Editors Note: This is an excerpt from Rich Coutinho’s book “Press Box Revolution.” Reprinted by permission.
It was Sunday, September 9, 2001 and I had just covered a Jets-Colts game. I got a post-game bite at a local restaurant not far from Giants Stadium with some fellow reporters. I remember us having a few laughs and talking about our careers. Some of these guys are my best friends in the world—Mike Mancuso, Larry Hardesty, Bill Meth, Howie Karpin, Bob Grochowski, and Tom Mariam. Little did we realize that it would be our last night of sports reporting in the pre-9/11 world. We had all been through so much but were about to experience something two days later that we never thought possible—an attack on the mainland of this country from a terrorist group that wanted to see our way of life dead and buried.
The next day (September 10) I spent an off day in New York City meeting with clients as at the time I was managing Ad Sales Ops for Bravo. I remember walking around the city and having a great client lunch at The Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal before returning to my home in Bronxville, where I lived at the time. The nnxt day, I was scheduled to be at a meeting in Long Island and after leaving the house, headed for the Whitestone Bridge via the Hutchinson River Parkway.
As I began driving towards the parkway, I heard on the radio that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and as reports keep coming in you could readily undertstand this was not an accident—it was an intentional act of terrorism. As I drove over the bridge, the second plane hit the towers and all I could think of was that we were under attack and I was driving on a bridge—Could it be next?
I crossed the bridge and took the Cross Island onto the Long Island Expressway when I heard the radio reports on 1010 WINS that one of the towers had collapsed. Drivers beside me were holding their heads and I personally knew many people that worked in that building, including my accountant, and hoped they could escape despite the horrific details I was hearing.
When I arrived in Jericho for my meeting, people were so unsure about what was happening especially after the Pentagon was struck but slowly details began surfacing it was indeed a terror attack. I contacted my family assuring them I was okay but with bridges all closed, I stayed in a hotel in Woodbury overnight watching TV and finding out more about the attacks.
I remember walking around that night in a daze, stopping to eat at a local diner, and feeling the pain of people who hadn’t heard from their family members who worked in the building. After dinner, I walked around the area thinking the world I lived in the previous day was deep in my rear view mirror, never to be seen again.
Talking to my parents that night, I explained to them much like the Empire State Building was their crowning landmark, the World Trade Center towers were the same for my generation. I honestly felt it symbolized the greatness of life in both New York and this country—two towers that hit the heavens and connected our dreams to reality. Part of me died that day and will never come back. In the days following the attack, I found out I lost four friends in that building including the aforementioned accountant.
Mayor Rudy Guiliani did a marvelous job of trying to keep our city calm and showed why he is a great man—he honestly cared about everything we were going through and refused to abandon rescue efforts until EVERY resource had been used.
The image of New Yorkers fleeing the scene of the collapsed towers running for their lives is something I will never forget and I will always remember the footage on news reports of parts of the Muslim world rejoicing the news. As a country, we have fought numerous foes but this enemy was beyond dangerous—they did not mind dying,in fact, it was considered a heroic act that many aspired to be viewed as martyrs. At the same time, we were a country that valued life and the freedoms that make our country the most desirable place in the world to live.
The sports world came to a screeching halt and rightfully so. Games were the last thing on anyone’s mind. The 2001 baseball season was delayed a week with both the Mets and Yankees set to return on the road with the Mets resuming in Pittsburgh before returning to New York for their first game against the Braves. Prior to leaving for Pittsburgh, the Mets had a practice at Shea Stadium which I attended.
I was still walking around stunned and sat in the dugout with colleagues and friends I spent most days with in a place I felt was a second home, Shea Stadium. The home of the Mets had become a holding area for the supplies used in the rescue mission that was still taking place in lower Manhattan. Manager Bobby Valentine was front and center in these efforts as well as several Mets players, the most notable being Brooklyn-born John Franco.
Sitting in the dugout that day, I remember hearing a plane fly over as I had heard thousands of times in my life as Shea’s proximity to LaGuardia Airport often made planes passing over it a constant occurrence. But on this day I looked up every time this happened because of 9-11. Omar Minaya, who worked with the team at that time under general manager Steve Phillips, noticed my reaction. We spoke about it and Omar noticed I was struggling with all of this, having lost friends in that building.
I will never forget that both Omar and Bobby Valentine spoke to me and this was not about baseball—it was because they could see I was not the normal amiable person I was on every day they encountered me. And then Bobby said something to me that really helped to begin to snap me back to where I needed to be. He said, “You’re a reporter and a damn good one and you need to do what you normally do. If you don’t then the terrorists win, and we can’t have that.” I will always appreciate Bobby for that moment and the fact that he did it in a quiet setting—not for others to see but because he could see I needed it. That’s a side of him few people get to see and I will always be in debt to him for that important moment in my life.
The Mets played on the road for a week and as September 21 approached, we knew it would be a night we never experienced as sports reporters. The game was secondary as the city was still in heavy grief and that entire week I saw the good in my profession as so many out of town reporters I had met over the years called me to see how I was doing.
