Sunday, September 11, 2011

My search for sports meaning in the aftermath of 9/11

In the days and weeks following that horrific September day 10 years ago, I spent a lot of time soul-searching.

I began questioning whether I should continue to devote my life to writing about sports. The atrocities of 9/11 had made the games people play seem so insignificant, so irrelevant. I felt it might be time to do something more meaningful.

I remember bumping into David Hunke, the kind-hearted publisher of my former newspaper, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, in the cafeteria a few days after the terrorist attacks changed our world forever. A kind-hearted man who actually cared about his newsroom, Hunke could see that I was stressed and asked me to come up to his office and chat. I told him I was having a difficult time writing about such inane matters as who should start at left tackle for the Buffalo Bills in the aftermath of 9/11.

I said that I didn’t believe sports mattered to me anymore. Hunke said he understood completely, telling me that he and many others were involved in similar introspection, wondering if what they were doing was relevant. He advised me to give it a little time before making the decision to bag a career that I had devoted my heart and soul to since I was a teenager.

Over the next several weeks, I continued to struggle. I sought out human-interest stories that had always been my niche in hopes they would help me get back on track.

I wrote a column about former Rochester Red Wings player and current Rochester firefighter named Rey Palacios, who grew up in Brooklyn not far from the World Trade Center and who knew several of the first-responders killed that fateful day. I wrote about Bills-offensive-lineman-turned-commercial-airlines-pilot Jim Ritcher, who wanted to return to the cockpit as quickly as he could to show the terrorists they hadn’t won. And I spoke to fans at the first Bills home game following 9/11 to gage the meaning of sports in time of tragedy.

Ultimately, though, it took an 11-year-old boy, a baseball team in pinstripes and a wounded but resilient city of millions to convince me that sports could be relevant, even in the worst of times.

That 11-year-old – now a 21-year-old – was my son, Christopher, who convinced me over the protestations of his mother to take him to Game Three of the 2011 World Series at Yankee Stadium, a scant 10 miles north of the ruins of Ground Zero.

Below, I’ve reprinted the column I wrote off that experience that appeared on Nov. 1, 2001.

It was a trip we’ll obviously never forget.

One that convinced me that sports could have a powerful galvinizing impact, and that somehow, some way we’d all get back on our feet after the atrocities of one of the worst days in American history.


NEW YORK - My son Christopher greeted the purchase of two World Series tickets with a gleeful leap that would have made Derek Jeter proud.

My wife wasn't nearly as gung-ho.

With the warning that a new wave of terrorist attacks might occur at any time, she was deeply concerned, as I was, that Tuesday's World Series game at packed Yankee Stadium before a national television audience would be a prime target.

It was only after Christopher, a sometimes wise-beyond-his-years 11-year-old, convinced us not to give into fear that she reluctantly agreed to let us go.

As we drove from Rochester to the south Bronx on Tuesday, I felt many emotions. A part of me was euphoric because I realized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience - one of those unforgettable moments between a father and a son. I wanted so much for it to be like one of those MasterCard commercials: priceless.

But a part of me also was a tad apprehensive. Was I doing the right thing? Or was I jeopardizing the welfare of my child and myself?

The longer I drove, the better I felt. I knew that with President Bush throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, and with security at the stadium and above it beefed up, the old ballpark at the corner of 161st and River Avenue might just be the safest place in America.

Crossing the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey into New York, I pointed to the Empire State Building in midtown, then to the tip of Manhattan where the Twin Towers once stood. Christopher's eyes were transfixed. After parking in the Yankee Stadium garage, we took the No. 4 train to Wall Street, just blocks from Ground Zero.

The subway cars were stuffed with workers and students, and that was good to see, because it told Christopher and me that, despite the atrocities of Sept. 11, New Yorkers were forging on as best they could.

Emerging from the subway tunnel, we were greeted by an indescribable odor and a dusty haze that seared our nostrils and made our eyes watery and red. The area within four blocks of the crumpled skyscrapers was cordoned off, but we could hear the roar of cranes, dump trucks and bulldozers.

After walking the streets for about 30 minutes, we boarded the No. 4 uptown to Yankee Stadium. I doubt either of us will ever forget that pungent odor.

The atmosphere at the Stadium was slightly more subdued than for previous World Series I had attended. There seemed to be as many cops as fans, but that was OK with me.

I bought my son a sweatshirt and a program, and we tailgated at our car, before walking through metal detectors and heading for our seats near the top row of the upper deck on the first-base side.

The game was tightly contested and quite entertaining. To my son's delight, Roger Clemens pitched brilliantly and the slumping Scott Brosius delivered a clutch hit to lead the Yankees to a 2-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

But those won't be the lasting memories.

Years from now, I'll remember seeing the president throw out the first pitch to thundering chants of "U.S.A. ! U.S.A. !"

Years from now, I'll remember joining 56,000 others in the singing of God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch. My eyes welled as Yankee Stadium became the world's biggest choir. The tears were not caused by the frigid wind.

Driving across the GW Bridge on the way home, I stole a glance at the Empire State Building, which had been lighted in Yankees blue, and at my son, who was asleep in the back seat. I thanked God for keeping us safe and for giving us the opportunity to share this special time.

I recalled a sign I had seen at the Stadium. It read: THE USA WILL NOT GIVE INTO FEAR - PLAY BALL!

It sounded like something my occasionally wise-beyond-his-years son would have told me.

1 comment:

Country Mile said...

You are a great Dad.