The stories of how Major League Baseball, its players and personnel, reacted to the tragedy of 9/11 drastically pale in comparison to the stories of brave firefighters climbing up the steps of the Twin Towers or emboldened passengers overpowering the hijackers on Flight 93. But they are stories that nonetheless speak to just how much the national pastime was impacted by national tragedy. We share some of them here.
The line drive steamed down the left-field line, a last-chance rocket in a lost season. Maybe this one would fall in. Maybe the two baserunners aboard would scoot home and cut into the 5-1 deficit the Angels faced with two out in the ninth against Arthur Rhodes. Maybe this would be the hit that would spark a satisfying finish to a frustrating year for Tim Salmon.
A left fielder named Charles Gipson used his blistering speed to get in position for the diving snag. He made the catch at 10:14 p.m. PT.
"Are you kidding me?" Salmon thought to himself. "That sums up my year, right there."
Video: SEA@ANA: Gipson makes acrobatic, game-ending catch
Afterward, Salmon returned to his Orange County home. His good friend and financial advisor, Don Christensen, was in town, and the two stayed up late, with the great Angels outfielder bemoaning his .230 batting average in a season that, following shoulder surgery, never found traction. It was the most miserable year of his career, and, as he told Christensen that night, he couldn't wait for it to be over.
So in the wee morning hours of Sept. 11, 2001, a flustered Salmon went to sleep, not knowing he had just made the last out of what felt like the last normal night in America.
The debut that wasn't
"This is getting annoying."
Ballplayers are creatures of the night, as dictated by the season schedule. A morning phone call is a nuisance. A morning phone call on the day of your Major League debut is a disturbance. And multiple morning phone calls on the day of your debut -- even if it's friends or family members on the other line, trying to wish you good luck -- is an invitation to agitation.
Jason Middlebrook had worked so hard and waited for so long to get to this day. Years earlier, he was a promising young right-hander who overwhelmed the opposition in high school in Grass Lake, Mich., pitched for Team USA in the World Junior Baseball Championships and had such an inspiring first season at Stanford that Baseball America named him its Freshman Pitcher of the Year.
And then, sophomore year, his elbow began to hurt. Along came the surgery and the mechanical tweaks aimed at recovering what was lost. Middlebrook caught a break in 1996, when the Padres drafted him and gave him a $755,000 bonus, an unheard-of amount for a ninth-round pick. And for the next five years, he made the long, slow slog toward the Majors, enduring a string of statistical and health setbacks before San Diego finally summoned him in September of 2001. He was, at 26 years old, scheduled to make his debut start on this day, a Tuesday, at Qualcomm Stadium, and all he wanted was some early morning rest.
But that dang phone kept ringing.
Middlebrook finally picked it up. His wife, Wendy, was on the other end in tears.
"Turn on the TV," she told him, and Middlebrook did as instructed and saw what we all saw.
"Forget my debut," he thought to himself. "Our lives have just been altered."
The stalled chase
With the season on hold, so, too, was history.
When Salmon made that final out of Sept. 10, the Mariners -- led by an incredible rookie named Ichiro -- improved to an astonishing 104-40, dropping their magic number in the American League West to two and maintaining their pace for the most wins in baseball history.
But no run at the record books garnered as much attention as Barry Bonds' barrage toward Mark McGwire's three-year-old single-season home run mark.
In the Giants' final game before the attacks and subsequent postponement, on a Sunday afternoon at Colorado's Coors Field, Bonds had one of the signature days of his season. He matched Roger Maris with his 61st homer in the first inning off Scott Elarton, added another solo shot off Elarton in the fifth and then connected on a three-run shot off Todd Belitz to cap the Giants' five-run 11th and, strangely, elicit chants of "Bar-ry! Bar-ry! Bar-ry!" from the Colorado crowd.
Video: SF@COL: Bonds goes deep three times at Coors
"I don't think I've ever seen a visiting player take a curtain call," Giants first baseman J.T. Snow told reporters afterward.
Bonds' march toward McGwire was methodical. One could barely stop to process or appreciate that his 62nd blast had broken Maris' mark for a left-handed hitter, because No. 63 was right around the corner.
"This," said winning pitcher Wayne Gomes, "is fun."
The fun, though, would quickly give way to the agonizing uncertainty and pure heartbreak of a Tuesday morning when terror arrived at our doorstep. And, for a long while, something that once seemed so magnetizing -- a grown man trying to hit baseballs over a wall -- felt utterly frivolous, even to the man himself. When play resumed six days after the attacks, they asked Bonds if he and his bat had the power to heal or otherwise distract America.
"No," he said solemnly, "not unless I have the power to bring life back."
For whatever you thought about Bonds during his career, his perspective on his pursuit in the midst of such devastation was healthy then and remains so.
"I don't ever want to go back to that day," he says now.
