Fall 2021 SS Magazine

Former N.Y. Yankees star Andy Pettitte reflects on 9/11 now 20 years later

It was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and Andy Pettitte was at home in his suburban New York home enjoying a morning sleeping in before heading to the ballpark later that day. Just two days prior, the New York Yankees ace had tossed a gem to defeat the division-rival Boston Red Sox. It would be a few days until he was scheduled to take the mound again, so this was supposed to be a day for him to rest and recoup.

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He had no idea the horror that was unfolding just 45 minutes away in downtown Manhattan. It’s been 20 years now since that day, but Pettitte said it feels like it was just yesterday.

“My wife was already up. She had gotten our kids off to school,” Pettitte said this week on the Sports Spectrum Podcast. “She woke me up. We got a call from one of our teammates’ wives — Jennifer Bellinger called her and said, ‘Are you watching TV?’”

For many Americans, that’s how the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded — calling each other and watching the news in utter disbelief. New York City, America, and in many ways the world, had just been forever changed.

The Yankees were just a few weeks away from beginning what they hoped to be a promising postseason run. They were one of the best teams in baseball, full of veterans and star players, and were looking to win a fourth straight World Series championship to add a record 27th title to their storied history.

Since their inception, the Yankees have been a source of pride and identity for the city of New York. After the attacks of Sept. 11, they not only took ownership of that responsibility, but there seemed to be a renewed purpose in their season. The desire to win a championship had become even more palpable.

“Everyone that you knew in New York, that lived there, knew someone that was obviously impacted by this tragedy,” Pettitte said. “A lot of hurting was going on. We knew coming back that the city was very excited for baseball.”

The first step in that journey was returning to the field for the first time, which the Yankees did on Sept. 18 at Comiskey Park in Chicago against the White Sox — the game that had previously been scheduled for Sept. 11 at Yankee Stadium. Though the game was moved from New York to Chicago because of everything still going on in New York, it was not lost on Pettitte and his teammates what it represented for their organization, the city of New York, and the nation as a whole to see the Yankees back on the field.

Pettitte admitted it was a strange feeling, though. There was no denying the fear that he and others felt.

“We were itching to get back, but you’d be lying if you said you felt like everything was ‘A-OK,’” he said. “Because we had just been attacked a week before and you’re like, ‘What are they going to do again?’ There’s 50,000 people in the stands right now. Are we going to be attacked again?”

The Yankees claimed a resounding 11-3 win that night. After another road series in Baltimore, the Yankees were finally set to return to Yankee Stadium for the first time since the attacks.

On paper, it wouldn’t seem as though a late-September game between the first-place Yankees and last-place Tampa Bay Devil Rays would bring much intrigue. But that Sept. 25, 2001, game between the two American League East foes proved to not only be one of the most anticipated, but also one of the most important, games in recent sports history.

The Yankees had returned to the field exactly a week after the attacks, and now two weeks to the day they were returning to play in front of their fans and their city. Dozens of first responders joined the teams on the field during the introductions. As the Society for American Baseball Research recalled, starting pitcher Roger Clemens donned a jacket representing Engine Company 22 during his pregame warmup; Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a lifelong Yankees fan, also joined the teams on the field, and four emergency workers joined together to each throw out the first pitch.

The 30-minute pregame ceremony also featured a bald eagle, the Harlem Boys Choir singing “We Shall Overcome,” and Michael Bolton joining the choir to sing “Lean On Me.”

“What an emotional night, but what a very special night that first night was back in New York,” Pettitte said. “The way the city rallied around each other and around us … really, coming to a baseball game and giving them three hours of something to get their mind off of what had happened, to kind of smile and to come and have fun and yell and celebrate, hopefully, the Yankees having a successful season that year.”

The Yankees rallied to reach the World Series in 2001, and Pettitte wanted nothing more than to bring a championship back to a city that was hurting. It was an epic series that went to seven games, but the Arizona Diamondbacks eventually won. Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7, the Diamondbacks rallied to score two runs and win on a walk-off base hit by Luis Gonzalez.

While the series itself has gone down as one of the most memorable in recent history, perhaps the most indelible moment came in Game 3, when President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. In many ways, it was yet another statement — that America would persevere.

“What an unbelievable moment that was,” Pettitte said. “I remember seeing him down in the batting cage making sure he was getting his arm loose. We were giving him a hard time saying, ‘Hey, you better throw a strike.’”

Bush has joked that people encouraged him to stand in front of the mound to ensure a good throw, but he was determined to throw from the rubber. For good measure, he tossed a strike straight down the middle.

“The crowd just went crazy,” Pettitte said. “It was just such a great night. There was not anybody booing. Everyone was standing, obviously, at that time. No politics involved. It was just like, everyone loving America and what we stand for. It was amazing, it really was.”

Reflecting on that season, Pettitte — who has long been a believer in Christ — said his faith was vital in helping him navigate that time of his life. He led Bible studies with believers on the team, but after the attacks, he noticed a willingness from more players to seek God and search for answers through Jesus.

In a lot of ways, it was a chance for them to grieve and seek comfort in God together.

“When you see that tragedy, the question always is, ‘Lord, how could you let this happen?’” Pettitte said. “Of course, things like that — catastrophic things like that — will rock your faith. But, as believers, we also know that we live in a fallen world and we live in a sinful world. When you have people who aren’t living for the Lord … there’s evil out there. We know that. The Bible talks about it. We’re always in a war spiritually. Satan wants to do nothing more than destroy our lives and does not want us walking and talking about Jesus.

“We know that as long as there’s sin in this world, bad things are going to happen.”

Appearing on the Get in the Game Podcast earlier this year, Pettitte shared about the struggles his family has gone through in the past year. The same belief that kept him grounded in the wake of the attacks is what he clings to today.

“You realize that, like I said before, we know that this isn’t our home,” he said. “Heaven is our home as Christians and believers. We look forward to that. I’m here on earth right now and we’re going to live here and hopefully enjoy life, love life, love others and try to share Jesus with other people. But we know that, as Christians, God tells us that it’s going to be hard here … It’s just like, Lord — constantly begging Him to put His hands around our family and protect us, and protect our country and keep us safe.”

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