20 years after 9/11, reflecting on how New York’s favorite teams refused to let tragedy break their city.
I’ll never forget what started out as a normal sunny Tuesday morning in September.
I took the school bus to my middle school on Long Island, just over 15 miles east of Manhattan, a 13-year-old in the eighth grade obsessed with sports.
As I overheard the chatter in the hallway in between classes, I initially thought what some teachers and students were talking about was a joke. It had to be. My adolescent brain couldn’t fully comprehend what had happened. But soon after, we were gathered for an assembly and were told of the terror attacks on our city, our state, our country where we always felt so safe and secure.
On the afternoon of 9/11, we all went home not really knowing what to do with ourselves. How could I focus on homework, my studies, and normal life when my friends who lived in the Far Rockaway section of Queens could still see the smoke rising from the towers from across Jamaica Bay?
I remember wanting to watch TV to take my mind off things and not being able to. Our family didn’t have cable, and all the local stations in the NYC area were out because their signal towers were destroyed along with the World Trade Center. The stories started filtering in about our family friend who managed to escape the towers; the people who came into work late that day and avoided the unthinkable.
And then there were the stories about those in our area who weren’t as fortunate.
I remember how quiet it was. Growing up a 10-minute drive from Kennedy Airport, I grew accustomed to the sights and sounds of planes constantly taking off and landing, the roar becoming a familiar white noise over time.
On Sept. 11, everything just stopped. There were no planes, other than military helicopters and the unmistakable, deafening noises of military fighter jets. Hearing those jets made me feel safe, but also frightened and uncertain, a New Yorker now in a new, unstable era.
Would we get attacked again? Was it safe to go about daily life? When would sports come back?
I was a Yankees fan in an era where the team was in the midst of one of baseball’s greatest dynasties, having won four of the past five World Series. After they beat the Mets the year before in the Subway Series, I gave out cookies to my classmates to celebrate, trolling the losers in blue and orange who dared to take the Yankees’ throne. The Yanks were 86-57 and seemed destined to win it all again, while the Mets hovered a little below .500.
We were all getting ready for week 2 of the NFL, with the Giants coming off a Super Bowl loss to Baltimore and the Jets aiming to improve on a 9-7 season. All of a sudden, the sports that my life revolved around came to a stop, and we didn’t know when they’d come back again; when it would be safe to play again with the constant threat that the Tuesday morning that changed everything would come back and hit us again.
After a week of desperately missing sports, the Mets and Yankees both hit the road to play again on the 17th and 18th, to Pittsburgh and Chicago respectively. But while the Yanks continued their road trip to Baltimore, the Mets came home to play their rival Atlanta Braves on a Friday night at Shea Stadium in Queens.
For that weekend, it didn’t matter that the two New York baseball teams had faced each other in the World Series less than a year earlier. We were all New Yorkers, stronger than some terrorists trying to tear apart our way of life. Hats and jackets no longer read Mets or Yankees but NYPD and FDNY, a small token of respect and gratitude for the police officers, firefighters, and first responders who risked their lives to save so many, some of them making the ultimate sacrifice.
It still felt weird to have sports come back to New York, like dipping your toes in icy waters, or years later taking first steps after getting ankle surgery in high school, or when I broke my foot in college.
But when Mike Piazza hit that two-run homer in the eighth to center field to win that game, the roar from the 41,000-plus at Shea was felt across the country.
New York was here. It was strong. Nobody would break us down or tear us apart.
Sports coming back let us know that it was okay to get back to normal life, to move on with eighth grade, friends’ bar mitzvahs, to attend open houses for high school. For my mom, an elementary school teacher in the NYC public school system not far from JFK Airport, it was about not having any reservations when driving to work.
The Yankees went on an amazing playoff run that boosted our spirits even further. Going down 2-0 to the Oakland A’s in the Division Series, the Derek Jeter relay flip kept the season alive and led to a five-game ALCS demolition of a Seattle Mariners team whose 116-46 record is still the best regular season mark ever. The upstart Arizona Diamondbacks were up next in the World Series.
After losing the first two games on the road, I’ll never forget how momentous and meaningful it was to see President George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium for Game 3. Would he and the fans be safe? I remember not only being scared for everyone’s safety, but nervous about him throwing it over the plate.
Dubya threw an amazing first pitch, and Roger Clemens took it from there to get the Yankees back in the series. Then came two insane walk-off wins off Arizona closer Byung-hyun Kim.
Derek Jeter’s 10th inning Game 4 home run as October turned into November gave him the Mr. November nickname that still sticks to this day, and Scott Brosius’ dinger off Kim to tie it in the 9th was followed by Alfonso Soriano’s walk-off single in the 12th.
If you’ve made it this far, you know the Yankees ended up losing the World Series to Arizona. But getting back to sports gave me the routine I needed to get back to daily life as normal, but never forgetting the events of that most fateful of days.
I still tear up every year when I turn on the TV and watch the families and loved ones of the World Trade Center victims reading the names of those they lost on that day. And the two tall blue lights that shine every year on the anniversary, emanating from where the towers once stood, can be seen all the way from my childhood home on Long Island — a reminder that none of us will forget how all of our lives were forever changed on that sunny Tuesday morning.