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How the Yankees helped New York and America heal after 9/11

This is an exclusive free extract from my latest book, Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart. You can grab your copy in paperback or Kindle eBook format here.

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On the morning of 11th September 2001, four airplanes set for east-to-west coast domestic journeys - including two that departed Boston’s Logan International Airport - were hijacked by terrorists intent on destruction. Two of the jets were redirected to New York, colliding with the twin towers of the World Trade Center in a symbolic attack on American power.

Both towers subsequently collapsed, killing thousands of innocent civilians. The third hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon, headquarters of the US Department of Defense, in Arlington County, Virginia. The fourth jet, flown towards Washington D.C., crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after brave passengers thwarted the hijackers.

In total, 2,996 people died in the coordinated attacks, while more than 6,000 sustained injuries. Mental and economic side effects were felt for generations to come, while deaths related to asbestos exposure from the blasts continue to mount. New York was wounded like never before, yet proud defiance simmered through the world’s preeminent metropolis. The Big Apple would not be defeated.

How the Yankees became America's Team in 2001

A fitting metaphor for life, mirroring its ups, downs and daily unpredictability, baseball became a cohesive vehicle for that municipal affection. The Yankees became an avatar of national determination. Once loathed and hated across the land, those hallowed pinstripes became a symbol of strength, hope and renewal. The whole country rooted for New York and its definitive team. Never before had Steinbrenner’s men received such universal goodwill.

Yankee players and officials visited Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. They also spent time in hospitals and recovery centres, emergency service stations and community hubs. They comforted citizens in the darkest moments of their lives, hearing stories of departed loved ones and shattered dreams. Then they went back out onto the diamond and embodied that spirit with class.

After a week of mourning and soul-searching, the Yankees resumed play in Chicago, where White Sox fans unfurled banners supporting New York. Similarly, in Boston, even Red Sox fans proclaimed their love for the city that never sleeps, holding supportive signs and singing along to Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York.

For perhaps the first time in their existence, the New York Yankees were America’s Team. They always had the largest fanbase, but more people hated them than loved them. Yet for once, nobody would have begrudged them winning the World Series in 2001. It would have been a symbolic triumph for the country. In the mundane machinations of everyday life, it was almost as if victory for the Yankees correlated with defeat for Al-Qaeda. Baseball became a portal to national healing. 

Remembering the 2001 Yankees, drenched in mystique and aura

The Yankees won 95 games in the 2001 regular season, capturing another division title and inspiring thoughts of a juggernaut run through October. However, Oakland won the first two games of a tense ALDS as the Yankees fell one game from elimination. New York hauled a 1-0 lead in the seventh inning of Game 3, setting the stage for an iconic intervention from Derek Jeter.

Oakland’s Terence Long dumped a double down the right field line, encouraging Jeremy Giambi to chug around the bases from first. Shane Spencer retrieved the ball but uncorked a wild relay throw that missed cut-off man Tino Martinez. Leaden-footed, Giambi rounded third as the ball trickled up the first base line. Jeter instinctively ranged across the infield, far from his shortstop berth, to intercept the ball and shovel it to Posada, who applied a tag just in time. Giambi was out at the plate, and a new clip joined the go-to montage of baseball incredulity.

New York won that fateful game 1-0 and The Flip was duly etched into baseball lore as one of the greatest examples of Jeter’s preternatural ability. Rightly inspired, the Yankees won the remaining two games against Oakland before dispatching 116-win Seattle in the Championship Series. Their magical momentum was back again.

Alfonso Soriano came up with a crucial hit in Game 4 of the ALCS, the Yankee star lofting a two-run walk-off homer into the right-centre field abyss. Such an inspired intervention motivated New York as the Yankees went to the World Series for the fourth straight year and a fifth year in six. Only Arizona stood between Gotham and salvation. 

Why the 2001 World Series was the best of modern times

Set against a backdrop of cultural healing and newfound togetherness, the 2001 Fall Classic was quite possibly the greatest ever played. Rarely had Yankee Stadium throbbed with such energy and raw emotion, and rarely had the Yankees faced such stout competition for the world title.

An expansion team formed in 1998, the Diamondbacks possessed an immortal one-two punch atC the front of their starting rotation. Aged 34 and 37, respectively, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson were brutally dominant in 2001, using guts, guile and gritted teeth to power an unlikely postseason run.

Schilling won 22 games while Johnson won 21. Schilling had a 2.98 ERA while Johnson lay at 2.49. Schilling struck out 293 batters while Johnson struck out 372, including a record-tying 20 in one game. The duo was totally overpowering.

Together, Schilling and Johnson combined to throw more than 500 innings in the regular season, practically hauling Arizona to a division crown ahead of San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Diamondbacks then beat St Louis and Atlanta in the postseason, confirming a World Series date with the Yankees.

The dual aces began the Fall Classic in dazzling form, holding New York to just one run through the first two games. It seemed so easy, almost like a video game where you artificially boost pitchers’ attributes. Heading back to the Bronx for Game 3, down 2-0, the Yankees needed a little magic. That is exactly what they got as President George W Bush threw the ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium. 

When did George W Bush throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium? And what did his ceremonial appearance symbolise?

Regardless of political inclination and personal grievances, people were moved by the sight of a US President standing on an open field, exposed to 55,820 people in an enclosed space at the heart of a city that had been terrorised less than three weeks earlier.

A big baseball fan and minority owner of the Texas Rangers, Bush appreciated the magnitude of this moment. Wearing a bulletproof vest, he warmed up underneath the stands, heeding advice from Jeter. “You better throw from the mound,” said Jeter. “Don’t bounce it, they’ll boo you.” Bush did not bounce it. He threw a dart from the mound, earning applause on a night when the Yankees came storming back to life with a 2-1 win.

