Memories of 9/11, Sosa, and the Home Run that Almost Wasn't
Since this article was Jedi’s idea, it’s only fitting that his Carlos Boozer-lookin’ icon be up here too.
Jedi: If you’ve been living in your Y2K bunker or just generally avoiding the media, perhaps you’re not aware that Sunday is the 10th anniversary of 9/11. That particular date means a lot of things to a lot of people, but for Cubs fans it likely conjures up images of a certain right fielder during his “beisbol has been berry, berry good to me” days.
Jeremiah: Even for non-Cubs fans or non-sports fans in general, major league sports had a big hand in bringing life back to normal post-9/11. From the advent of football field-sized American flags to Bush’s ceremonial first pitch strike to begin the World Series in New York, sports went a long way to helping us feel normal again.
Jedi: This particular post seems as good a time as any to come out of the closet–the brotherly closet. For those who haven’t already made the connection, Jeremiah and I don’t just share a last name. About 18 months separate us, which means that our parents were constantly disciplining one while the other was getting into mischief that would soon lead to discipline for himself–a vicious cycle.
Jeremiah: “Brotherly closet?” Let’s try to top that. (Cue Ron Howard’s voice: “They never did.”)
Jedi: So why bring this up now? Because as the Cubs’ then-hero and future-malcontent Sammy Sosa was snatching an American flag from the outstretched arm of Billy Williams, we both had literal front row seats to the action. You can see it here. I am to the camera’s right of the usher in a red jacket and yellow shirt; Jeremiah is on the immediate left of the usher in a bright yellow jacket. Two seats over is the ruffian who snagged the ball–we’ll get back to him in a minute.
Jedi: We grew up for the most part on the West Coast. In 2001 however, Jeremiah was at college in Chicago while I was at college in Los Angeles. I couldn’t bear the thought of my brother being homesick. So I periodically visited him; always when the Cubs were in town!
Jeremiah: It’s true. Jedi’s criteria for a visit were essentially: 1) Are the Cubs in town? 2) Who are they playing? 3) What seats are available? 4) What are the cheapest flights? Etc. My work and school schedules did not figure heavily–if at all–into the decision.
Jedi: The 2001 Cubs showed promise. Enough promise that when the dates were set for me to visit Chicago, it was still reasonable to hope I’d be attending a meaningful, late-season home stand. As the summer wore on, the Cubs predictably toyed with us. They were close enough to keep hope alive, but not close enough that one bad week wouldn’t completely dash those hopes. By September 10th they were 6 games back and sitting in third place–less than ideal. Considering their final home stand started on September 27th, the Cubs would need to be a lot closer than third place and 6 games back by the time I arrived. Little did I know that September 11th would alter the schedule and turn that final home stand into something more meaningful, regardless of the standings.
Jeremiah: Like most people living downtown in major cities on 9/11, the first several hours of my day were a blend of horror and panic. I woke up late that Tuesday morning to a phone call from my mom, who quickly explained what was happening through her tears (that was not the day you wanted your son to be thousands of miles away, in a major metropolitan area). I got dressed in a hurry and headed downstairs, stopping briefly in the dorm lobby just as the first tower collapsed. The rest of that day was a blur, spent huddled around TV’s with friends while anyone with a car or anywhere else to go left the city.
By Wednesday, Chicago was essentially a ghost town. That afternoon I took the train out to the suburbs for a church meeting, and during what would usually be rush hour, on a two-mile walk through downtown to the Metra station just outside the Loop, I saw exactly eight people, one cab, and two police cars. It took weeks for the city to fill up again.
Jedi: I woke up that morning, like many people on the West Coast, with family members calling to alert me of the tragedy that was still unfolding. With classes immediately canceled, my roommate and I wandered down to the house of a professor who lived near campus, where we spent the balance of the day watching the world change, remote-in-hand.
Like everything else, baseball stopped immediately, and the Cubs would not play again until September 18th–on the road. By that time it was obvious, assuming I had no trouble with the increased security at the airport, my brother and I would be in attendance (bleacher seats of course!) when the Cubs returned for the first games at Wrigley Field after 9/11.
Jeremiah: The bleachers seats at Wrigley might be my favorite place in the world–definitely in my top five. Whenever possible, that’s where Jedi and I preferred to sit. I think it’s probably in our blood, or at least it was ingrained in us from an early age. It’s where we always sat as children–in full Cubs uniforms–every time our family vacations took us back to Chicago. Stretching back even further, it’s where our parents had their first date. You can keep your CBOE front row seat auctions and your dugout boxes. Give me a seat in the bleachers any day.
Jedi: I know everyone has their own opinion–mine is that no seat in all of sports is more enjoyable than the general admission ticket to the bleachers at Wrigley Field. I don’t even mind waiting for hours in line to be sure I’m not sitting in the middle of a row just beneath the scoreboard.
That day included intermittent showers; wet enough to be obnoxious while never truly threatening to rain out the game. We opted to sit in RF and found that there was actually room left down in the front row.
