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Pirates remember emotional post-9/11 game against Mets

September 11, 2021 GMT

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jason Kendall remembers straining to hear the audio through a cell phone that, as the former Pirates catcher put it, “wasn’t exactly an iPhone 12.” Technology lacked on Sept. 13, 2001, two days after four coordinated terrorist attacks changed our world forever.

The Pirates’ games, of course, had been postponed, and the team worked out that morning at PNC Park before bussing to Chicago in anticipation of a game Friday afternoon against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

“Honestly,” Kendall said, “it felt wrong.”

It also was muffled. As Kevin Young, the Pirates’ representative for the Major League Baseball Players Association, participated in a conference call about resuming the season, Kendall, Brian Giles and others tried to listen to the sound emanating from Young’s Nokia 3310 to find out what was going to happen.

“Everybody was telling each other to shut up and trying to listen,” Kendall said. “You could barely hear.”

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What happened next was one of the more poignant memories for those involved: The bus turned around. The whole trip had been a false alarm, as it was decided that MLB should wait a little longer. The Pirates would not resume play until Sept. 17, when they welcomed the Mets for three games in Pittsburgh.

“Everybody was in a place of wanting to return to baseball to give the fans something and also ourselves something to push through,” Young said. “But at the end of the day, that was a tough feeling to have.”

It has been nearly 20 years since the Pirates — and all teams — navigated that emotional period of time. Those involved told stories of crying umpires, worrying about what would happen if they beat the Mets and also believing they saw United Flight 93 soar through the Pittsburgh sky before it crashed into a Shanksville field.

That period of time is something none of them want to remember, but also something they’ll never forget.

“I just remember there was no blueprint for how you were supposed to go about it or how you were supposed to act, what you were supposed to feel,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I will say, our players were resilient. Their focus, I think they did the best that they could at the time.

“It got better as time went on, but initially, coming right back out of it was very, very difficult.”

‘Awful, awful times’

Major League Baseball would not adopt replay for 13 more years, but Young thought he was watching one the morning of Sept. 11. A friend from Kansas City had called, alerting him to what had happened. Young flipped on the TV and saw a plane crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.

A few minutes later, he saw it again. Or what he thought was the same plane, only to realize that it most certainly was not.

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“From that moment, I was blown away,” Young said. “I could remember that empty feeling, laying in bed because I was waking up. My little brother (Jason Bright-Young) was serving in the Marine Corps at the time, and all these thoughts rush through your head.”

Jack Wilson, meanwhile, was somewhat oblivious to what was happening. He was driving his wife, Julie, to her first doctor’s appointment when she was pregnant with their son, Jacob.

“We didn’t even know what was going on until later,” Wilson said. “We made it to the appointment, and it was on the TV. The nurses and people checking us in were talking about it.”

Inside PNC Park, Pirates director of baseball communication Jim Trdinich will never forget watching 9/11 coverage with former traveling secretary Greg Johnson, half-fearful when they learned hijackers had taken over a plane from Newark bound for San Francisco, Flight 93 turning around not terribly far from the city.

“I remember thinking, ’We have some pretty big buildings in Pittsburgh, too,” Trdinich said. “It was surreal. Just watching the whole thing unfold with the front office in sheer amazement.”

Giles was actually living with longtime bench coach Jeff Banister at the time, near North Park. Bannister’s family had gone home for the fall, so instead of getting another place, he stayed with Giles. The two of them were watching the news that morning, then rushed out onto Giles’ balcony when they heard a plane zoom overheard.

“I swear we saw it,” Giles said.

That same story was repeated by Kendall and McClendon, who each said they were startled to have seen the first plane crash on the news around 9 a.m., then hear another after they had been told all flights were grounded.

“I don’t know if that’s it or not, but I always thought in my head, (shoot), maybe that was the plane,” Kendall said. “Just awful, awful times.”

With heavy hearts

The on-field workouts were designed to keep players physically sharp, but McClendon’s goals involved more than baseball. For him, they were more mental therapy than anything, wanting to offer his guys some sort of escape from reality.

“The physical part, yeah, we needed that,” McClendon said. “But we needed it more from a mental standpoint to get back out there and be around your baseball family and do things you’re used to doing.”

The results were mixed. Giles said the optional workouts “seemed like forever” and “kind of felt like spring training.” Pitchers threw simulated games. Position players would get fielding work and hit. The days dragged, Giles said, because players’ minds began to wander.

Wilson wasn’t part of that group. A rookie that season, the Pirates shortstop was hitting just .230 at the time and worried more about keeping his spot. As much as Wilson mourned those lost and fretted over his family’s safety, he also knew it was important to finish the season strong.

“I remember trying to take it as serious as possible because I was still trying to finish up strong in a season that was pretty tough for me as a young player,” Wilson said.

Kendall was very much against returning and was quoted at the time saying, “This is just wrong. It really is. Right now, who cares? I couldn’t care less about baseball.”

In the years since, Kendall has softened his stance, after what he experienced when games resumed and what he knows that period of time meant for people both inside and outside of the game.

“A lot of the players didn’t want to return immediately, but after we did, with the response we got, I think it was a good feeling to have everyone back playing.”