“I had never had such an adrenaline rush as when I finally made it to the mound,” said Bush years later. “I’ve been to conventions and rallies and speeches, but I’ve never felt anything so powerful and emotions so strong. The collective will of the crowd was so evident.”

Which was the greatest World Series game ever played? A case for Yankees-Diamondbacks, Game 4, 2001

Amid such defiant yearning, Game 4 was arguably the greatest World Series contest of all-time. Hurt and wounded, the Yankees came back from the brink of defeat to win in storybook fashion. Even today, it remains impossible to watch the highlights without trembling with goosebumps.

Nursing a 3-1 lead with six outs remaining, Arizona manager Bob Brenly turned to his closer, Byung-hyun Kim, hoping to press home the advantage. The Korean struck out the side in the eighth as New York gawped at a major deficit in the series. Things were a little different in the ninth, however, as O’Neill lined a one-out single to spark hope. But when Bernie Williams struck out, the Diamondbacks were one out from victory.

Tino Martinez, a beloved slugger, strode to the plate representing the Yankees’ last chance. With a quirky submarine delivery, Kim poured a pitch over the heart of the plate, thigh-high and hittable. Martinez lashed at the ball, sending it high and far towards right-centre field. Cast against a still black sky, a white dot soared in a smooth parabola, landing with aplomb in the bleachers, transformed into a whirring maelstrom of contorted limbs. The game was tied, and Yankee Stadium shook like never before.

Why is Derek Jeter known as Mr November? Decoding an iconic nickname

The Yankees turned to Mariano Rivera, their relief ace, to keep Arizona at bay in the tenth. Then, somewhat remarkably, Arizona used Kim for a third inning of work as the clock ticked beyond midnight. The Stadium scoreboard flashed with a famous message: “Welcome to November baseball.” 

With two outs, Jeter battled through a nine-pitch at bat before slicing a 3-2 slider towards the short right field porch. As if propelled by a gust of wind and driven by pleading New York hearts, the ball cleared the outfield wall and landed on the front row of seats, clinching an immortal win for the Yankees and evening the World Series at two games apiece.

For the first time in baseball history, a home run was hit in the eleventh month of the year. The season was pushed back due to the terrorist attacks, giving Jeter a chance to become Mr November, a tongue-in-cheek memento from a game for the ages. New York exulted in the gritty determination of its ballclub, and the Yankees rose from their slumber.

Who won Game 5 of the 2001 World Series? The ballad of Scott Brosius, unsung Yankees hero

The following night, Game 5 was peppered with similar magic. In harsh symmetry, Arizona once again handed a two-run lead to Kim in the ninth inning, and once again he coughed it up amid bedlam in the Bronx.

With the Yankees down 2-0, Posada led off the home ninth with a double before Kim retired Shane Spencer and Chuck Knoblauch. Scott Brosius, a veteran third baseman, then skied a two-run homer to left, tying the game and rocking the ancient ballpark to its core. To quote the great Yogi Berra, it was déjà vu all over again. Logic lost all meaning.

The Yankees won Game 5 in 12 innings when Soriano shot a walk-off single to right field. Knoblauch came around to score the winning run, beating the throw home to put the Yankees one win away from a fourth consecutive world title. A more exhilarating comeback was hard to find in the catacombs of baseball history.

How Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling thwarted the 2001 Yankees

Alas, in unorthodox fashion, the Yankees never closed the deal. With New York one win from glory, the series reverted to Phoenix, where the Diamondbacks lined up Johnson and Schilling to pitch two crucial games. Arizona won Game 6 in blowout fashion, thumping the Yankees 15-2 to force a do-or-die decider at Bank One Ballpark. 

If the 2001 World Series was the ultimate baseball masterpiece, Game 7 was a study of intense human emotion all of its own. Clemens got the ball for New York, matching Schilling step-for-step before 49,589 enrapt fans. Across America, almost 72 million people caught a glimpse of the game on television. Even more watched around the world, including here in England, as baseball reached a universal apex.

Rising to the occasion, Arizona scored first in the sixth inning, but the Yankees answered back with an RBI single from Tino. When Soriano took Schilling deep to lead off the eighth, New York eked out a 2-1 lead. Rivera dominated in the bottom half of the eighth, dragging the exhausted Yankees within three outs of another crown.

With brazen rebellion, the upstart Diamondbacks did not lie down, however. Mark Grace singled to lead off the home ninth as the sellout crowd made a deafening din. David Dellucci pinch-ran for Grace and was safe at second base when Damian Miller’s bunt coaxed a throwing error from Rivera.

Jay Bell bunted into a forceout before Tony Womack lined a game-tying doubled to right field. Wayward and ruffled, Rivera then hit Craig Counsell with a pitch before Luis Gonzalez blooped a walk-off, series-clinching single over a drawn-in Yankee infield and into the shallow outfield of fate. Arizona had toppled the pinstriped galaxy.

Buster Olney, a national baseball writer for the New York Times, later published a book about the Yankees’ dominant run with a specific focus on the 2001 World Series, which heralded the start of a subtle decline. The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty delved inside the team’s expiring mystique and spoke to the nation’s shock whenever the Yankees did not win it all. Some kids grew up thinking that was impossible, and they learned the hard way that life can be tough.

Indeed, Yankee defeat became increasingly common in the 2000s as historic roles were reversed. The Yankees got a taste of their own medicine as rival teams caught up with and even surpassed their tired business model. The great Steinbrenner dollar lost value in a coming age of statistical efficiency, and the tectonic plates of baseball power shifted beyond recognition.

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Ryan Ferguson is the author of Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart, available now in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon. Click the link below to get your copy now!

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