From 1998 through the 2001 season, Buster Olney, ESPN The Magazine/ESPN.com senior writer and Baseball Insider, was a Yankees beat writer for The New York Times. The next installment in ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 Shorts series “First Pitch” (see sidebar at right) will look at President George W. Bush’s ceremonial throw at Yankee Stadium to kick off Game 3 of the 2001 World Series, just seven weeks after the September 11 attacks.
Front Row asked Olney to share his memories of being at that game.
How would you best describe the atmosphere in the stadium that day?
I remember going to the park that day amid a whole lot of fear. In the days after 9/11, you could still smell the smoke from the World Trade Center at Yankee Stadium, and after the baseball season resumed, there were reminders every single day at the ballpark about what had happened.
Most notably, there were policemen, firemen, Port Authority officers and others being honored every day, and before every game, you would walk past these folks in the lowest level of the old Yankee Stadium as they lined up. . . and you couldn’t help but think about what they had all been through.
And when it was announced that President Bush was going to throw out the first pitch for that game, there was a lot of fear – some for the folks at the stadium, but mostly for those outside, about what had happened. I had many friends and family reach out to me asking for my safety, out of concern that there would be another terrorist attack that night, and I had to assure them that that night, Yankee Stadium was probably going to be the most secure and safest place in the world. But I remember that it was a little unnerving to see all the police dogs and the other security measures put in place as you walked into Yankee Stadium.
What do you think that first pitch meant to New York and to the nation?
In that moment, politics were suspended. You watched as an American, as a citizen of the United States, with everyone wounded and grieving over what happened on 9/11 to varying degrees, and President Bush represented all of us that night.
Please share any anecdotes or stories of note from your own experience.
I have many. What has stuck with me was how the Yankees’ players — and I know this was true for the Mets, as well — evolved in their understanding of what role they could play. Initially, in those first hours after the attacks, players I spoke with thought it might be best to cancel the season, and to go home to be with their loved ones.
– Buster Olney
But when the Yankees visited the Armory, where families waited to hear about the fate of loved ones, there was a moment that all of the players referenced later — Bernie Williams walking up to a woman and saying, in so many words, “You look like you could use a hug.”
And after that, the players just responded so beautifully. Most notably, a couple of weeks after the attacks, a young girl was at Yankee Stadium for the team’s early workout, and I asked someone about who it was. [She was] Brielle Saracini, whose father had been a pilot on one of the planes that went into the Towers.
She was a crazy Yankees fan and Derek Jeter had called her and invited her to the park, and he and the other players lavished her with attention.
A decade later, when she was a student at Boston College, she told me she had all of the memorabilia that the players had given her that day, and referred to it as the best day of her life.