All of us who were alive in 2001 remember the day like it was yesterday. The day was one of those beautiful Indian summer days, mid 70s, brilliant sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. I settled in my office early that morning, preparing for my day when I caught something on Yahoo about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. Must have been a freak accident I thought, like when a private plane crashed into the Empire State Building back in 1945. Remember, 2001 was in the early days of the internet. News didn’t flow as fast then as it does now. A lot of people still had dial-up modems.
It wasn’t long before reports surfaced of a second plane crashing into the Towers. This isn’t right I thought. I recalled the 1993 terrorist attacks on the Trade Center and decided that this must be more of the same. I drove home. On the way, I heard on the radio the report of another plane crashing into the Pentagon. What the hell is going on here? At home, I found my wife, like millions of us, glued to the TV, watching the shocking events unfold. The South Tower collapsed. Then reports came in about the Shanksville crash. Then the North Tower fell. I debated whether to pull my children out of school. The events unfolded with stunning speed leaving all of us guessing at what we should do next. Life in the United States has never been quite the same. A lot of our naïve innocence ended that day.
The night before, all of us had settled comfortably on the couch and watched the Monday night football game between the Denver Broncos and the New York Giants. The night marked the opening of Denver’s new stadium. Our spirits were dampened in the third quarter when my son Elijah’s favorite player, Ed McCaffrey, went down with a gruesome broken leg. Even though we are a family of Chief fans, through and through, we have enough family connections in Colorado that we will root for the Broncos on occasion. Then the next morning, the world went to hell.
The 2001 baseball season was in its final month when the terrorist attacks occurred. Most of the pennant races were over by then. The New York Yankees had a 13-game lead over Boston. Cleveland was six games up on Minnesota. Kansas City was 24 ½ games back. Seattle had already won 104 games and had a 17-game lead on Oakland. The only pennant race of note was the National League West, where Arizona held a 1 ½ game lead on the Giants and a three-game cushion on the Dodgers. In response to the terrorist attacks, major league baseball postponed all games through September 17th. In all, 91 games were postponed, the most regular season games not played since World War I forced the cancellation of the final month of the 1918 season. The postponed games were rescheduled for the week after the season was supposed to end, meaning that we would have November baseball for the first time ever. What would that be like? Would it be safe to go to the stadium?
The Royals’ final game prior to the attacks, had been played in Texas. The Rangers and the Royals, two losing teams playing out the string, went to extra innings, tied at three. The Royals had missed a chance to go ahead in the ninth, wasting a leadoff double by Mike Sweeney. They missed another chance in the 10th, leaving Gregg Zaun stranded at third. It ended in the twelfthwhen Rafael Palmeiro stroked a one-out home run off Roberto Hernandez.
Hernandez had come over in the off-season, part of the ill-advised deal which cost them Johnny Damon and Mark Ellis. 2001 was not a good year.
The Royals didn’t play again until September 18th, when they traveled to Cleveland to face the Indians. 34,795 fans came out to Jacobs Field that night. The raucous home crowd went home happy as the Indians spanked the Royals by a score of 11 to 2. The game was close until the fifth inning when the Royals imploded. Chad Durbin allowed three singles to load the bases. Juan Gonzalez followed with a grounder to third which Joe Randa threw away, allowing two runs to score. Roberto Alomar, who had been on first base when Gonzalez hit his squibber, must have figured, what the hell, I might as well try to score. He did when Mike Sweeney threw the ball past catcher Gregg Zaun. Juan Gone with a three-run bases clearing infield single. That’s something you don’t see every day. 2001 was Gonzalez last good season, and his only one in Cleveland. He had a decent 82 game stretch for Texas in 2003 which was enough to seduce the Royals into signing him to a one-year, $4 million dollar deal for 2004, which blew up after 33 games. Like they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Scott Mullen came on in relief for tough luck Durbin. He gave up a two-strike single to All-Time Royal Daddy Jim Thome which was enough for Tony Muser. Muser yanked Mullin and brought in Jeff Austin, who got a strikeout before giving up a walk to reload the bases for Travis Fryman. Fryman, a solid player over 13 seasons (5x All-Star, 34 WAR), promptly unloaded them with one swing of the bat, yanking a grand slam deep into the left field seats. Just like that, it was a 9 to 2 game. Those 2001 Royals played some ugly baseball. Cleveland tacked on a couple late runs to make the final score 11-2.
The Royals played out the remaining 19 games of that sad season. They went 8-11 after the terrorist attacks to finish with a 65-97 mark.
