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On Sports

A post-9/11 World Series trip offered a timeless lesson

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Rochester Business Journal
November 27, 2015

As I watched the terrorist attacks in Paris unfold on television, I experienced a gamut of emotions similar to the ones I felt on 9/11. Once again, we were reminded of the fragility of our times, and I worried not for myself, but for my children and granddaughter and the fractured world their generations are inheriting.

The reality is that the world has long been a fragile and, at times, scary place. I vividly remember my English-born mom telling me about the blood-curdling sounds of air-raid sirens and how she and others scrambled to shelters while Nazi bombs rained down from the sky. And I’ll never forgot the nervous look she wore every Friday at noon two decades later when the civil defense siren down the block from our house assaulted our eardrums for a full minute during weekly test runs.

As a Cold War kid growing up near Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, two hours east of Rochester, I occasionally was spooked by the specter of nuclear holocaust, especially during the Cuban missile crisis when weapons of mass destruction were aimed at us. (I also remember the foolishness of our air-raid drills in elementary and junior high school when we were required to hide under our desks. Lots of good that was going to do shielding us from an atomic bomb.)

Clearly, feelings about our national security changed forever on 9/11, which was our generation’s Pearl Harbor, our “date which will live in infamy.” Although I do occasionally worry about the future of civilization, I refuse to be ruled by fear. And if I learned anything in the aftermath of that horrific day 14 years ago, it’s that life needs to continue to be lived to the fullest. Otherwise, the terrorists do, indeed, win. It was a lesson driven home to me by my then 11-year-old son, Christopher.

He had been on my case for some time about what a cool job I had being a sportswriter and how disappointed he was that he never got to accompany me to a Super Bowl or Olympics or World Series. So, I told him I would buy us two tickets if the New York Yankees made it to the 2001 Fall Classic. When I showed him the ducats, he responded with a gleeful leap that would have made Derek Jeter proud. His mother, however, wasn’t nearly as gung-ho.

The game would be played in New York just six weeks after the Twin Towers and our sense of security pancaked to the ground. With the warning that a new wave of terrorist attacks might occur at any time, she was deeply concerned—as was I—that a World Series game at a packed Yankee Stadium before a national television audience would be a prime target. It was only after my occasionally wise-beyond-his-years son made an impassioned argument about not giving in to fear that she reluctantly agreed to let us go.

As we drove from Rochester to the south Bronx, so many thoughts raced through my head. A part of me was happy because I realized this was one of those unforgettable moments between a father and a son. I wanted it, as much as possible, to be a real-life version of those schmaltzy MasterCard commercials: Priceless. But a part of me was a tad apprehensive. Was I doing the right thing? Or was I jeopardizing the welfare of my child and myself?

The longer I drove, the better I felt. I knew that with President George W. Bush throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, and with security at the stadium and above it beefed up, the old ballpark at the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue might just be the safest place on Earth. Crossing the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey into New York, I pointed to the Empire State Building, then to the tip of Manhattan where the World Trade Center once stood. Christopher’s eyes were transfixed. After parking in the stadium garage, we took the No. 4 train to catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, several blocks from Ground Zero. The subway cars were stuffed with workers and students, and that was encouraging because it told us that New Yorkers were forging on as best they could.

Emerging from the subway tunnel, we were greeted by an indescribable odor and a dusty haze that seared our nostrils and made our eyes watery and red. The area within four blocks of the crumpled skyscrapers was cordoned off, but we could hear the roar of cranes, dump trucks and bulldozers. After catching a glimpse of Lady Liberty on that brisk, sunny, late October day, we boarded the No. 4 train uptown to the ballpark. I doubt either of us will ever forget that pungent odor.

The atmosphere at the stadium was more subdued than for previous World Series I had attended. After walking past cement barricades and through metal detectors, we made our way to our seats near the top row of the upper deck on the first base side. The game was tightly contested as Roger Clemens pitched a gem and Scott Brosius delivered a clutch hit to lead the Yankees to a 2-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

What I remember more vividly is Bush firing a perfect strike to thunderous chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” I also remember joining 56,000 others in the singing of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch while watching a tattered flag recovered from the rubble of the Twin Towers flutter from the centerfield pole. My eyes welled as that crowd became the world’s biggest choir.

Driving across the GW Bridge on the way home, I stole a glance at the Empire State Building, which had been lighted in Yankees blue, and at my son, who was asleep in the back seat. I thanked God for keeping us safe and for giving us the opportunity to share this unforgettable moment. I recalled a sign I had seen at the stadium. It read: The USA will not give in to fear—play ball!

Advice still worth following in a world that just became a little more fragile.

Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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