Sports reporters like Les Grobstein in Chicago, Craig Heist in DC, Mike Luongo in Philly, Carl Beane in Boston, Ed Berliner in Miami, Bruce Morton in Denver, and Kevin Barnes in Atlanta all checked in on me and it spoke volumes of the closeness of the radio reporting industry. These were people I rarely saw (maybe once or twice a year) but there is a fraternity in our business that even makes competitors help each other in times of need. And this was before social media—we used the telephone to talk to each other—that was social media in those days.
As I drove into the press lot at Shea, I quickly saw ballpark security was ramped up with officers stopping my car and looking underneath it to see if any devices were there. These officers all knew me but it didn’t matter as they had to inspect every inch that would be in the stadium parking lots.
The press entrance was also checking every bag we brought with us. In those days, I had a cassette recorder and they made me hit the play button so that they could determine it was not a machine that could prompt any kind of dangerous device. The officers kept apologizing knowing that we’ve encountered each other every day for decades but to tell you the truth this made me feel better because, quite honestly, the thought crossed my mind that 55,000 fans might be a great target for terrorists.
The pregame ceremonies were very emotional for me as I lost it on a number of occasions and my best friend, official scorer Howie Karpin lent his support for me to get through it. When the bagpipes were being played, it was such an emotional moment and the national anthem which I have seen at hundreds of game I covered, suddenly took on so much greater a meaning.
Right before first pitch, the Mets and Braves shared a moment I thought I would never see between these two rivals—handshakes and hugs to express solidarity. It brought the theme to my mind that sports is the toy department of the world but it is also somewhere we can lose the problems in our lives for a few hours. The problems will never disappear but we could find solace in our love of sports to help us through it. That was firmly illustrated a few hours later as Mike Piazza strode to the plate with a runner on and the Mets trailing by a run in the bottom of the eighth inning.
I knew from getting to know Piazza over the years how much he loved baseball, God, the country and the military and he was never afraid to express that. I also knew before that game he was having trouble keeping his emotions together. He had immediately embraced New York after he was traded to the Mets in 1998, spending countless hours in Manhattan experiencing the city.
The best offensive catcher in baseball history totally understood the pain the city he loved was going through. He tried to help the best way he knew how—try to hit a baseball as far as he could to try to bring a smile to the face of the city he had adopted and truly loved.
As his bat connected with Steve Karsay’s pitch, I just knew it would leave the park. I had seen that swing countless times in big spots turn the game around and convert a Mets loss into a dramatic win. But this one stands out as a home run that touched people who needed it most. As he was circling the bases, I saw people in uniform smile and cheer. I saw firemen hugging policemen, Mets fans hugging uniformed people who I am sure lost co-workers in the attack. Up in my press box seat, I mentioned to my colleagues that we would see tons of home runs in our careers but not a single one will ever surpass that one because none will ever have a bigger impact.
After filing my stories that night, I remember walking to my car in the Shea parking lot remembering that same walk after great events like the Bill Buckner game or the Robin Ventura grand slam single. But this one was different as it symbolized why we live in the best country in the world. My love of sports got me through the worst period of my life but more than that, illustrated that my colleagues, even those competing with me in their careers, were there for me in time of need.
The Yankees would continue that era of good feeling with a playoff run that defied description. The 2001 World Series with the Diamondbacksincluded two improbable comebacks for the Bronx Bombers which unfortunately ended in Phoenix with the home team beating Mariano Rivera in Game Seven to end the Yankees’ championship run.
As time went on, the sports world, like life in New York City, started to return to normal as I actually began to hear media members complain about the length of singing God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch. Security checks became the norm and entry in the baseball clubhouses became more scrutinized.
Remembering 9-11 became a concept that would unite the sports world in helping those affected by it. In many ways, no other industry has done more for it and, to this day, I think of September 11 every time I enter a ballpark.
That concept came full circle when I covered a Mets-Phillies game on May 5, 2011, as word spread across the ballpark that Osama Bin Laden had been captured and killed. In this new world (unlike 2001) we all had smartphones and received the news. I slumped back in my chair and did not know how to feel. This would not bring my friends back but it was a rightful conclusion to his life. I knew both political parties would use this for their own purposes but that meant little to me. The fact I heard this news in Philadelphia, where so much of the great history of our country began, felt appropriate.
But I also realized 9-11 changed the way we report on sports as athletes are becoming more involved in political issues. The media demands to get their take on these issues and I always found that to be silly. Athletes, actors, and singers have a voice but that voice is no more important than yours or mine. And social media has changed that. Kneeling during the anthem or explaining why they do has become a staple theme for the media. We report on sports—not burning social issues. Sometimes the lines cross and editors ask us to cross it even further.
And I think that concept was born during 9-11. I am not saying that is all bad or even wrong but it has changed the industry. If it points out things that socially need to be changed, then I suppose it is a positive. But gone forever is sports reporting being the toy department I described earlier in this chapter. Much like our world was forever changed on 9-11.