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Yankees Magazine: The Ultimate Comeback

After 9/11, sports played a huge role in helping the country heal
Yankees Magazine

No, the Yankees did not win the World Series in 2001. There were no world championship celebrations or parades up the Canyon of Heroes. And yet it's hard to come up with a more memorable postseason run, not just for Yankees fans, but also the country as a whole.

In part it's because of the epic comebacks and the walk-off outcomes, up to and including the heartbreaking Game 7 breakdown that lifted the Diamondbacks to the mountaintop by just the slimmest of margins. But the 2001 Yankees also remain embedded in our memory because of what was going on in the United States at that time.

No, the Yankees did not win the World Series in 2001. There were no world championship celebrations or parades up the Canyon of Heroes. And yet it's hard to come up with a more memorable postseason run, not just for Yankees fans, but also the country as a whole.

In part it's because of the epic comebacks and the walk-off outcomes, up to and including the heartbreaking Game 7 breakdown that lifted the Diamondbacks to the mountaintop by just the slimmest of margins. But the 2001 Yankees also remain embedded in our memory because of what was going on in the United States at that time.

The devastation and tragedy at Ground Zero was still raw as the World Series got underway, the scars of 9/11 still visible in the smoldering wreckage of the Twin Towers. When two hijacked airplanes hit the skyscrapers, killing thousands of innocent people, the world stopped. Every part of it -- including sports -- ground to a halt. Nearly every game, match, practice and event was canceled or postponed in the immediate aftermath. America was busy trying to put itself back together, and the games would have to wait.

Eventually, though, play resumed. Football players put their pads back on, and baseball players ran back onto the field. In those moments, the nation began to heal. When Major League umpires instructed the teams to play ball, for just a few hours, fans were given permission to breathe normally, albeit briefly. It felt good to smile.

It's easy to say that sports are just games, but in the days and weeks after the tragedy of Sept. 11, sports offered a safe space for an entire population to come together, to grieve and to celebrate simultaneously. Spontaneous moments of unity emerged amid the smoke and ash. Minutiae such as flag-emblazoned hats and ceremonial first pitches became poignant symbols of national pride and resilience.

After 9/11, the world changed. But sports stayed mostly the same. And that comfort and consistency was so crucial in a time of distress.

To commemorate the role sports played in helping the healing, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum created a special exhibition called "Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11," which takes visitors through the timeline of events in the days and months after the attacks, shows how sports provided a way for people to connect, and illustrates how arenas and stadiums became places of healing. The exhibit also tells a bigger story about the role sports have always played in the history of the country.

"Comeback Season" opened to the public on June 27 and is just the second temporary exhibition to be housed at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. It took a year to arrange and construct, and it is expected to remain open until at least summer 2019. Filled with artifacts, photographs and archival video, the exhibit takes visitors through the full timeline of sports-related events surrounding 9/11. It moves from the moment the planes hit the towers, to the ESPN coverage about how the sports world -- as well as the rest of the country -- would be taking some time off to process what had happened and try to figure out the best way forward, to telling the story of how New York City played host to the World Series and a marathon just weeks after the attacks.

There are displays remembering "A Prayer for America," the memorial service that took place at Yankee Stadium. Another commemorates the first game played in New York City after the attacks -- a Mets contest against the Braves at Shea Stadium in which Mike Piazza homered -- and a remembrance of how the Rangers started their season on the ice by paying tribute to the FDNY and NYPD.

"There's another part to the story," says Alice M. Greenwald, the president & CEO of the museum, "which is how we literally came together in the aftermath of this whole event and began to support each other in ways that were remarkable and palpable and surprising. Sports was one of the places -- and probably the most visible place in the society -- where people felt they could come together safely.

"The arena literally became the place where we expressed gratitude to the first responders and expressed commemorative recollections of those who had died and honored their families."

Video: BAL@NYY: Yankees unveil September 11 monument in 2002

The Yankees obviously play a role in the exhibit, too, with displays about the 2001 World Series, President George W. Bush's ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium prior to Game 3, and a case containing a glove Derek Jeter gifted to the daughter of one of the pilots who died when his plane crashed into the South Tower.

