On Sept. 6, 2001, MLB commissioner Bud Selig was in New York, where he and his wife took a drive through the city after dinner. One of the places they visited was the World Trade Center. Five days later, Selig watched in horror along with the rest of the country as the Twin Towers fell.
"We went to the World Trade Center because I hadn't been there in a while," Selig said on Sept. 11. "Now to believe that they don't exist anymore, it's beyond human comprehension."
The COVID-19 pandemic turned 2020 into MLB's most disrupted season ever, a 60-game campaign with rule changes like seven-inning doubleheaders to keep things moving at a breakneck pace. The second-most chaotic season for a league that weathered two World Wars, the Spanish Flu, and the civil unrest of the late 1960s happened 20 years ago, in 2001. The 9/11 terrorist attacks caused almost a week-long delay and pushed the World Series into November for the first time ever.
With two and half weeks to go, the 2001 season was shaping up to be a pretty exciting one. On the morning of September 11, the New York Yankees were 86–57 and scheduled to play the Chicago White Sox that evening at Yankee Stadium in pursuit of their fourth straight World Series. The Arizona Diamondbacks were 81–62 and had a slim game-and-a-half lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League West. The Giants' Barry Bonds had hit 63 home runs and was ahead of Mark McGwire's 1998 single-season record pace, having hit three two days earlier against the Colorado Rockies.
Then at 8:46 a.m. ET, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC), and United Airlines Flight 175 flew into the South Tower 17 minutes later. At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the western façade of the Pentagon.
The three coordinated attacks in the span of 50 minutes brought the nation to a point of shock mixed with bewilderment over what to do next. Selig quickly canceled a quarterly meeting among team owners but initially did not call off the games for the day. MLB had postponed a full slate of regular-season games only two times before — once in 1923 on the day after President Warren G. Harding died, and again on June 6, 1944, the date of the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II. In both of these instances, MLB had several hours to make those decisions.
At 9:42 a.m., for the first time in history, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all civilian air travel in the United States. Twenty minutes later, the last commercial plane unaccounted for, United Flight 93, crashed near Shanksville, Pa., when its passengers and crew attempted to overcome the hijackers. The WTC South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m., and White Sox bullpen coach Art Kusnyer, who arrived in New York with the team early that morning, saw it happen, from Fifth Avenue.
"All of a sudden, it just collapsed," he later said. "All of those poor people. It was hard to watch."
The North Tower fell at 10:28, and Selig issued a statement around 11:00 announcing that the day's games had been postponed. He also said that he would provide daily updates on MLB's schedule. By that point, nearly every cable outlet, including ESPN, had suspended its programming and replaced it with a feed of news coverage of the attacks.
In total, the 9/11 attacks killed 2,977 people and injured more than 25,000. For the New York Yankees and New York Mets, the losses hit close to home.
"This tears at who we are," Yankees outfielder David Justice said on 9/11. "Our lives have been changed. We'll never be the same after this."
By the next morning, the shock was beginning to abate, and MLB began the process of determining when it would be appropriate to play again. The feeling was mixed, with many players and managers ready for some return to normalcy, while others believed sports should not be a priority at that moment.
"We're talking about life and death. We're not talking about wins and losses," said Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson, who won his third consecutive Cy Young Award that season. "It's completely understandable if all sports shut down for a while."
For Selig, the question on when to return hinged on what pro football would do. The late NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had said that he regretted not canceling the Sunday games after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, while its rival American Football League and most college football teams had done so.
If MLB resumed play while the NFL canceled its games, Selig could have found himself in the very same boat. His decision was made much easier when the NFL proceeded to announce on Sept. 13 that it was postponing all of its games for that weekend.
Four hours later, Selig unveiled a plan to resume play on Monday, Sept. 17, with the 91 postponed games being made up the week of Oct. 1. Many players like Bonds, who had been stranded in Houston while air travel was grounded for two days, were still shellshocked and not ready to shift their focus to the season.
"We have to move on eventually, but it just seems early to do that now," he said.
However, Bonds quickly found his groove, hitting his 64th home run in the third game after the postponement. He broke McGwire's record on Oct. 5 and finished the season with 73 dingers. While allegations of steroid use would ultimately taint this mark and his career home run record, his performance in the weeks following 9/11 helped the country briefly take its mind off of the tragedy it had just witnessed.
Even more captivating was the Yankees' postseason run. New York won the American League East and then came back from down 2-0 (becoming the first team to do so) to beat the Oakland Athletics in the Division Series to face Seattle for the pennant. At 116–46, the Mariners had set the American League record for most wins, but the Yankees dispatched them in five games.
In the World Series, New York lost the first two games to Arizona in Phoenix by a combined score of 13–1, but what followed were three of the most exciting nights in the history of the Fall Classic. First, President George W. Bush threw a picture-perfect strike to open Game 3, which the Yankees won 2–1. Game 4 was played on Halloween and went into extra innings; Derek Jeter became the first player to hit a home run in November when he blasted the game-winner in the 10th shortly after midnight. The Yankees also won Game 5 in extra innings to take a 3–2 lead back to Arizona.
A 15–2 Diamondbacks win forced a Game 7, and for perhaps the first time in history, the generally polarizing Yankees enjoyed fan support virtually everywhere outside of the states of Arizona and Massachusetts. New York led 2–1 going into the bottom of ninth inning, but the Diamondbacks scored two runs off Mariano Rivera, earning a 3–2 win when Luis Gonzalez brought in Jay Bell with a floating single for the winning run.
While New York missed out on a fourth straight championship, the events of 9/11 had given it a different measure of success.
"They could have lost three in a row to Oakland and we wouldn't have had all those wonderful postseason games in New York that helped boost our economy," New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said in the locker room after the game. "They made a tremendous contribution to rebuilding the spirit of our city."
— Written by Aaron Tallent (@AaronTallent) for the Athlon Sports 2021 MLB Annual. At 224 pages, it's the largest on the newsstand and the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.
(Top photo courtesy of mlb.com)