|Derek Jeter told the president to throw his opening pitch from the mound, not in front of it. (Getty Images)|
All eyes were on the dugout. That's what I remember. And why wouldn't they be? This was the World Series. These were the Yankees.
Of course all eyes were on the dugout. The game was about to begin.
I also remember the lights. Never before, it seemed, had the Yankee Stadium lights shone this brilliantly, this spectacularly.
And the sky. Pitch black. Ink black. The contrast with those lights, on that chilly autumn evening, took your breath away. It put a lump in your throat. Anybody stuffed into Yankee Stadium that night, I dare them to tell you they ever felt more alive than at that very moment.
Anyway. The dugout, the lights, the sky. Who knew what would happen next?
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What happened next would become one of the most remarkable moments as this country picked itself up post-9/11, one of the most enduring symbols that, while evil men could take away our buildings, they could not hijack our spirit.
Out of the Yankees dugout to deliver the first pitch before Game 3 came the President of the United States. And what struck me then and has stayed with me to this day is, never have I seen a man look more ... alone ... than George W. Bush.
Even though, as he briskly and confidently walked to the mound, he was surrounded by some 55,000 fans, rooftop Secret Service snipers, thousands of New York police and firefighters, hundreds of media members, millions watching on television and one extra umpire -- a Secret Service man in disguise.
In those raw days, nobody knew what would happen next. How could you? So we all just sort of waited. Would there be another attack? Would we respond? Would life ever be the same? Was today the day when things would start returning to normal? Tomorrow?
And now, my Lord, the President, alone in the middle of not just any public place, but Yankee Stadium.
Ten years pass, things get a little fuzzy. Memories fray. Photographs fade.
Baseball took a break in those days after 9/11, shut down for a week while bodies were recovered and prayers were offered. Commissioner Bud Selig spoke eloquently of the game's responsibility as a "social institution." And when it was time, when some of the tears had dried (but not all, not nearly all of them), baseball helped lead the way back as the country took its first wobbly steps toward some semblance of normalcy.
Many folks today recall Bush making his Yankee Stadium pitch right when the game returned. Well, kind of. The games resumed on Sept. 17, six days after the 9/11 attacks. Bush appeared before Game 3 of the World Series, on Oct. 30, exactly seven weeks to the day of the attacks.
A handful of us had visited Ground Zero earlier that day to pay our respects. It was still smoldering and, of course, fenced off. The closest you could get was maybe four, five blocks away. That was close enough. The makeshift memorials nearby ripped your guts out. Balloons. Notes. Candles. Flowers. Poems. Teddy bears.
The stadium that night was one part baseball, one part revival meeting and one part community healing. With Bush due, the security in the Bronx was extraordinary. Airport-style metal detectors at every entrance. A thick -- forget thin -- blue line, everywhere.
The tension was even thicker. It took forever to get inside, even six hours before game time. The anxiety was suffocating.
Yankees players would talk later about the sobering sight of bomb-sniffing dogs combing their clubhouse.
But this was baseball, and as you might have heard, baseball is a funny game. So away from the metal detectors and the dogs, there were moments of good humor, too. As Bush loosened his throwing arm in an indoor batting cage near the Yankees clubhouse, Derek Jeter approached.
"Are you going to throw the pitch from the mound, or from in front of the mound?" Jeter wondered.
The original plan was for the president, who, of course, was wearing a bulletproof vest, to throw from a spot in front of the mound.
"Better throw it from the mound, otherwise, you're going to get booed," Jeter advised. "This is Yankee Stadium."
Then, as he walked away, Jeter glanced back over his shoulder. One more suggestion.
"Don't bounce it," he quipped. "They'll boo you."
Later, Bush, with a lifelong passion for the game, would speak of the pressure he felt. He didn't want the citizens in the land of the free and home of the brave to think their president couldn't deliver a strike, and doesn't that just about say it all, on multiple levels?
Out of the dugout he came, wearing brown slacks and a blue jacket with the letters "FDNY" big and bold across the back. Out of the stands came thunderous chants of "USA! USA!"
Measured against staggering events, he looked so small. So alone.
He stood there on the pitching rubber looking around, taking it all in. He gave a thumbs up ... and then threw.
Damn right it was a strike. Even by a stingy umpire's standards.
It was a different America back then, one nation, united, in an edgy time. Sometimes now it's hard to remember that unity, what with the Republicans and Democrats again more divided than Yankees and Red Sox fans (and depressingly, often far less civil).
Ten years pass, things get a little fuzzy. Myths become legends, and the legends grow. A bloop double becomes a five-run homer.
Then there are the moments that remain seared into your fiber.
"Always remember" read the signs following 9/11.
"Never forget" read others.
We do, and we won't. Never before have I seen a man looking as lonely -- and, yes, as determined -- as the President appeared that night. Never again do I hope to see such a sight.