Brielle Saracini was only 10 years old when she wrote to Jeter three days after losing her father. In her grief, she reached out to her favorite baseball player for comfort:

"As you have heard, there was a horrible accident that involved the Twin Towers, there was a hijacking on a plane. Terrible people are in this world, but you and I both know that! Out of respect I would love it if you would pay me a visit because that horrible hijacking happened to be my father. My father was the pilot, Captain Victor J. Saracini. My family is experiencing pain that comes and goes … My dad was a great father to me and he would want me to concur [sic] my dream, meeting you…"

Jeter received the letter and acted almost immediately. He invited the Saracini family to Yankee Stadium and spent the day with Brielle and her sister.

"That was really kind of an eye-opener because it gave us an insight into how athletes responded," says Clifford Chanin, executive vice president and deputy director for museum programs. "It's how people who have been bereaved in those first moments thinking about what would make them feel better -- it was to reach out to an athlete, and then the athlete was touched by the story and responds. It's a microcosm of the whole thing."

"The story itself is so heartwarming," Greenwald says. "It's that idea of whatever you do in your profession, whatever you do in life, you can put a hand out to somebody in need and make a difference."

In terms of difference-makers, none mattered more than the first responders. Search and rescue missions that began in the moments after the disaster occurred were ongoing weeks later. Every day, firemen and police officers were working at Ground Zero with a singular focus: Find anyone still missing.

"I remember the trip we all took over to the first responders at Ground Zero; they were so diligently working, trying to find and save lives," says former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber, who was on hand at the opening of the exhibit. "They hadn't even thought about what they were doing until we showed up and they stopped and they talked, and a couple of the guys would break down and start crying. It was amazing how they hadn't processed what they were doing."

The Giants were far from the only organization to take time out to visit the site. Each New York team found itself at Ground Zero to lend a hand, offer a hug or bring supplies, including the Yankees.

"I remember thinking, 'We're just baseball players, and this is the game of life,'" Joe Torre, the Yankees' manager at the time, said while attending an event at the 9/11 Museum & Memorial in 2016. He remembered being presented with photos of lost Yankees fans by their grieving families, and it was then that he realized that there was something he and his players could offer in return. "There was something for us to do, and that was to try to distract them.

"The 'NY' on your hats represents more than just the Yankees," Torre told his players. "It represents the city of New York."

At the exhibit, the Yankees' famous interlocking "NY" is everywhere, from the video boards displaying a rotation of hand-painted signs fans brought to the Stadium, to the frying pan mounted on a piece of wood carried by legendary Yankees fan Freddy "Sez" Schuman. Its message: "N.Y. Yankees and America We're With You!"

It was a statement with meaning -- they all were. Every moment mattered. Every athlete, coach and fan played a role in helping the county heal.

Rivalries persisted on the field. Folks in the stands were encouraged to root for their teams and their guys. A World Series was on the line in the Bronx, and Yankees fans were as caught up in that battle as they were with anything else. But what came through in those moments and throughout every game -- and indeed throughout the exhibit -- was that behind all those on-field battles was something more.

"I think that authentic sense of, 'We're in this together, we are one, this is one team. Yes, we play games against each other, but what really matters is the fabric of our society and who we are,'" Greenwald says. "Sports does that better than anything else in our society. It just does it in ways that everybody can relate to."

Walking through the museum now is an emotional experience. As a whole, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum does an excellent job of paying tribute to the tremendous loss suffered that day. With "Comeback Season," a brief respite is provided. Just like sports did at the time, the exhibit allows museum visitors an opportunity to breathe -- to remember the unity, relive the touching moments and truly believe that things get better. The world moves on.

Healing is a slow and painful process. And no one will ever forget. But we will persist.

In sports and in life, at Yankee Stadium and in Lower Manhattan and all around the world, folks continue to lace up their cleats and shoes and just try to do their jobs. In the wake of 9/11, those guys in cleats and on skates and in basketball sneakers had a little bit more added to their job descriptions, though. They became healers in their own way, and they did it with grace.

The Yankees didn't win the 2001 World Series. But seeing them take the field and battle back from the brink over and over was a metaphor for how America could do the same thing. The country fared better than the guys in pinstripes -- but truthfully, we all came out on top.

To learn more about "Comeback Season," the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, or to purchase tickets, visit www.911memorial.org.

Hilary Giorgi is the senior editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the September 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

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