Holding Out for a Late-Inning Rally
“We weren’t asking them to forget it; we just tried to give them a few hours of enjoyment.”
— Joe Torre, Yankees manager
I’ve only ever been to one World Series game. It came at a low moment for the United States, an attempt at a return to normalcy after catastrophe. Still, there was no escaping the altered aesthetics: in the crowd, the American flag’s red horizontal stripes outnumbered the Yankees’ thin vertical navy pinstripes; the exponentially increased randomized bag checks at both the Times Square transfer and the 161st Street elevated platform; the soldiers in military camouflage clutching automatic rifles, both too tightly and too loosely for everyone’s comfort. In our efforts to attempt baseball as escapism, we had to willingly surrender ourselves to Yankee Stadium, a complex that boasted one of the country’s highest terror alerts.
Sometimes, I still find myself struck by that feeling when I enter some of New York’s more metropolitan areas — will something bad happen at the subway labyrinth beneath Penn Station, or among the cluster of families at Washington Square Park, or along the long spine of boardwalk along Coney Island? For years after, whenever a low-flying plane crossed overhead, momentarily eclipsing us in shadow, my older brother, Ryan, would ask, “Is there an airport nearby?” This fear, a post-traumatic stress that must afflict many locals from my generation, is a scar that invokes sensory memories of its origins, even years after it’s been bubbled over by new flesh.
In the fall of 2001, the world staggered. The attacks on the City’s Twin Towers yanked free the shroud of security from our perception of domestic defense. Americans all over the country — people across the world — bonded together in rebuilding that shaken confidence, to plug the hole in our city that was manifested physically in the gapped tooth in the jagged skyline’s jaw. People needed catharsis, needed a respite from the fatigue of sorrow. For many, for me, baseball filled that void.
I was twelve when the attacked happened, when two hijacked jetliners felled buildings, when 2,606 innocent people within were murdered. I was twelve when I put context to the words terrorism and Ground Zero. I was twelve when I lost my mother, who sold insurance from the 105th floor of Tower Two.
The Yankees had been a pillar of my childhood. I’d been spoiled by success; my first season as a fan was ’95, the end of the lean years, pre-dynasty. In 1996, I was at a weeks-early Halloween party when the Yankees clinched the World Series title against the Braves, rattling off a seemingly clandestine four-game sweep after falling behind two-games-to-none. All the other kids — including Ryan — were asleep, crowded the floor around me tucked into their costumes. I was seven then, my mom’s lap a pillow for my mushroom-cut head. Hours before, I’d abandoned my pirate hat and raised my eye patch to where it now sat sweat-adhered to my forehead. The game was broadcast on a large projector, splashing the white wall with the green of outfield grass. When Wetteland recorded the final out — a foul pop-up that stayed in play for Charlie Hayes — a hushed cheer went up amongst the scattered adults, who slapped near-silent high fives and carefully clinked solo cups. I was part of the muted celebration, and I took pride in that inclusion for years after. In that moment, in those magical hours that existed only past bedtime, I felt more grown up while, somehow, the grown-ups seemed more like kids.
The team’s success was easy to take for granted. After losing in the ALCS to the Indians in ’97, the Yanks went on to win the next three championships, besting the Padres, the Braves (again), and, in 2000, the crosstown Mets. Nearly every year at my elementary school, we celebrated with autumn parades, days where caps were part of the dress code (the only time they were allowed outside of the annual lice scares) and rowdy chants were encouraged. As young New Yorkers, the sport was in our bloodstream, had become a part of our identity. On Sunday mornings at the park, Ryan and I would barricade off two adjacent handball courts, creating our own narrow confines. There, we would quiz each other on lineups, quote home run totals and ERAs, one of us embodying our heroes through their myriad batting stances while the other fast-tossed faux-leather baseballs with half-ripped stitching.
I would have traded every other World Series victory for one in 2001.
After 9/11, baseball didn’t start up again for a week. I was paradoxically drawn to and pulled from the television screen. Each new vantage registered new pain, of the explosion upon impact on the upper floors, of the implosion upon collapse at ground level. There was no solace to be found by changing channels. Outside of the children’s programming I’d recently outgrown (or had stubbornly pretended to), no networks played their syndicated series. When baseball resumed, the Yankees returned to me my first pocket of normalcy. My mother was still presumed missing, would in fact never be found but for a small fragment of a femur that matched to her DNA. In those long weeks, the reliable structure of the sport anchored me, one inning at a time, preserving something familiar within my new reality.
