like a shot put. I wound up and let it fly."
Bush told me during the previous interviews that the response inside the stadium from the 55,820 fans, virtually all on their feet, was deafening. He said the old ballpark vibrated.
The Yankees lost that World Series in seven games, but Joe Torre, then the New York manager, says, "It was still the most exciting and emotional World Series [of six] I was in. President Bush being there was a lift for everybody. He threw a strike and it wasn't easy with that bullet-proof vest."
Torre remembers when the pregame session with the umpires took place. "I knew all of the umpires except one. It turns out he was one of the Secret Service agents who was going to be out on the field with the president."
In his book, Bush talks about flying back to Washington late that night "and waited out the next day. Oct. 31 passed without an attack."
Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary then, is convinced there was really never any doubt whether Bush should have gone to Yankee Stadium.
"We all knew as the president went there what a big moment it was and how important it was to the country," Fleischer told MLB.com in an interview. "The country still felt sucker-punched. It was almost as if our proud nation was doubled over holding its gut. We weren't ourselves since 9/11. Sports was canceled in America for a while.
"Bush is a sports guy and we all instinctively know how much sports means to America being on the right track. The absence of sports was so visible that when the president went to the Yankee Stadium mound we all just knew what a singular moment it would be. It was a metaphor for the country.
"... To see the commander in chief say, 'I'm not vulnerable. I'll stand right here on the mound at Yankee Stadium and nobody can bring harm to our country.' That's what that appearance represented. It had tremendous impact."
Fleischer believes there was no way Bush could have avoided going.
"If he hadn't gone and the word got out that he didn't go because we didn't think the president could be safe, think about that -- the message it would have sent to terrorists all over the world."
Fleischer remembers the next morning "the president came in and said to me no matter what happens in the course of his presidency, last night will always be special. He knew the power of that trip before he took it and when he returned he knew it even more. The power was how much the American people just wanted to cheer for their country again."
In a sense it was a fastball down the middle -- unhittable.
I walked out of Yankee Stadium hours after the game and didn't really care who won.
The United States of America won that night and once again I was forever reminded that patriotism and baseball go hand in hand.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.