The real drama happened in New York, of course. In the first game in New York since the attacks, on September 21st, President Bush threw a perfect first pitch strike to get things started. Everyone remembers this game for the eighth inning go-ahead home run clubbed by Mike Piazza. It was the most emotionally charged moment I’ve ever seen in baseball.
Baseball had done the right thing by taking some time off, which allowed us to process the shock. Baseball also did the right thing by resuming play. The country needed baseball. We needed the familiarity of the sport. We needed a reason to get out of bed every day. We needed a reason to let the rest of the world know that even though we’d been bloodied and knocked down, that we still got up.
I’d like to take a couple of minutes and write about Rey Palacios. Palacios was a catcher for the Royals, appearing in 101 games between the 1988 and 1990 seasons. His slash wasn’t memorable, .193/.244/.316. He only hit three home runs in 125 plate appearances with the biggest being a 10th inning grand slam walk off job against the Red Sox. He smoked that Jeff Reardon pitch into the berm behind left field on May 14th, 1990, at a time when Reardon was a significant closer.
His last major league hit came on July 24th, a twelfth inning single off the Blue Jays Duane Ward. No, the reason I wanted to say a few things about Palacios was for what he did after his baseball career ended. As fans, we tend to forget about the players who spend most of their careers in the minors or accrue just enough games to be called a cup of coffee. For these hardy souls, they have to have a plan after the last pitch.
In another era, nearly all ballplayers worked at other jobs in the off-season and after their careers ended. It’s a different sport, but after his football career ended, Bronko Nagurski, one of the charter members of the Professional Football Hall of Fame, returned to his hometown of International Falls, Minnesota, and operated a gas station. And by operated, I mean that when you pulled in, Mr. Nagurski came out and checked your oil and filled your tank. Bronko was so strong that people would have to return to the station because no one else could get the gas caps off their cars, what with Nagurski tightening them so tight. Imagine that today, pulling into a small-town station and having someone like Derek Jeter wait on you. That’s how life was for most professional athletes for decades.
Palacios’ baseball career ended at the tender age of 30. Baseball is a cruel sport. Most players are done before they hit age 34. In real life, 34 is still considered a young man. A very young man.
Palacios knew what he wanted to do next. He had several family members that worked as firefighters in New York City. The NYFD does not accept recruits over the age of 29, so Palacio’s applied to the Rochester, N.Y. fire department. Palacios had to wait for more than two years for a spot to open up. It was a natural fit for him.
When Palacios was 17, and a member of the auxiliary fire department, he was called to a fire in an apartment in his hometown of Brooklyn. Bystanders said a baby was trapped inside. Palacios donned an air pack and ran into the burning building, found the baby and fighting serious smoke, broke through a window, and clung to a ledge until he and the baby were rescued by Brooklyn Ladder Company 101. Brooklyn 101 lost several members in the 9/11 attacks.
Palacios said that nothing beats the thrill of saving another’s life. He also felt the pain on 9/11 as firefighters he knew from the 101 lost their lives in the World Trade Center collapse.
On the field, Palacios had one more thrill. On July 18th, 1990, he made his final trip to Yankee Stadium as a player. In an interview with Scott Pitoniak that was published in the Rochester Business Journal in 2015, Palacios said, “I’ll never forget that game at Yankee Stadium for as long as I live,’’ he said. “Between family and friends and guys from the Brooklyn fire houses and my old high school, there had to be at least 800 people I knew at that homecoming. Before the game, Phil Rizzuto, the Scooter, who also was from Brooklyn, interviewed me for the Yankees pre-game television show. And then George Steinbrenner came over and shook my hand. My teammates were busting my stones pretty good, because I was signing all these autographs before the game. George Brett asks: ‘What’s this all about, Rey?’ And I say, ‘Hey, I’m a New Yorker. These are my people.”
And when the game began, the hometown hero didn’t disappoint. Palacios went 2-for-4 with a home run. He also gunned down two would-be base stealers. Following his home run, the Yankees mentioned on the video board that Palacios was from Brooklyn. “The crowd went bonkers,’’ he said. “After the game, I had all these people waiting outside the ballpark, asking me to sign their programs and baseballs and pose for pictures. I was two hours late getting back to the team hotel.’’
Fittingly, it was Palacios last major league home run.
So, here’s to you Rey Palacios and to every fireman (and woman) out there, working the hard job to keep our communities safe. Thank you.