We sat along the left field line, in the upper tier of the upper deck: me, Ryan, my stepdad, and his best friend, Vinny. We were far from foul ball range, so we didn’t bring our gloves. (It only occurred to me years later that this was the first time we hadn’t had our mitts, regardless of our seats. Perhaps we’d outgrown the naïve belief that there was always a chance?) It was fifty-eight degrees at game time, but windy, especially in our open-air altitude. We’d arrived at the stadium an hour early, but due to the beefed-up security, we didn’t find our way to our seats until after first pitch. In the years to come, thorough gate checks would become the standard, a thought that occurred to me even then.
The crowd was a singular voice, the arrhythmic pulse of a wounded city. The feeling of hope was palpable, an abstract somehow made tactile in the white-knuckled hands held together, in the nervous bounce of knees, in the hasty intakes of air and the uneven exhales of visible breath. More than fifty-six thousand filled the hard-backed navy seats. The series was tied at two games apiece, though the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks had thoroughly outplayed our team thus far.
The night before, the Yanks had won on an extra inning homerun by Derek Jeter, a hit that instantaneously earned him a nickname. “A game-winning walk off home run,” Michael Kay called on the radio, “for Derek Jeter. He is Mr. November.” Baseball had never before been played past October, but the week-long postponement of games after 9/11 forced the season to extend later than ever before.
The miracle of that hit — as well as the two-out game-tying shot by Tino Martinez in the ninth — still hung in the air like an afterglow. On the pampered grass of the outfield and smoothed chestnut of the infield dirt, it seemed destined, inevitable. New York needed this series, needed the Yankees to be the stabilizing force they had been in the past half-dozen dynastic years.
The stadium was tinged with an energy I had never seen before, one I will never see again. We were spectators at a baseball game; we were New Yorkers watching our heroes. With the series tied at two, neither team would be crowned World Champion at game’s end. But it would be the last time in 2001 that the Yankees would wear the famous home pinstripes; games six and seven were to be played back in Arizona.
The roll call rang out from the bleachers, cadenced claps following each player’s name as the crowd worked its way around the diamond. Paul O’Neill. Bernie Williams. Shane Spencer. I’d spent more time in those backless benches than anywhere else in the old Stadium. On Friday evenings during the summer, Ryan and I would take the train to the World Trade Center to meet my mother after work. We’d call her from sticky payphones from the maze of train tunnels beneath the towers, and the three of us would head to will call to snag the affordable eight-dollar tickets.
On this night, November 1, 2001, Mom was gone.
The game was tense, incredibly low scoring. Mike Mussina and Miguel Batista traded zeroes for the first four frames, the innings of the most important game I’d ever been to slipping by faster than I could commit them to memory.
Tension built in the Bronx. Each passing inning was a hot, heaving breath into a rapidly filling balloon, which stretched and stretched, its pressed latex ready to explode at any given moment.
And just like that, I’d find myself taken out of the game. It’s not often in life that you step back and appraise where you are in that instant, what that moment could mean in the context of your past and present and future. It happens in novels, though. You’re invested in the story, entrenched in the conflict. Dimly, you’re aware of the uneven heft of the book in your grasp, how much you’ve already absorbed against what you’ve yet to ingest. You check the count, do the math. A hundred-forty pages down, eighty-seven left.
A baseball game can be serialized like this: eighteen chapters, nine at-bats for the visitors, nine for the home team. A game could hold a narrative, as could a playoff series, or, expanded, an entire season.
In the fifth, Arizona struck twice, a pair of solo homeruns that might as well have been grand slams for all the contact the Yankees’ offense had mustered to that point. These were to be the only blemishes on Mussina’s eight-inning gem: long balls by the sixth and ninth hitters, Steve Finley and Rod Barajas.
In times of adversity, we turn to our heroes. The victory of the night before had not yet left my immediate consciousness; images of Tino’s follow-through, of Jeter’s raised arm midnight celebration, were barnacled to my brain. I had only to close my eyes to relive it.
This obstinate belief, this dire hopefulness, was not an alien feeling. It had been my default for much of the past two months. While I waited on the porch for endless hours, willing my mom to appear down to the sidewalk, while we scoured hospital rooms and thumbed through hundreds of missing person reports, my body rallied against sense. I fought rationality until we hit a pivot point and the heavy pendulum of truth — suddenly too heavy to deny — swung in the opposite direction, inverting all I’d ever known.
