Bernie Williams had often wondered about the woman from the armory.
In the years since his retirement from baseball, whenever someone would ask him about his most memorable moment in pinstripes, the former center fielder would instinctively flash back to 2001. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 opened many eyes to the evil forces wishing to harm the United States and changed much about Americans’ way of life.
But 9/11 also brought out the very best in people. Strangers united as one, coming to the aid of their fellow citizens in profound ways. Patriotism abounded as Americans, though grief-stricken, vowed to uphold President George W. Bush’s words, delivered on the same day of the attacks, that “These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”
Williams saw that resolve firsthand when, a few days after 9/11, he was part of a contingent of Yankees who visited several sites around the city where relief and recovery efforts were taking place. Their first stop was the 69th Regiment Armory, where Williams, unsure of what to do or whether a ballclub should even be there at all, saw a Red Cross volunteer who had clearly been working around the clock.
“I don’t know what to say,” Williams said to the woman, “but can I give you a hug?”
Nearly 18 years had passed since that brief encounter, a simple, quiet moment that spoke volumes. Earlier this year, when the 9/11 Memorial & Museum invited Williams to speak about his experiences in the aftermath of Sept. 11, he thought back to that embrace and to everything that had occurred in the weeks that followed. Perhaps by sharing his recollections of the most poignant time period of his life, Williams could arrive at some sort of closure.
At the very least, maybe he could find out the woman’s name.
Williams already knew that New Yorkers were special. He had heard their impassioned chants at Yankee Stadium countless times, and had seen how they came out by the millions for the Yankees’ World Series victory parades.
But for all of the outpouring of love and support that he received from Yankees fans, Williams, by his own admission, remained somewhat aloof. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate them. It was just that, well, Williams marched to a different beat than most ballplayers. Moments before a big game, when amped-up guys would be trying to contain their excitement and manage their adrenaline, Williams might be off in a quiet corner of the clubhouse, plucking an acoustic guitar or catching a few last z’s. When the game began, he’d still be off in his own world to some extent, blocking out any and all distractions -- including the raucous crowd -- so that he could focus on his job.
Williams’ approach worked well for him. Today, visitors to Yankee Stadium can head down to Monument Park and read all about his career accomplishments on the plaque that sits below his retired No. 51. After witnessing the way New Yorkers responded to 9/11, though, something changed. His connection with them -- and the city -- grew deeper. In the Yankees’ first game back at Yankee Stadium, on Sept. 25, 2001, Williams recalls exiting the home clubhouse and seeing the hallway leading to the batting cage in right field lined on both sides by police officers, firefighters and medical professionals. He shook every one of their hands.
“I remember looking everybody in the eyes and asking them, ‘You OK? How are you doing?’” Williams says. “They said, ‘We’ve got our hopes on you guys. You’re gonna do this for us.’ It was like this kinetic energy that I couldn’t really explain sort of passed on to me. And I felt it. I really, really felt it.”
It had been two weeks since the world stopped. On that bright blue-skied morning of Sept. 11, before the chaos ensued, straphangers hustling to work might have flipped to the sports section to see if Roger Clemens had made history the night before. The Yankees’ ace was scheduled to face his former team, the Red Sox, at Yankee Stadium with a chance to become the first pitcher in history to begin a season 20-1. Instead, readers learned about the formation of a new regional television network called Yankees Entertainment and Sports, or YES. (The Sept. 10 game was rained out.)
Williams was eating half a bagel at his home in Armonk, New York, about 25 miles north of the Bronx along the Connecticut border. Two days shy of his 33rd birthday, he had overcome a slow start to the season to produce another typically strong campaign. He was named to his fifth straight All-Star team, carrying a .321 average to the Midsummer Classic in Seattle, and when his ninth-inning home run cleared the wall at Fenway Park on Sept. 1, leading to a 2-1 Yankees win, it had extended a season-long hitting streak to 16 games.
Flipping through the channels after watching SportsCenter, Williams struggled to make sense of what he was seeing. An explosion at the World Trade Center. Reports that a plane had crashed into it. He called his family into the room. At first, he was in disbelief. But then he phoned teammate Tino Martinez, who could see the Twin Towers from his window.
“Yeah, it is [real],” Martinez told him. “It is happening.”
After seeing the first tower collapse on TV, Williams frantically started calling everybody he knew, trying to gather any information he could as to what was going on. “Then, I thought it was a replay, but it was not; it was the second tower collapsing,” Williams says. “And at that point, I was like, ‘We’re under attack.’”
It was the single deadliest terrorist attack in human history. Almost 3,000 people were killed, including 2,763 at the World Trade Center -- among them, 343 firefighters and paramedics, 23 New York City police officers and 37 Port Authority police officers attempting to evacuate and rescue civilians.
In the days that followed, shattered families searched -- mostly in vain -- for their missing loved ones. First responders formed bucket brigades to clear the estimated 1.8 million tons of rubble at the smoldering site dubbed Ground Zero. The hunt for those behind the attacks commenced immediately. “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” President Bush declared.
