To say that I’ll never forget the events of September 11, 2001 would be a gross understatement. But as I’ve so often struggled to find the words to describe what happened and how I felt, using trite cliches will have to suffice. And since many possessed of a good deal more eloquence than myself will offer their own accounts of that seemingly interminable nightmare, I think it best to let discretion continue to be the better part of valor.
I would, however, like to talk about what unfolded for me in the aftermath of those attacks and how I was able to regain some of my innocence even as our country lost much of its own. Recently, I wrote about finding solace in sports when the world turns ugly, and I can’t think of a more monstrous and repellent sight than that of those regal twins being turned into pyres.
Sports played a vital role in helping many of us to move forward from that day. And while we’ve since splintered a bit, there was a time when this nation appeared to be as galvanized as it’s ever been, at least during my lifetime. Regardless of your opinions of the man, you have to admit that it was a pretty awe-inspiring moment when President Bush took the mound at Yankee Stadium before Game 3 of the World Series and fired a first-pitch strike while wearing an FDNY jacket.
Maybe it’s just me, but I still get a little emotional just seeing that and thinking about it again. The underpinnings of fear were still there, to be sure; Bush, after all, was wearing a bulletproof vest under that jacket. But there was an incredible sense of momentum, that the entropy of the previous 49 days really was giving way greater order. Our spirits had collapsed with those buildings, but this was a sign that we could and would stand tall again.
Just about a month earlier, though, I had had my own rebirth of sorts. The date was September 29th and I believe it was supposed to be the last game of the season for the Cubs. I was still relatively fresh out of college and hadn’t attended a game at Wrigley in several years. Truth be told, I had grown somewhat disconnected from the team I great up loving. So I enlisted my two roommates, along with my then-girlfriend and her roommate, for a road trip.
Now, I said that this was supposed to be the last game of the season; the events of 9/11 had served to rearrange the schedule a bit and there were now and handful of contests remaining. Regardless, we drove up to Chicago on a beautiful, sunny day without a care in the world. I remember almost crawling out of my skin with the anticipation of heading back to the hallowed grounds of the Friendly Confines, where even the urinal troughs would be a welcome sight. Everyone thought I was crazy as I literally bounced around while walking down Clark Street.
My level of joy was exponentially increased upon discovering that it was Fan Appreciation Day, which meant that we were able to walk around on the field. I stepped out into the verdant expanse of the outfield and just sat there, confident in the knowledge that I could die in that instant and feel perfectly satisfied with my life. Is this heaven? No, it’s Cubs baseball.
Eventually, we had to make our way to our upper-deck seats — the only ones I could get with my meager earnings — for the game. Far removed from the action as they were, the birds-eye view couldn’t stop my spirits from soaring. Nor could the obnoxious Astros fan seated near us. His Astros were on their way to a division title, and he was not shy about letting everyone around him know it. That boasting was short-lived.
Delino DeShields walked to open the game before Ricky Gutierrez and Sammy Sosa made outs to bring Fred McGriff to the plate. Crime Dog blasted a Dave Mlicki pitch into the rightfield bleachers for a 2-run homer. And with the crowd still in full throat from the shot, Rondell White stepped in and yanked the very next pitch out of the yard.
Even at the top of the world, the noise level was deafening; it’s too bad no one had yet developed the asinine concept of rigging decibel meters and seismographs up all over the park in order to see whether Wrigley was louder that day than Arrowhead Stadium or CenturyLink Field. Ah, but it was about to get even louder.
Randy Hundley’s son was the next batter up for the Cubs and Dave Mlicki was still on the bump. Surely he’d be able to avoid grooving one again, right? Wrong, and don’t call me Shirley. The shell-shocked pitcher put a heater right in the zone and Hundley promptly turned it around to give the Cubs back-to-back-to-back home runs on three consecutive pitches. Not something you see every day, is it?
Augie Ojeda, whose cousin has babysat my kids and who wasn’t known as much of a major contributor, got in on the action by scoring a run. Kerry Wood won the game and I lost my voice. It was perfect. It’d be disingenuous to say I’ve floated on a cloud ever since then, but that game reignited a fire that had been little more than embers in the few years prior. It’s not often life grooves a fastball to us and even less often we’re sitting dead red when it does.
But on that late-September day in Chicago, I was Javy Baez, leg kick and all. I was Kris Bryant. Had the video board been there 14 years ago, I’d have easily gone over it, metaphorically speaking. Even if only for a few hours, the world was my oyster and Wrigley Field and the Cubs a nacreous sphere of crystalline calcium carbonate. And whenever that pearl loses its luster, I need only reach for a soft cloth of memory and the mild detergent of nostalgia.
I’m sure many of you have a similar experience, one to which you turn to shine a light when the darkness presses in around you. Now another generation of fans will be able to find their own precious gems as this new iteration of the Cubs shines on the diamond.
Today we remember a tragedy, the effects of which will not soon be gone from our consciousness. I choose to remember good times as well, to draw solace from friends and family and my favorite baseball team. The world will strike you out if you let it, but I’m just going to pick my bat back up, dig in harder, and keep swinging for the fences. I hope you’ll join me.