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Friday, September 9, 2011
White Sox recall their 9/11 memories

By Doug Padilla
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- By any measure, the Chicago White Sox were a tired bunch when they pulled into Midtown Manhattan in the early-morning hours of Sept. 11, 2001.

They had just come from a 3-hour, 26-minute game in Cleveland that was exhausting enough, but made slightly less so by the fact that they had defeated the first-place Indians 7-1. Then there was the flight, not long, but late enough to be disorienting.

That all of it was coming late in a season that had been disappointing -- not unlike the current year -- brought its own level of weariness.

It would all seem so trivial in a few hours.

While the world was changing a mere 5 miles down the road from their hotel, almost everybody in the White Sox traveling party was still asleep, resting for the most bizarre, out-of-body 48-hour experience they might ever know.

They'll never forget

In 2001, Paul Konerko was a 25-year-old power hitter on the rise, entrusted with the cleanup spot in Jerry Manuel's lineup. He was being asked to mature at a rapid rate. It happened quicker than anybody expected, and that day in New York seems to have sped along the process.

KonerkoI think I'll remember Times Square that night being pretty much empty, which is something you'll never see. You know Times Square is always packed. It's got tons of people. That night, all the lights were on, but it was very empty, which was bizarre.

-- Paul Konerko

Like so many people with the White Sox in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, Konerko has a pristine recollection of that day. Ask him to break down a particular at-bat of his career, and he probably could do it but only because he has watched a tape of it dozens of times.

Konerko isn't so keen to play back the tape of that day in New York. He doesn't have to.

"To say it was not a good day would be an understatement," he said. "I remember it just being a nice day, as far as the weather and it was beautiful out, and seeing millions of people walking the streets, all with the same thought in mind, which was kind of an odd thing."

Konerko was witness to the first signs of a unity that was forming, not just in New York, but across the country and beyond. It's a unity the country still exhibits when it comes to one of the most tragic days in the nation's history, and Konerko was there to see it happen, although it didn't seem so uplifting at the time.

"I think I'll remember Times Square that night being pretty much empty, which is something you'll never see," Konerko said. "You know Times Square is always packed. It's got tons of people. That night, all the lights were on, but it was very empty, which was bizarre."

Some sights were so intriguing. Some sights you never want to see again.

"The fact that we were there that day, it was something you're really not proud of, but it was something that will always stick with you," Konerko said.

Mark Buehrle is the only other member of the White Sox's roster that day who still plays for the team. He was practically a baby at 22 years old and was made witness to something he struggled to understand.

"[I remember] just being freaked out and scared the whole time," Buehrle said. "Waking up in the morning, I remember Kip Wells called my room at 8 or 9 in the morning. I kind of yelled at him for calling me that early. I woke up and realized what was going on after turning the TV on."

The White Sox's hotel at Grand Central Terminal was in a straight line northeast of ground zero. It was unaffected by danger, or so it seemed. Smoke still could be seen from a distance. So close yet so helpless. So far away yet so afraid.

It certainly was close enough for everybody to be on high alert. So when a passenger jumped out of his taxi in front of Grand Central later that afternoon, not paying his fare and leaving a suspicious package behind, all necessary precautions were taken.

The White Sox's hotel was evacuated, as was Grand Central. The thousands of people standing on Lexington Avenue only added to the surreal setting of that day. The package in the cab turned out to be nothing.

There was no shortage of intensity that day.

"I met some guys in the lobby to see what was going on and what our plans were," Buehrle said. "We were just kind of hanging out with a couple of guys in the room and watching TV. I was freaked out.

"I remember going from one guy's room to my room, and I felt like someone was going to come out of a room or jump out of the staircase or something and attack you. It was just being tense for a couple of days."

Finding a way out

A Major League Baseball director of team travel has a thankless job in many ways.

Make sure the team charter is there waiting. Make sure everybody has a hotel room. Make sure all tickets requested get in the hands of those who need them. Those are just the obvious chores. Like an umpire, you're often noticed only when something goes wrong.

On Sept. 11, 2001, all eyes would have been on Ed Cassin had the White Sox's director of team travel not been holed up in his hotel room for the next 13 hours after his wife woke him up with news of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Operating on 2 1/2 hours of sleep, a deprivation caused by the team's 2 a.m. arrival and an inability to wind down afterward, Cassin was given his greatest test: Get the entire White Sox traveling party out of New York and back to Chicago as soon as possible when the airlines were grounded and vehicles were not being permitted on Manhattan.

