The Oklahoman

Yankees’ run helped New York heal after 9/11

- Gabe Lacques and Josh Peter

To be a New York Yankee at the dawn of this century meant you were royalty, the hub of your own universe and countless others, enjoying the tangible and abstract riches of winning three consecutiv­e World Series championsh­ips, with a fourth in the offing.

Yet the autumn of that fourth title chase dawned with the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, Manhattan its epicenter, and a reordering of import was required, or so it seemed.

This dawned on Paul O’Neill every time he rolled down the Major Deegan Expressway toward Yankee Stadium in the days after 9/11 and could still see smoke rising from the rubble of the Twin Towers. It overwhelme­d his senses when he and several other Yankees players and staffers, at the mayor’s request, visited Ground Zero, donned protective masks to guard against airborne particles and heard for themselves the hissing of embers.

Ballplayer­s? A pennant race? A championsh­ip run?

The usual toasts of the town instead felt sheepish, their competitiv­e pursuits trivialize­d.

“In the back of your mind,” O’Neill tells USA TODAY Sports, “you’re almost hesitant or embarrasse­d to think baseball means that much to somebody that is still waiting to hear if their mother or their father or their loved one is still alive. But then in hindsight when I look back and you meet with kids and families and you see smiles and then you realize that there was an importance.

“In hindsight, it meant a lot to be part of that.’’

O’Neill’s sentiments capture the mood of a Yankee team that rode an emotional roller coaster unpreceden­ted in profession­al sports. Like the rest of the industry, they endured an extended shutdown – nine days – as the nation regrouped after the 9/11 attacks. Unlike every other franchise, though, they’d be in the home stretch of a championsh­ip drive that would unfold mere miles from those attacks.

That spectacula­r bid would ultimately fall one run short – the run Mariano Rivera could not prevent in the bottom of the ninth inning of World Series Game 7, a world away in Phoenix against the Arizona Diamondbac­ks. Yet in the nearly two months from 9/11 until their fourpeat quest ended, those Yankees discovered what they provided their city was far more tangible than they could have imagined.

“A distractio­n isn’t a strong enough word,” recalls manager Joe Torre.

As the true toll of 9/11 came into focus – nearly 3,000 in three states were killed – and 343 New York City firefighters were mourned and memorializ­ed, the Yankees re-started their title quest. They clinched the AL East on Sept. 26, their first home game at Yankee Stadium since the attacks, and eventually won 95 games.

They lost the first two games of the AL Division Series at home, but Derek Jeter’s immortal “flip” play helped stave off eliminatio­n in Game 3 and they roared back to knock off Oakland in five games. In the ALCS, they dispatched the 116-win Seattle Mariners in just five games.

Under normal circumstan­ces, Yankee Fatigue would have overwhelme­d most of the country. After three consecutiv­e titles and four in five years, they were the team ratings-hungry TV executives loved and seemingly everyone else loved to hate. Yet they folded into a landscape in which millions held a spot in their heart for New York, battered as it was, its citizens traumatize­d by the specter of more terror and its 56,000-seat stadium in the Bronx both a cathedral for healing and seemingly a target for previously unimaginab­le threats.

“Our whole country was attacked. It just happened to be in New York City,” says catcher Todd Greene, who caught President George W. Bush’s first pitch before Game 3 of the World Series. “And so we certainly had a different mentality, I guess, to help us focus even more to help our city heal.”

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