Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering 9/11: How Sports Helped Heal

Reposted from my sports blog:

It's true that you'll never forget where you were when the towers fell. I was a senior in high school and everything that happened--from hearing the news from the football coach to watching the first tower fall in the teacher's lounge surrounded by baffled students and teachers and the second tower fall on makeshift TV set-ups in the campus commons--seemed totally surreal. But I think the thing I will remember most about 9/11 in New York is how the whole city came together and sports, however cheesy that sounds, was the driving catalyst to bringing the city back to life that fall.

Many forget that Shea Stadium became a triage site. I make fun of Shea Stadium to no end, but it definitely saw its finest light after 9/11. Lisa Olson remembers:
But Shea Stadium -- dirty, rotting, beautiful Shea -- came to life during that dark week. It still pains me to think of all that went on in the shadow of that now-demolished fortress, so forgive me if I simply reprint a few paragraphs from a column I wrote a few years ago in the New York Daily News:

The line of ambulances, engines idling, began at the press gate and extended to the Grand Central Parkway. There was nowhere to go, no survivors to help. At first the city wanted to turn Shea into a triage center, then considered using the stadium in Queens as a morgue. It was too soon to realize thousands of people had simply vaporized. A small sign was affixed near Gate C: Donations Here.

Next anyone remembers, cars began pulling into the Shea parking lot, the ribbon of lights stretching into the suburbs like the final scene in Field of Dreams. Within 24 hours of the first tower falling, boxes of clothing, food and other supplies extended from first base around to third. Someone donated a tractor trailer, hardware stores sent over chainsaws, the Red Cross set up tents and beds.

Soon the old Jets locker room at Shea was filled with mounds of toiletries and blankets, to provide a small haven for rescue workers who lacked the energy to make it home. They weren't calling the steaming hole downtown "The Pile" or "The Pit" just yet; they slept an hour, grabbed a box of cereal and headed back to the city to find their brothers.

Mets players and employees worked the Shea parking lot for days, packing crates and lending ears. Manager Bobby Valentine refused to leave. Nobody was sure when sports would resume, but nobody could imagine being anywhere else, not while vans kept depositing worn out and filthy firefighters and police officers.

"They were just head-to-toe in dirt, debris, toxins and I guess what we know now were body parts. It was just horrible," says Sue Lucchi, the stadium manager who helped facilitate the effort. When she needed a good cry during those 10 days, she'd climb to the upper deck of Shea and gaze at the parking lots that had sprouted into massive warehouses, the ramps filled with supplies, barely an inch of ground to spare. The strength of the human spirit left her breathless.
The NFL and MLB seasons came to a halt. And when they resumed, things didn't go back to normal right away. Michael Strahan took the lead for all sports by saying that no games should be played in the NFL, especially with the Giants able to see the smoke billowing from the World Trade Center wreckage from their field. The NFL set the precedent by canceling the games. The heated rivalry of the Mets and Braves took a break to shake hands before the game and wore NYPD and FDNY hats. A hockey game between the Bruins and Rangers were stopped so that everyone could watch President Bush speak abut the tragic events. The Yankees played in Chicago and White Sox fans held up signs that said "We're All New Yorkers".

And maybe that's what I loved most: everyone came together. Even just for a little while. People were polite and smiled at each other on the streets. Instead of hating policemen, we lined up and thanked them. Firefighters helped out firefighters and we honored them and helped out with sandwiches and well-wishes.

I remember organizing a candlelight vigil at the firehouse in my town. The chief, tired from constant trips down to Ground Zero and resting for a little while at the station, came out and spoke to us for a little bit. I asked him what got him through the day?

His answer: "Just seeing everyone pull together down at Ground Zero and..." he paused, thought for a second and then said, "the Yankees".

HBO did a fabulous job capturing the pulse of the city in their great documentary 9 Innings From Ground Zero, but the truth was that for that fall, the Yankees were one of the greatest forces in the city. Down 2-0 in the best of 5 ALDS to the Oakland Athletics, the Yankees rallied back to win the next three games (including the amazing Jeter flip play). In the ALCS, they took down the most winning team in AL history: the 116-win Seattle Mariners. Down 2-0 in the World Series, they fought back underneath the tattered flag rescued from the World Trade Center, winning game 3 and then two improbable wins in game 4 and 5 down by two runs with two outs in the 9th inning.

They would lose that World Series in dramatic fashion, but I never felt like they actually lost. For a little while, they kept everyone distracted from what had happened a few months earlier.
"I can't even imagine what they've seen and what they've been going through. They've lost like, how many? Hundreds? And here they're trying to make us feel good," Derek Jeter, the Yankee shortstop, told me one October night eight years ago in the halls of Yankee Stadium, after meeting with a group of firefighters who had just returned from burying one of their brothers.
So tonight, before Derek Jeter tries to break Lou Gehrig's hit record, the Yankees will honor those who fell in 9/11. Eight years later, that seems fitting; for all the praise we give Jeter for passing a legend, we also need to remember to take a second and praise those real heroes.

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