The awkward return
Healthy perspective was easily summoned in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
Under ordinary circumstances, pitcher Steve Sparks, for instance, might have still been bemoaning what transpired a day earlier, when the Tigers' bullpen couldn't hold the lead he left behind. Sparks made just one mistake in his 6 1/3 innings that Monday night in Motown, serving up a triple to Corey Koskie that set up a sacrifice fly from a 25-year-old DH named David Ortiz, and Detroit had a 2-1 edge when he departed in the seventh. But the Twins tied it in the eighth and won it in the ninth on a sac fly.
Video: MIN@DET: Knuckleballer Steve Sparks strikes out six
"A lot of times you don't have good perspective after a baseball game until something really gets in your face," Sparks says now. "And obviously, that got in everybody's face."
Commissioner Bud Selig consulted with the commissioners of other sports and President George W. Bush before making the decision for play to resume on Monday, Sept. 17. That night, Cardinals announcer Jack Buck summed up the emotion of the occasion with the recitation of a poem at Busch Stadium that was punctuated by an emphatic, "Should we be here? Yes!"
Video: Jack Buck reads a moving speech and poem in St. Louis
But for many of the players on the field, the return to play was an awkward one.
"I remember the first time pitching after that, there was a hollow feeling in your chest," Sparks says. "It felt insignificant. You felt empty out there."
The members of the New York teams were the most emotionally affected. The Yankees were in town at the time of the attacks, and manager Joe Torre led a delegation of players in visits to various sites, comforting emergency workers and relatives of victims. And we all remember the Mets playing the first post-9/11 professional sporting event in New York and Mike Piazza hitting that epic and emotionally uplifting home run.
But the Mets' first actual action after the postponement took place in Pittsburgh's PNC Park. The Mets and Pirates flip-flopped home and road dates of two late-season series so that Shea Stadium could continue to be used as a staging area for rescue supplies. On the 17th, Al Leiter worked seven strong innings in a 4-1 road victory.
"Warming up," Leiter says now, "didn't feel right."
At that moment in time, with remains still being recovered and the United States mulling its military response, nothing did.
Video: NYM@PIT: Leiter strong as Mets resume play after 9/11
A unique beginning
"Good luck, kid."
Dodger Stadium. Sept. 17, 2001. It was the Major League debut Middlebrook had always anticipated, under conditions he never could have imagined.
Bruce Bochy gave the rookie the ball in that first game back, keeping Middlebrook on his turn in the rotation when he could have very easily reshuffled. And so it was Middlebrook vs. Kevin Brown, the Dodgers' $105 million man, and Middlebrook's teammates smiled at him coyly in the clubhouse because, they knew, the combination of opponent, location and occasion was a lot for a first-timer to take in.
"I'll never forget warming up for that game," Middlebrook says now. "Down in the bullpen, it was me, our bullpen catcher, the late Darrel Akerfelds, and our bullpen coach, Greg Booker. And we were, aside from Kevin Brown and the Dodgers' staff warming up for him, the only folks that weren't in the stadium or on the field holding the American flag. So we paused and we were able to see this magnificent display of patriotism and unity from a perspective only a few of us got to see."
Middlebrook earned his first Major League win that night, allowing a run on two hits in six innings. That would be one of just four victories in parts of three seasons in a career that didn't go to plan and yet still managed to feel fulfilling.
"The game is unforgiving in a lot of ways, but it gave me way more than I could ever give it," says Middlebrook, who now runs a real estate company in Austin, Texas. "Baseball allowed me to go to a good university, where I met my wife. I got a nice signing bonus, and I did get to the Major Leagues. I wish, for our country's sake and for all those people who lost friends and loved ones, that 9/11 didn't occur, but I did have that truly unique experience that I'll never forget."
"The shape of our world"
Fifteen years later, the moments on and immediately surrounding 9/11 are so vivid for so many of us that even Salmon, a man who racked up more than 7,000 plate appearances with the Angels, distinctly remembers that seemingly meaningless final out against Rhodes and the Mariners.
When his wife jarred him from his sleep the following morning with the horrible news, Salmon knew his miserable season was irrelevant. When, from his own backyard in Tustin Ranch, he could see the F-16 military jets from Marine Corps Air Station El Toro patrolling the sky, he knew his country, essentially if not yet officially, was at war.
"We were all kind of wondering," he says now, "what the shape of our world would look like."
For Salmon, a return to baseball normalcy arrived in 2002. His shoulder recovered, and so did his numbers. And as an added bonus, his Angels won the World Series in a thrilling seven-game set with the Giants. A year he wanted desperately to forget paved the way to an unforgettable year.
That's a baseball story. Sometimes we need those. In our country, in our world, putting ugly events in the rearview is not as simple as showing up the following spring. And because our past informs our present, the reverberations from 9/11 are still being felt, 15 years later.
So here's to more baseball stories, more diversions. Kids getting called up, records being chased, pennants being won. Those stories were put on pause on Sept. 11, 2001. And maybe, in some very small way, their resumption a week later helped the healing process and helped us adapt to our new normal.
Alyson Footer contributed reporting for this story.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.