Terrorist attacks on 9/11, the war against terror.. and baseball: Sport’s role in bringing back hope to New York City.

Written by Alex Gordon. Edited by Eleanor Winn.

It’s September 11th 2001. A perfectly normal day by all accounts. New York is alive with workers and tourists hustle enthusiastically from street to street. It is 8.30am and the city is oblivious to what is about to happen. Then the clock strikes 8.46am and the world changes forever.

The actions and implications of Al Qaeda’s terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are, of course, common knowledge. It has become an event that is ingrained into the American consciousness and has influenced politics in the subsequent decade perhaps more so than any other major event in the twentieth century. Furthermore, this tragedy has strengthened the resolve of the American people in their quest to fully eradicate terrorism. As a foreigner witnessing these events, finding hope in the immediate aftermath of such an atrocity seemed bleak. After all we were only presented with the horrible images of the ruined World Trade Center and the emotional stories that followed.

This article focuses on the wider context of the atrocity and around a certain subject that is perhaps unbeknown to many. Sport, as a cultural identity, is intrinsically linked to the American way of life. Perhaps no country in the world is so influenced by events in its sporting arenas as the United States. In the aftermath of the tragedy, it was baseball, America’s Game, which acted as the source of hope for thousands and as a temporary distraction to a nation in collective mourning. Through the celebration of, and the prowess of New York baseball, citizens bandied together in one common thought and this gave Americans solace in the fact that the country was truly united in dealing with the tragedy.

The history of sport and its significance in past events has long been neglected in the historiography. As a third year historian currently researching for my dissertation on the 1980 Olympic Moscow Boycott by the United States, I know this all too well. In their text ‘Cold War Cultures’, Vowinckel, Park and Lindeberger stated that sport is “usually not reflected upon as a mere phenomenon: rather, it is perceived as indirectly informing us about politics, societies and economic and media developments.”  Sport is such a wide-ranging social concept; it is hard to understand, why there is, arguably, a tendency to discredit its relevance in many of history’s greatest developments.

It’s September 21st 2001. A day full of apprehension by all accounts. Baseball is returning to the New York area, a week after the 9/11 attacks. The clock strikes 7.35pm and three hours later, New York has changed. Again. When the MLB schedule was made at the start of the 2001 season, the relative insignificant match between the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets was just another baseball game. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York however, this game became a refuge of hope away from the destruction that still lay in the ruins of the World Trade Center only a short train ride away. After the numerous processions and the acknowledgement of the American heroes at the World Trade Center, Mike Piazza’s eighth inning home run, resulting in a 3-2 Mets victory, was a crucial moment in the healing process of New York.

Steve Karsay was the pitcher for the Atlanta Braves that day, but also a proud New Yorker who could see the Twin Towers from his apartment. He would later say that before Mike Piazza stepped to the plate: ‘you could just feel the tension in the ballpark. To be honest with you, the fans were waiting for something to happen where they could erupt and let some of that anger and anxiety out.’ The reason I have chosen this case study as opposed to a ‘normal’ New York citizen in the crowd is because it saliently highlights the effect that sport had on a war that was about to rage. On this night statistics meant nothing. In his statements afterwards, Karsay almost seemed happy that the Mets secured victory despite the fact it was at the expense of his own team. Sport gives you such a range of primary sources; it is an essential construct in gaining first-hand accounts from past events. In times of crisis, like the war that this article is detailing, this is no more evident.

It’s October 2001. The Playoffs. For two months, both New York baseball franchises have been actively aiding the city’s healing process. Citizens were comforted by the sight of their heroes in homeless centers and food points throughout the district. American now stood on the precipice of a series between two of baseball’s premier franchises. The New York Yankees, on a crusade to capture the World Series crown face one more obstacle: the Arizona Diamondbacks. From the Mets in September to the Yankees in October, New York is still in mourning but united by hope and the subsequent distraction that sporting success invariably ensures. President George Bush arrives to throw out the ceremonial first pitch after reminding New York to ‘stand together to win the war against terrorism’. Yankee Stadium is a picture of patriotism. The families of all the victims of the World Trade Center are in attendance. It seemed like the Yankees were destined to win it all…

I guess this article is unique in its context and case studies. The topic of ‘war and peace’, arguably, doesn’t link particularly well with the concept of sport. However, in times of war, citizens search for anything to rally around and hold onto, in an attempt to make the pain of loss subside. In New York, in September 2001, this was baseball.