Jeremiah: I remember there was a lengthy pregame ceremony that night. The details are a little fuzzy–I know there was a huge American flag displayed, and a parade of police, firefighters, and other first responders on the field. The one thing that stands out to this day from the pregame ceremony was when the Pipes and Drums of the Chicago Police Department marched onto the field. Bagpipe music has a unique ability to choke people up, and there weren’t many dry eyes in Wrigley by that point. The tension and the grief felt across the packed house gave way to euphoria and pride when Sosa sprinted out to RF carrying a small American flag and saluted us fans.
Jedi: Remember, this is the heyday of Sammy Sosa. He would hit 64 homers that year, and drive in a ridiculous 160 RBIs (I know, I know–it’s a team stat). His craziness was still a novelty instead of the tired excuse for his petulance. His sprint to right field followed by the salute to Cub fans was hotly anticipated before the start of each game. This day was no different, especially when he ran out with an American flag before the first pitch. Even the egotistical Sosa understood the gravity of what had happened and the power that our collective courage could wield. Whether he took the flag with him that day as a shrewd PR move or simply out of love for the country in which he had become famous, I frankly don’t care. His reason will never be important, even if it was purely self-serving; it was and still is a powerful image.
Jeremiah: Sammy was a lot of things, but he wasn’t stupid. It’s hard to remember now, after the steroid scandals, his smashed boombox, his flameout in the AL, his sudden inability to speak English in front of Congress, and the dramatic fluctuation of his skin pigmentation, but there was a time when Sosa was perhaps the biggest, most beloved name in baseball. After he and Mark McGwire staged a multi-season home run derby to resurrect baseball from the ashes of the strike, Sosa was everywhere. He had an innate charm that Big Mac lacked, allowing him to lead the league in endorsements and public appearances (I know it’s an unscientific stat–just go with it).
Remember also that America had temporarily jettisoned (for the most part) our ironic detachment and cynicism. We were all living on the ragged edges of grief and fear, and all it took was a bumper sticker or a flag t-shirt to make many people well up with patriotic pride and resolve. So in a moment that wouldn’t fly at virtually any other point in American history, a foreign-born athlete used his astounding charisma to turn a pre-planned gesture into a moment that felt spontaneous and electric. No matter what you think about Sammy now, remember that no other player could have pulled that off.
The Home Run
Jedi: Predictably, Sosa came to the plate in the bottom of the first with no score in the game and launched his 59th homer of the season (on a 3-0 pitch–typical Sammy!). It’s tough to tell from the video, but the ball actually wasn’t going to clear the basket. The kid who snagged it was well past the reach of the basket when it hit his glove. The usher right there knew what had happened, so did Orlando Merced (the Astros’ RF). Merced briefly raised a fuss and then realized it was probably better to shut up instead of instantly becoming the most hated man in Chicago.
It wasn’t a home run, but it NEEDED to be a home run. Sosa had already arranged for Cubs first base coach Billy Williams to hand him the flag as he rounded first in the event that he was able to get one to leave the yard (like I said, egotistical!). One inning, two flags, Sosa’s message was clear–the country was all that mattered. During inherently individual moments he wanted the focus to be on the country.
Jeremiah: Obviously you have to wonder what would have happened if the fan doesn’t reach out and turn a double off the vines into homer. Does Sosa–who thought most of his hits were homers–grab the flag from Williams on his way to second base? Or does it stay with Williams until Sosa does get one to clear the basket? I don’t remember ever reading anything about the behind-the-scenes plans for that evening, and certainly nothing from Williams. As part of the MLB’s 9/11 memorial, Carrie Muskat wrote an article that gives Sosa’s and Williams’ side of the story, and how the whole thing almost didn’t happen when Williams couldn’t get the flag out of his sock. It’s nice to know the Cubs legend had Sammy sign the flag for him after the game, and that he still keeps it at his home.
Jedi: A mere 17 days after 9/11 and most people were still somewhere between reeling and looking for an escape. Sammy’s bomb was that escape for 38,154 fans, two teams, and four umpires (if you believe Bruce Froemming has a heart). Countless more watched on TV or caught the highlight that seemed to run for days.
Jeremiah: Did Sosa’s flag-waving home run trot change anything? Of course not. But it was a gratifying, uplifting moment at a time when the country was in dire need of them. It wasn’t Rick Monday rescuing a gas-soaked American flag from a couple of protestors, but it had that kind of feel in the moment. Tens of thousands of baseball fans in attendance that night and countless more watching at home took a small step toward recovering from our collective grief over the tragedy of 9/11. It was a privilege to be in the stands that night with Jedi–one I won’t soon forget. Even if the game itself was less than memorable.
Jedi: The Cubs would lose the game (Shane Reynolds was pitching for the Astros, what did you expect?), and Kevin Tapani would remove most of the suspense in the early innings. But Sosa’s home run transcended that single game. It’s a memory I’ll forever share with Jeremiah, front run seats to Sosa’s home run–that wasn’t really a home run–and watching everyone forget about the turmoil of the previous two plus weeks, if only for a brief second.