Baseball was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. Between the uncertainty over additional attacks, travel restrictions, heightened security and an overall sense of unease, “My initial mindset was that we were going to cancel the whole season,” Williams says. “I just didn’t see any reason whatsoever why I would be out there playing a game and having fun while the country was going through this.”
But just as it had done six decades earlier during World War II, Major League Baseball pressed on in the hopes that it could in some way aid in the healing process. Stadiums became a gathering place for fans to be near their fellow Americans; games were a small respite from the weight of the new world everyone was living in. You didn’t have to know the person in your row to know that you were feeling the same raw emotions.
On Saturday, four days after the attacks, the Yankees gathered at the Stadium and tried to chart a course forward. They knelt in a circle in the outfield, a flag at half-staff drooping in the background, and contemplated how to resume their season in a way that was respectful. In a matter of days, they would lace up their cleats and continue their pursuit of a fourth straight world championship. But would their focus ever return?
“Hopefully, our resolve is no different,” manager Joe Torre said. “I’m not sure we’ll have the same elation. You certainly feel helpless. Maybe we can lift New York’s feelings a little bit.”
Not only did they lift New Yorkers’ spirits, but the Yankees also, somehow, became America’s team. In once-hostile opposing ballparks, fans held up signs showing support for New York. Letters poured in to the Yankees, such as the one addressed to Derek Jeter from 10-year-old Brielle Saracini, whose father, Victor, was the pilot of hijacked United Flight 175. Jeter called the girl directly and invited her and her family to Yankee Stadium on Sept. 26, bringing a much-needed smile to Brielle’s face when he handed her and her sister a batting glove each as he walked out to the on-deck circle in the eighth inning, then proceeded to double down the left-field line.
Everywhere the Yankees went, they could feel the love, and they kept on rewarding their fans with scintillating victories. They battled back from a 2-games-to-none deficit against Oakland in the American League Division Series, the momentum turning on Jeter’s “flip play” that preserved a 1-0 win in Game 3. During the ALCS, in which the Yankees vanquished the 116-win Mariners in five games, Seattle second baseman Bret Boone called out to them, “Hey, we’re American, too, you know! You’re making us out to be the villain here.”
They did it by pouring themselves into their work. The Yankees, following Torre’s lead, had come to understand the importance of what they were doing, that baseball did in fact play a role in helping people cope with the stark realities of everyday life, and so they prepared harder and more diligently than ever. For Williams, getting lost in the research and the scouting reports was a welcome distraction from everything that was happening. But by the time the Arizona Diamondbacks came to Yankee Stadium for what would be three epic, unforgettable, dramatic World Series games -- a trio of one-run Yankees victories, two of them coming in extra innings -- Williams noticed something else. The laser-focused, put-your-head-down-and-play mentality that had served him so well for so long had melted away.
“At that moment, I didn’t see the crowd as a distraction, I saw them as, they were just pushing me to do the best that I could do; they were rooting for me,” Williams says. “I can remember making a lot more eye contact with the fans, looking people in the eyes. And I never did that. But I allowed myself to interact with the crowd more because I knew for a fact, internally, that I was playing for them. I wasn’t playing for the team, I wasn’t playing for a win, I wasn’t distracted by anything else, but just doing the things that I needed to do for them, for the fans. It was a really special moment in my career because I don’t think anything happened like that before or after.”
Her name is Eva Usadi, and she’s getting another hug from Bernie Williams.
It took some legwork to track her down. Williams’ manager, Steve Fortunato, combed through “tens of thousands of posts” to figure out that it was Usadi who was at the armory on 26th Street that day. Fortunato reached out to her about reconnecting with Williams at the 9/11 Museum, where Usadi recalled their meeting 18 years earlier.
“It was a real hug. I felt it in my heart,” she says. “I felt his warmth and his compassion and that he saw something in me that I didn’t even know that I needed. That is a moment that I will never forget, and I’ve spoken of it often to friends and family.”
Upon their second meeting, Williams wrapped Usadi in his arms again, telling her, “I was the one that needed a hug.” The circumstances were extraordinarily different this time around, but it was evident that the events of 9/11 shaped each of their futures. Usadi dedicated her life to treating those with PTSD, founding Trauma and Resiliency Resources, Inc., a nonprofit whose aim is to end military veteran suicides.
Williams would go on to play five more seasons with the Yankees, finishing his superb 16-year career with more postseason RBI (80) than any player in history and as the only player to win a batting title, Gold Glove Award and World Series ring in the same year. But rather than return home to Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, or retire to some palatial pad on a white-sand beach, Williams stayed rooted in New York. He studied jazz composition at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, earning his bachelor’s degree in 2016. He performs regularly in and around the city, both with his band and solo. And he remains a familiar and welcome face at Yankee Stadium.
“Sept. 11 actually cemented my belief that this is where I needed to be for many reasons,” Williams says. “The most important was that I really had a great dose of their resilience, the people in New York. They showed me that nothing was going to get them away from what they were supposed to do. Nobody was going to throw them around and alter their way of living. The resilience that the city showed was really admirable and a great example for me. I thought, ‘Man, these are tough people, and they’re caring and they’re compassionate, but they’re tough.’ So, this is where I need to be.”