What was logical was that my mother was gone, that she remained alive was the fallacy.
I took refuge in the consistency of the Yankees that had, like a familiar story, rarely disappointed, scarfed the hope down like a six-dollar stadium foot-long. It lodged in my throat, bungled its way down my esophagus and through my intestines. I was raw, scarred by the endless expulsion of optimism that was torn from my insides and tasted like acid. There was a bizarre logic at play: the world had let me down, but the Yankees would not.
When we stood for the seventh inning stretch, the entire stadium shared in my pleading positivism. That night’s choral rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” felt forced, the crowd attempting to buoy the team on the field with infused energy. At the end of the mid-inning break, Vinny did not return to his seat. It was cold, he said, and the stadium food wasn’t settling in his stomach.
You’ll regret it, we told him, when the Yankees came back to win. Still, despite myself, despite everything, I believed. He was forgotten before he disappeared up the concrete steps.
When the Yankees were down to their last three outs, Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly did the unthinkable: he brought back his closer, the goat of game four, Byung-Hyun Kim.
Kim had blown the save less than twenty-four hours before, and he’d done so throwing sixty-one pitches — about four times a closer’s normal output. In that moment, Brenly revitalized the sellout crowd that had clung to nothing but hope and nerves. We would be on hand either for Kim’s redemption, or for lightning striking twice. When the Diamondbacks took the field for the bottom of the ninth, fifty-six thousand people tried to provide the thunder. With each of Kim’s submarined warm-up tosses, we grew louder. It had happened last night, why not again?
Jorge Posada led off. I’d always had a soft spot for him, as my twelve-year-old ears stuck out just as much as his did. A switch hitter, he stepped into the left-handed batter’s box, an advantage against Kim’s deceptive motion. After Posada, only righties were due up.
We knew all their stances, Ryan and I, from our mornings at the park, our diamond of flimsy rubber bases spaced across the concrete, alternating our way through the Yankees’ batting order after every three outs.
Posada was well balanced, his front leg slightly open, his hands held high. He never wore batting gloves. Despite the coldness of the night, this game was no different. In my seat, far from home plate, I tried to keep still, my hands dug deep into the pockets of my lined winter jacket, my muscles tensing in response to the weather and the game.
On a 1–1 count, Posada saw a pitch on the outside corner, a fastball that would have rolled over harmlessly to Craig Counsell at second if he had attempted to pull it. Instead, he kept his hands back and went with the ball, looping it down the left field line. At contact, I was on my feet, judging the ball’s flight path, its slowing rotation as it hit its apex and began to fall. Drop, I begged. Drop.
I’d see on replay later that left fielder Danny Bautista had no shot at catching it. He botched the pickup, and it rolled past him into the corner, allowing Posada to easily coast into second base with a double. The cheers intensified. Runner on second, nobody out.
Kim rebounded, then. After inducing a 3–1 groundout from Shane Spencer, he struck out my favorite Yankee, Chuck Knoblauch who, at that point, was 0–13 in the World Series. Once again, Arizona was one out away from victory, New York one away from defeat. Doubt and hope — opposite anchors of a tug-of-war that roiled within me. The same dread that had polluted my life abruptly pervaded my pastime.
It all came down to the third baseman, Scott Brosius. That season, he’d batted .287 with 13 homeruns — a solid average, but not much of a power threat.
Before every pitch, Brosius would take a practice half-swing and tap the top of his helmet. When we mirrored his stance, we would do the same. He kept his hands high, his knees bent, and had a small leg kick that would be seemingly tough to time with Kim’s unorthodox delivery.
The first pitch was low and in, an easy take. The Yankees’ third baseman stepped out, took his practice hack. Tapped his helmet. Kim’s second pitch sat middle-middle, a flat fastball with no spin at all.
There are few things in sports more definitive than the sound of a well-struck baseball. Off the crack of the bat, it was gone. This time when I stood, it was not to trail the trajectory. It was to celebrate.
The explosion of euphoria was instantaneous, emotion pouring forth from the collected crowd like the bursting hydrants we would play among during the city’s summer heat waves. The upper decks rocked, physically bounced up and down. I felt no fear, just relief. Strangers high-fived, hugged, danced in the aisles. Unabashedly, we sobbed. We were still here, the humbled and the hobbled. We were witnesses to history.
After the swing, Scott Brosius lifted his arms in celebration, kept them raised all the way to first base. By the time he crossed home plate, the whole Yankees bench had burst from the dugout and up the steps, more than a dozen players jumping and cheering Brosius’ trip around the bases.