McClendon felt the same way, although not necessarily at the time. The manager wondered whether what they were doing was right, if they showed the proper respect or gave it enough time following national tragedy, balancing that with feeling a responsibility to help people heal.

Once it was decided MLB would return later that week, McClendon gathered his players inside their PNC Park clubhouse to deliver a message — or more just have an open conversation about what this moment should be about.

“I do remember telling our players, ‘I know this is a very emotional and tough time. But I want you to go out and play the game of baseball like there are kids in the stands who might never be able to come back and see another game,’” recalled McClendon, who managed the Pirates from 2001-05 and served as the Tigers’ interim manager in 2020.

The day of that game brought a mix of emotions, Trdinich said, and they started long before Todd Ritchie delivered the first pitch. Many wondered whether it was smart and appropriate to be playing. There was also a case to be made that playing baseball, more than anything else, could actually be a form of therapy.

“It was definitely weird,” Trdinich said. “I think it was a combination of both. People were ready to carry on again with baseball and lives. But then that sense of, ‘Should we be playing this game?’ There was some hesitation about playing, but once we started playing, like James Earl Jones said, baseball rolls on. We had to play.”

Wilson remembers checking with Mets players, asking and hoping that their friends and families were OK. For Giles, it hit especially hard during pregame introductions, with players lined up along the baselines.

After Cardinal Donald Wuerl (then Bishop) delivered a pregame prayer and Mets players sported hats with NYPD and FDNY emblazoned on the front, the gravity of the moment was hard to avoid.

“You looked over on that side, guys were crying,” Giles said. “You’re starting to get emotional. It was a tough time for our country and us as players. We’ve got a pretty good life, but to see all the tragedy, I remember the emotions everyone had and being extremely sad about the entire situation.”

‘Playing in a dream’

Those emotions did not stop once the game started, and it wasn’t just the players who were affected, either.

Ed Rapuano, a New Haven, Conn., native, was umpiring behind the plate that night. Because of his position, Kendall was close with pretty much every MLB umpire, and he remembered how disconsolate Rapuano was that night, the veteran fighting back tears the entire game.

“That was probably the hardest game I’ve ever had to catch,” said Kendall, who’s sixth all-time in games caught (2,025) and retired after the 2010 season. “I guess Eddie had lost some friends or family, and eventually I just said, ‘Eddie, get outta here, dude. You don’t need to be here.’”

Kendall also remembers Rapuano, in a thick New York accent, brushing aside his suggestion, wanting to press on and honor those close to him whose lives were tragically lost.

“Typical, tough New Yorker, he was just like, ‘J-bird, no, I gotta do this.’ So I’m trying to call a game and, at the same time, talking to Eddie and telling him, ‘Hey, we’re gonna get through this together.’ It was an eerie, eerie time.”

Young felt the same way. An above-average defensive first baseman during his playing career, Young remembers catching a ball for an out and jogging toward the Pirates’ dugout. The problem was that he didn’t realize it was only the second out of the inning until he reached the third-base line.

When opposing players reached first base, Young said every single conversation revolved around 9/11 and players questioning whether the game should even be happening.

“That was a constant theme — disbelief,” said Young, who has been a special assistant in the Pirates’ baseball operations department since 2014. “That’s the only way you can describe it. We were playing a game, but our minds weren’t necessarily in the game. It was very unique. It was like you were playing in a dream.”

The Mets took a 1-0 lead in the third when Ritchie walked Tsuyoshi Shinjo with the bases load. The Pirates tied it in the fifth thanks to Craig Wilson’s groundout.

How tight the game was didn’t sit well with Giles, who said he started to think about how this one will be remembered. The Pirates can’t possibly beat the Mets in the first game back from 9/11, right?

“We weren’t trying to throw a game; we were trying to win,” said Giles, who played 15 seasons, five with the Pirates, and is now retired in his native San Diego. “We weren’t that good and wanted to avoid losing 100 games. But to see what happened in that city, to our country, and having New York take the brunt of everything … yeah, it was weird trying to beat them.”

Thankfully for all involved, the game had an appropriate ending. The Mets scored three in the ninth on a single from Rey Ordonez and former Pirate Mark Johnson’s two-run double off Mike Fetters and won, 4-3, when Armando Benitez worked around a Kendall single in the ninth to get the save.

The game ended in 2 hours, 58 minutes, the average length that year on the nose. There were 25,902 tickets sold in advance, but a Post-Gazette story from that night estimated that only about 8,000 showed up and went through the ballpark’s enhanced security procedures, with no more coolers, backpacks or other containers allowed.

The Pirates, who would go 62-100, never did avoid that 100-loss season like Giles had hoped, but they did gain an an appreciation for the power of baseball and sports in the healing process.

For those three hours, Pirates players and coaches allowed their fans to forget about hijacked airplanes, domestic terrorism or loved ones lost. They simply thought about baseball and cheering their favorite team.

“I think it was our responsibility to help bridge that gap for a couple hours,” said Wilson, who played for the Pirates from 2001-09, retired after 2012 and now coaches high school baseball in California. “And trust me, we were doing the same thing. It allowed us to play a game and get back to some sort of normalcy in such a chaotic time.”

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