On Saturday, before over 80 college football games, and on the weekend that the NFL regular season returns in full force, the sports world and the entire world will stop and remember the 20th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in United States history.
The key to the country’s recovery back then was and still is sports. While all sports provided a lift, baseball played a pivotal role. There were dramatic games and an outpouring of patriotism that was seen on all ballfields.
In 2005, HBO produced and aired a documentary chronicling the role baseball played with Nine Innings from Ground Zero. Now, in 2021, co-directors Ross Greenburg and Joe Lavine revisited that doc with a brand-new feature for HBO Max entitled, Extra Innings from 9/11: 20 Years Later.
“It was difficult. I’m not going to kid you, all of us shed a lot of tears,” Greenberg said exclusively on my Sports with Friends podcast. “We had been through this once before, but it was a very difficult moment.”
The film does a lot more than retell the story of how the Mets and Yankees responded to the tragedy. The best part of the film is the beginning when members of the 2001 Mets and 2001 Yankees explained where they were when the planes struck the World Trade Center.
“New York is a Testament to survive,” former Yankee manager Joe Torre says in the film. “No matter how hard the city gets hit, it always finds a way to get back up on its feet.”
Al Leiter was trying to get on a plane to pitch in Pittsburgh that night. The Yankees were home, after being rained out the night before. That immediately reminded me that I was supposed to go to Yankee Stadium for that rained-out game.
I hadn’t gone out to the ballpark by invoking the “Seth Everett Rain Delay Policy (One drop I’m out – inspired by the late great Phil Rizzuto and an 11-hour Marlins-Rockies split double-header I covered in Denver in 1997.)
The next morning I went on a radio show hosted by Holden Kushner in Des Moines, Iowa. During the segment, my call-waiting went off, multiple times. Still, radio people know you don’t ask a host to hold on.
After the segment, the phone rang again. (This is a hard-line phone – it was 2001.) It was my father. He was across the street from the World Trade Center. He just called to tell me he was alright.
My younger sister lived in Greenwich Village in New York City in 2001. She was walking downtown and saw the second plane hit with her own two eyes, not on TV like the rest of us. My father and sister ran back to her apartment and turned on the television.
The bridges and tunnels were immediately closed. Living in Brooklyn, I could not get to Manhattan if I wanted to, and could not get to New Jersey where my mother was. Instead, I climbed to the rooftop of my apartment building to see the smoke from ground zero.
“All of us had personal stories,” Greenburg said. “Mine was deeply personal. I lost my mother on September 9th and a month and a half later found myself going to game three (of the World Series), even though my wife, Michelle, did not want me to go because she felt like a bomb was going to drop on Yankee Stadium. When I went, I realized I was living a documentary.”
“September’s a great time of year,” Torre said. “The weather cools down, pennant races heat up. Everyone was talking baseball.”
The Mets manager back then was Bobby Valentine. In the film, Valentine followed Torre by saying, “And there was no reason to think that 2001 would be any different.”
The film tells the story of a camp in Massachusetts that was set up for kids who lost family members on 9/11. Two of the campers that met back then are married adults today.
Greenburg said it was key to not only show how the families are still impacted, but how they also have positive things in their respective lives.
“That was the one thing that Joe (co-director Levine) and I were very adamant about,” Greenburg added. “We wanted to send the message loud and clear that if you’ve been through a horrific event and you’ve had to overcome very startlingly, tough times that you can get through it and you can live your life.
“That doesn’t mean that you’ll ever forget those days of 9/11 and everything that happened after. But it does mean that we’re human beings and we can live our lives. And in these difficult times, I think that’s a message.”
The “Piazza Game” was 10 days after 9/11. It was a Friday night, and I had never attended a sporting event on the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. Still, I felt compelled to be at Shea Stadium that day.
The crowd was so tense that night. Everyone was talking, but not cheering. Until Piazza’s 8th inning home run. And the cheers were of “USA! USA!” more than anything for the Mets or against the Braves.
“That was very important for people,” Greenburg added. “That’s why this resonates so much for me as a story that needed to be told.”
The playoffs and World Series with the Yankees were much more intense moments. People forget that the Jeter “flip-play” against Oakland happened that year.
The ALCS between the Yankees and Seattle Mariners was tightly contested. Then, President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch before Game 3 of the World Series and I never felt so patriotic in my whole life.
I remember asking Mark Feinsand of MLB.COM if we could stash our MLB Radio equipment in his office because clearing security was such a long and arduous process.
The old Yankee Stadium physically shook when Tino Martinez hit a home run to tie it, and recently-inducted Hall of Famer Derek Jeter became Mr. November. The new Stadium simply cannot shake like that.
Extra Innings from 9/11: 20 Years Later will be released on HBO Max on September 11th, 2021. There are so many documentaries recently released about that horrific day. This one will resonate with sports fans, whether baseball is your game or not.
On Saturday, before the kickoffs, pitches, and Women’s US Open Final, remember the victims, and remember the patriotism. Hard to believe, it has already been twenty years.