For Byung-Hyun Kim, there was no such solace. As Brosius circled him, he remained crouched on the mound, a man stranded on an island all his own. You didn’t need to be up close to witness his devastation. I pitied him in that moment, aware all too well of how it felt to be vulnerable in front of a crowd, as I’d been upon returning to school in recent weeks. First his catcher, Rod Barajas, came out to console him. Then the shortstop, Tony Womack. At last, Brenly trotted out and mercifully removed him from the game.
In extras, each new inning feels like a new game: just win these three outs and you go home victorious. As a fan, you attempt to rationalize, to concretize the things you’ve got no control over. Their first batter grounded out? That must raise our win probability to 55%. We get a leadoff walk? We’re all but guaranteed victory.
The human brain does this, takes things we’ve got no control over and ascribes analytical value to them. As spectators, it’s our way of engaging, of attempting authority within that which is abstract, that which we cannot command.
It’s a phone call about a Jane Doe that matches the most basic description: dark curly hair, slim build. In those hours when my grandparents were gone, off to a hospital with the best lead we’d ever have, the waiting was different. Short-sighted optimism creeping in, like a four-pitch walk to open an inning. And then you’re caught flatfooted when it isn’t her, because of course it wasn’t. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy. But for those moments, you play the odds because the you’re already living the bleak alternative.
There’s so much in life we have no hold over, but there is comfort in trying to grasp it.
Chuck Knoblauch led off the bottom half of the twelfth inning. He had been the Yankees’ second baseman for years, a perennial Gold Glover during his early career with the Minnesota Twins. He was scrappy, his stance an awkward frog crouch more yoga position than batting style. He played hard, took the extra base, broke up double plays.
Each at-bat is a new chance to excel, a fresh opportunity to squash all your earlier failures. Knoblauch, still hitless in the Series, stepped in against new pitcher Albie Lopez. He swung at the first pitch, his quick hands reaching a pitch low and away to shoot it back up the middle and into centerfield. Brosius, the hero from the ninth, bunted him over, setting the Yankees up with two cracks at the win.
With each pitch, we fans cheered, channeled our wishes towards the home team. The game had its lulls: the mid-inning stoppages, the crucial mound visits, the pitching changes. Whenever the ball was in play, we were on our feet, cheering each pitch.
The narrative elements of the game become enhanced by its outcome, as we seek to ascribe predetermined meaning to events that happen in real time. From the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s fingertips to the moment it impacts the bat, anything can happen. Like Schrödinger’s cat, the ball’s future is undefined; once Soriano makes contact, its place in history becomes fixed.
On a two-one pitch, he lined a base hit to right. We’re all on our feet, all bouncing nervously, watching Knoblauch round third base. We shout our encouragements as Reggie Sanders fields, fires a throw home. The ball bounces once, beats Knoblauch there, as catcher Rod Barajas rushes to apply the tag. Knoblauch’s foot. Barajas’ glove. They reach home plate at the same time, and millions around the country hold their breath. The ball squirts free.
Ball game. Yankees win. Pandemonium.
In a cruel reinforcement of what I’d recently learned to be true in the world, the Yankees went on to lose both games six and seven in Arizona. In an even more devastating twist of fate, the World Series ended on a bloop base hit over a drawn-in infield by Luis Gonzalez off the nearly unhittable Mariano Rivera.
That season, that postseason run carried more ups and downs than any other I’ve witnessed. As a writer, there’s a narrative dissonance there — this, I want to shout, is not how the story ends, with our heroes defeated; with the city they represented again shocked by a departure from the expected script; with two boys, one twelve and one thirteen, up past their bedtimes in their navy pinstriped pajamas, wanting to believe in something, craving a win in their just-crumbled worlds.
However, the statistics from the series tell a remarkable story. The Yankees had no business taking that series to seven games — that it was not a sweep is somewhat shocking. In the end, New York was outscored 37–14. Of that series’ 67 innings played, the Yankees held the lead for only 10. The three games they won — games three, four, and five — were all in the Bronx, were all one run victories. It’s almost as if they tapped into a reserve when at Yankee Stadium, when playing in front of the crowds that idolized them. A band of twenty-five men, desperately trying to hold up a city of eight million people. I was among those millions, having spent two months propelled by the diminishing returns of faith, staggering like an outfielder who had lost a pop fly to the sun, my eyes closed and my arm outstretched, hoping against rationality that something would brush my fingertips.