Yankee Fan
Everyone at U.S. Cellular Field was a Yankees fan on Sept. 18, 2001, when baseball resumed following the 9/11 attacks.

"Every team has a resident security agent that works for MLB; it's a local law enforcement guy," Cassin said. "I worked through them, I worked through the Port Authority Police, I worked through the New York City Police, the New York State Police. All traffic was cut down coming into Manhattan. We had to get permission to get to buses to come onto Manhattan the next day, which was a pretty daunting task."

There were enough seats to handle not only everybody on the White Sox's charter, but all the family members who were in New York for the series with the Yankees. The White Sox were set to drive home, but because of logistics, they had to wait until the next morning.

By 9 p.m., Cassin had secured the final detail and was heading out for some fresh air.

"I went down to the hotel bar, and Bob Howry and Keith Foulke were there, and they kind of looked at me and said, 'Eddie, you look like hell,'" Cassin said. "They said, 'Come on, we're going to dinner. Let's have a steak dinner.'

"We walked out, and the corner of 42nd and Lexington, you could have shot a cannon down the street. There wasn't a soul out there in the middle of Midtown Manhattan. It was eerie."

Getting home

At 8 a.m. Sept. 12, the White Sox boarded buses for the ride home. All luggage was brought on board. The playing equipment -- bats, helmets, uniforms and the like -- was left behind at Yankee Stadium, and, quite frankly, nobody really cared.

The itinerary called for a drive straight to Cleveland, where the team would stay the night. They would finish the drive the next morning. It wasn't quite how things turned out.

"It was a very quiet ride," Cassin said. "We were on the Ohio Turnpike, and Jerry Manuel, the manager at the time, said, 'You know what, why don't we just go all the way to Chicago?'"

One problem: Bus drivers are supposed to be behind the wheel for only so long. So in yet another bizarre scene, the White Sox arranged for two buses to meet them on the turnpike. Everybody and everything was unloaded from the New York buses onto the Cleveland buses, and the team continued home.

The White Sox went straight to Midway Airport, where the team charter flights originate and where the players leave their cars.

"When I walked off the bus, I wanted to fall to my knees and kiss the ground of the parking lot, because honestly, if you were in New York at the time, you didn't know what was happening," Cassin said. "You felt, or at least I felt, that it may have been the end of the world. We didn't know. We honestly didn't know. I didn't think I'd ever see Chicago again."

Unified in Chicago

MLB didn't resume playing again until Sept. 18. As fate would have it, the Yankees were in Chicago to play the White Sox that night.

American flags of all sizes were visible. One sign spelled out a simple yet touching tribute, reading, "Chicago loves New York." White Sox fans cheered their players. White Sox fans cheered Yankees players.

It was a unifying place to be, but with so many people around, there was an instinctive uneasiness.

"Before that happened, I don't think anyone really thought about a baseball stadium or a sports arena being a target of something," Konerko said. "But after that, it definitely crosses your mind more any time you see something suspicious. Like every other person in the country, you see things in a different way than we saw before."

The White Sox traveled back to New York Oct. 1-3 to make up the games postponed by the attacks. Their only concession to the long, uneasy day they had spent in New York a month earlier was to move to a different hotel primarily because the memories of those 24 hours were so fresh.

The White Sox lost all three of those games to the Yankees.

"It seems like it was a long time ago, but as far as everything that happened, I can still picture standing in the lobby and walking down the street and going to dinner that night," Buehrle said. "Going up to [Keith] Ginter's room with him and his wife, hanging out and watching what was going on. I can picture everything as clear as can be."

Cassin remembers feelings as much as the scenery around him.

"With what I do for a living, I felt responsible," Cassin said. "That was my trip, and I was trying to get everybody back to Chicago and back safely. There was a ton of concern. You didn't know what was going to happen next.

"If you could honestly fly two planes into the World Trade Center, you can do anything. So what's the next move? I don't think we got over that feeling for a long time."

In many ways, nobody has gotten over that feeling to this day. With two young boys now, both born since the attacks, Konerko was asked how he will explain it to them one day.

"It will never be something that won't be talked about in the history of this country," Konerko said. "As long as the country is here, it's something that will be referred to and brought up. There's not a year that goes by where there won't be anniversary talk and all that stuff.

"As far as your family, we're no different than anyone who has family or kids. It's something that gets passed down, and the fact we were there on that day adds intrigue, but really we're no different than anyone who went through everything that you went through that day. It was a terrible day."

Doug Padilla covers the White Sox for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.