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The Past Ain't What It Used to Be

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Sometimes I wonder what it was like to live through major historic events. Not to have participated in them necessarily, but to merely have lived at that time and have a better sense of what contemporary folks felt and thought and believed. What was it like to live through the Civil War and not have a sad fiddle accompany you everywhere? Or to have landed at Normandy without the benefit of Tom Hanks? The jagged edges of history get filed down so they can fit into textbooks and Hollywood movies, but I'm sure there were details about these eras that would defy our preconceived notions about them. Otherwise, the past would be full of nothing but robots, and I'm pretty sure it's not.

I'll never know about these epochs, but I have lived through at least one major event in American history, one we're marking the anniversary of this Sunday. Ten years might be a long time, and I know I've changed a lot since then, but I like to think my memory is still well intact. That's why I feel I must protest when I read pieces like Ken Rosenthal's at Fox Sports, entitled "Yankees became America's team in 2001." Because it is demonstrably incorrect, and I don't like it when people try to mess with my memories.

To be fair, this assertion did not originate with Rosenthal. He is merely parroting a narrative that is almost as old as 9/11 itself. The Yankees As Post-9/11 Spirit Lifters meme was pushed by the sports press early and often, most notably in the HBO documentary Nine Innings from Ground Zero. The Tenth Inning of Ken Burns' Baseball devoted a sizeable chunk of its airtime to the same subject. As early as October 25, 2001, in the middle of the World Series, The New York Times published an article about how avowed "Yankee haters" were switching their allegiances, if only this once, in deference to our national tragedy. They were far from the only ones to do so.

[The conceit is not the sole provenance of the Yankees, either. You may recall that virtually everyone in the post-9/11 landscape, no matter how tangential they might be to the tragedy, felt that what they were doing was VERY IMPORTANT TO THE HEALING PROCESS. Found on alongside Rosenthal's article is a post called "Buck's poem helped baseball, America recover," about how a poem the late Jack Buck wrote and read before a Cardinals game "enriched his legacy and inspired a nation." No offense to Mr. Buck or anyone who enjoyed his words, but verse recited almost a thousand miles from any of the attacks "helped America recover"? Really?]

The problem is, most of these articles don't hold water. Scanning them now with a critical eye, one sees that those who claimed they would root for the Yankees post-9/11 tend to be 1) tepid at best in their endorsements, 2) possessing vague or unstated baseball allegiances, and 3) far away from New York. How many of them followed through on their wafer-thin pronouncements to root for the Yankees? How many told a reporter what they thought they should say at the time and did something completely different in the privacy of their own home? These days, even a Times trend piece would demand more firm sourcing.

The October 25 piece cited above, for instance, has few definitive examples of people who actually switched sides. The few it cites are vague, to say the least; all are from a scene at a conference center in Georgia (?) where random strangers of indeterminate origin and rooting interests bring themselves to cheer on the Yankees during the ALCS. This is supposed to suffice for evidence.

Tellingly, the far more concrete examples are the ones providing a counterpoint, like "a devoted Mets fan from Bethpage" who had lost his job due to the terrorist attacks and said "he had taken the admonition from the country's leaders to 'go back to the normalcy of your life.'" In other words, to keep rooting against the Yankees. There are also some profiles of avowed Red Sox fans who would not budge, such as a young man by the name of Bill Simmons, who "writes a sports column from Boston for" and cited Roger Clemens as the main reason why many baseball fans across the country could not bring themselves to cheer for the Yankees.

This is the way I remember it: Yankee fans were lifted by the team's exciting run through the postseason that October/November, especially the dramatic walkoff home runs in games 4 and 5 of the World Series in the Bronx. And if that made these fans feel better and distracted them from the tragedy and horror for a while, fantastic. I wouldn't begrudge anyone in New York at that time taking comfort from whatever source could provide it.

But non-Yankee fans, by and large, looked in with, at best, apathy. The notion that everyone was rooting for them during the playoffs, that the entire country and possibly the world was pulling for the Bronx Bombers, is simply not true. I believe some people hid their hate under a bush, so to speak, afraid that exhibiting too much anti-Yankee sentiment might seem churlish. But non-Yankee fans rooting for them in the postseason and being healed by their triumphs? I did not see this happen in New York, and I doubt it happened elsewhere, either.

To be completely truthful, I don't have much concrete evidence to support my case, either. I simply have what I feel and remember from that time. But what's interesting is that if you look at the actual substance of Rosenthal's article, he doesn't quite go as far as to say the Yankees were really "America's team" that October either. He mentions the sight of pro-Yankee banners in stadiums they visited in the first regular season games immediately after the attacks, and the general loosening of anti-Yankee rhetoric from fans of other teams.

Otherwise, the article largely focuses on what the Yankees' playoff run meant specifically to Yankee fans affected by the tragedy, and how Yankees like David Justice, Scott Brosius, and Mariano Rivera felt some pressure to win for those fans who needed something to cheer for. (Interestingly, even during this dark time, the Specter of Steinbrenner seems to hang over them, insisting they MUST win a World Series OR ELSE.) Rosenthal does insist, "They had provided a needed diversion for New York, rallying the city," but it almost seems a throwaway line at the very end, unsupported by anything that precedes it.

Rosenthal's article is, in fact, not all that different from one by Jon Morosi, published on the same day, about the Mets' response to 9/11. It talks about Shea Stadium being used as a supply center for the relief effort, and how Bobby Valentine and his players stayed late into the night handing out those supplies to Red Cross workers. It captures the uneasy feeling in the air during that first game back at Shea, at a time when many people thought another attack was imminent. (Wow, imagine what that must have been like.) Morosi spoke at length to Steve Karsay, a Queens native and Braves reliever who, ironically, gave up Mike Piazza's dramatic home run, and discusses the swirling, contradictory emotions he felt on this occasion.

The general tenor of Morosi's piece is that baseball is ultimately unimportant in the face of such tragedy, but sometimes it can at least give us a welcome diversion when we need it the most. The first game at Shea actually came in the middle of a pennant race, with the suddenly surging Mets gaining fast on Atlanta. And yet the Braves players interviewed expressed no remorse about losing the game, least of all Karsay (though he insists he did not groove one to Piazza, almost sounding angry at the suggestion that a major league pitcher would do something like that). The Braves were just happy to be part of something that made some New Yorkers feel better for one night; the fight for the postseason could wait. (And would basically come to an end the next week at Turner Field, where the Mets' dreams usually go to die.)

Morosi does not suggest the whole nation cheered on the Mets that night, or that their stirring win inspired and lifted us all. Neither does the substance of Rosenthal's article regarding the Yankees, really, but it doesn't need to. The context, the larger shell in which the 2001 Yankees exist in our collective memories, says it for him. The story of the Yankees as post-9/11 healers who were cheered by us all has been repeated so often that Rosenthal doesn't provide any evidence to back it up. He doesn't think it necessary to do so. You might as well drum up supporting documents for the theory that water is wet--who's going to argue with you that it isn't?

That's what history does, I suppose. It paints portraits of you wearing clothes you don't quite remember and doing things you're not sure you ever did, because someone decided that EVERYONE wore those clothes and did those things back then, so you must have, too, right? And one day you won't even be around to insist otherwise.

So while it may be a small, semantic, and ultimately meaningless thing to argue about, let this post stand as a note that not everyone cheered for the Yankees or was "lifted" by them post 9/11. Some did, some didn't. Some were "lifted" by seeing them somehow lose that World Series, even when all the ghosts seemed to be on their side. Some managed to deal with their feelings without the aid of baseball at all. Shocking I know, but I hear it can be done.