After the September 11, 2001 attacks that killed thousands, New York was mourning. Then one action from the President helped the city recover.
There are few things as American as baseball but after the day that changed the world — September 11, 2001 — it seemed there was nothing that could heal a country that had been hit where it hurts so hard.
The world stopped as it absorbed the enormity of the death and destruction across America but most visibly at ground zero of the World Trade Centre.
It wasn’t just New York, or America, the Western world stopped.
Perhaps one of the biggest examples for America was Major League Baseball being postponed for the first time since the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt 56 years earlier.
While the rhetoric of world leaders, including then-president George W. Bush, was defiant in the face of such destruction, words were not enough to help people move on.
Action, as it generally does, spoke louder than words.
In a true example of the power of sport, baseball returned six days after the horrific events of 9/11 as the New York Yankees started their charge to a fourth World Series.
It was the start of a return to normalcy that the country — and the world — needed as America tried to find its new normal.
In an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary titled First Pitch, George W. Bush and other important figures from the days, weeks, months and years following the infamous events of 9/11 spoke about the importance of a single pitch for healing the nation.
THE HORROR OF 9/11
“You had to keep reminding people things are going to get back to normal,” then New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said in the documentary.
“But I would at times not be sure of that.”
New York, the city that never sleeps, stopped in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre buildings.
Scenes that seem unimaginable unfolded as emergency services and volunteers waded through rubble of the tallest buildings in the world, desperately looking for survivors.
President Bush flew to New York on September 14 and remembers the horrific sight he was met with.
“You couldn’t see very well, the odour of death was in the air, and I kept looking at these bloodshot eyes of these first responders who had spent hours searching for their buddies,” he said.
“They kind of looked at me, and I thought kind of suspiciously, I was kind of a silver spoon guy and they frankly didn’t have any idea who I was.”
With his arm wrapped around a precinct chief, President Bush preached a message of the USA’s strength.
But few had any answers to the unimaginable horror of what had unfolded as America sought to comprehend what had happened.
Yankees legend Derek Jeter painted an eerie, nightmarish picture.
“Just imagine Manhattan with no cars, people just walking the streets, like it was a movie set,” Jeter said.
The Yankees went to meet the public at an area where families would hold onto hope of news of their loved ones.
Jeter said it was “uncomfortable” because the baseballers didn’t have the words to say to help grieving families.
“We all had the same purpose, we wanted to heal, and you wanted to help any way you could,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said.
“We play baseball, this is life or death, and I didn’t know if it was our place to go there. Bernie Williams (Yankees centre fielder) went up to this one woman and said, ‘I don’t know what to say but you look like you need a hug’. With that, someone from each family, each group started to come over and show us pictures of their loved ones that they in all likelihood had lost.
“All of a sudden it hit me, baseball had an obligation.”
With crowds turning out to baseball with handmade signs of support and waving American flags, it gave the people of New York something to cling to and something bigger to be part of.
Even if it was just for as long as the game was on.
Comedian, actor and lifelong Yankees fan Billy Crystal said the sport was the saviour of the city in its darkest hour.
“We need something, we need a life raft, we need something to cling to and for us in New York, it became baseball,” he said. “So we end up in the World Series.”
MORE THAN JUST A PITCH
The Yankees had won the previous three World Series and were heading into baseball’s showpiece event against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
With the first game set to be played in Arizona, the MLB had invited President Bush to throw the first pitch of game one.
But with a groundswell of support behind the Yankees, he turned it down.
“If you’re going to throw out a pitch during a World Series with the Yankees at this point in history, there’s only one place to go — Yankees Stadium,” he said.
“I remember the example of Franklin Roosevelt when he said ‘let’s play ball’ during World War II. I’m confident his decision was made because he thought it would be good for the soul of the nation.
“So when presented with the opportunity of throwing out the first pitch, I seized it because I knew that baseball could be a part of the recovery after 9/11.”
In the midst of the fear after the attacks, with the world on edge over whether there would be more attacks and heightened security across the country, Mr Bush pushed the secret service to the limit.
Yankees Stadium was searched for two days before the game with around-the-clock guarding in the lead-up.
But there were greater fears of a second attack in New York, with then-CIA director George
Tenet even admitting an anthrax or even nuclear attack were in his mind in the lead-up to the game.
“My view of it all was there are good people protecting me and they’re doing the best they can possibly do but if it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go,” Mr Bush said.
“I don’t think you can lead a nation if you are worried about your own safety. I don’t know that you can send a signal to people, let’s get on with our lives if the president is concerned about his own life.”
Baseball has long been a part of the Bush family’s lives. George H.W. Bush kept a first baseman’s mitt he wore playing for Yale varsity more than 40 years before in his desk drawer.
George W. Bush knew he needed to throw a strike.
Wearing a Fire Department of New York jacket over a bulletproof vest, he started to warm up.
Jeter walked in and asked the President whether he’d pitch from in front of the mound.
“What do you think?” Mr Bush remembered. “He said, ‘Better throw from on top of the mound, otherwise they’ll boo you’. I said, ‘OK, I’ll do that’, and just as he’s leaving, he turns around and says ‘but don’t bounce it Dubbya’.”
The nerves were clear for Mr Bush, with plenty riding on the novelty act.
Crystal said there was a nervous energy in the stadium with the Yankees down but also scared of following attacks.
“The gravity of the moment didn’t hit me until the first step out of the dugout,” Mr Bush said. “I remember the noise, it was deafening. I remember looking around the stadium at this giant crowd.
“The country, which was rallying at the time, had further cause to rally to see baseball being played, and I was just a part of that. I didn’t realise that until I made it to the mound. Standing on the mound at Yankees Stadium was by far the most nervous moment of my presidency.”
The pitch went straight over the plate and the crowd went nuts, chanting “USA, USA”.
Crystal said: “Here’s a young president handed this awful baton to run with and he basically said ‘f**k you’.”
As Mr Bush remembers it, the ball was as heavy as a shot put.
But the pitch was a statement that America and Americans were going to move on with their lives.
It’s arguably one of the strongest messages of Mr Bush’s presidency as America dealt with the aftermath of one of the darkest events in modern history.