Memories of Chicago Cubs and how they handled 9/11

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa carries the American flag Thursday, Sept. 27, 2001 as he rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Houston Astros in the first inning at Wrigley Field in Chicago. It was the Cubs' first home game since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11.

    Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa carries the American flag Thursday, Sept. 27, 2001 as he rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Houston Astros in the first inning at Wrigley Field in Chicago. It was the Cubs' first home game since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11.

 
 
Updated 9/11/2019 6:32 PM

On the night of Sept. 10, 2001, Chicago Cubs president Andy MacPhail summoned the newspaper beat writers to his office.

MacPhail wanted to get some talking points -- some very forceful points -- into the public discussion about the Cubs' escalating battle with the neighborhood rooftop owners.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

We returned to the press box satisfied that we had a "talker" of a story for the next morning's radio shows.

Of course, the next morning was Sept. 11, 2001, and by midmorning, the Cubs' spat with the rooftop owners was rendered trivial at best.

The Cubs had beaten the Cincinnati Reds on Monday night, but that would be the last baseball they'd play until Sept. 18.

As the shock of 9/11 was just setting in, I called MacPhail at his Wrigley Field office. I had known Andy since 1994, when he was named the Cubs' new president, and we enjoyed (and still enjoy) a good personal rapport, even though we could spar over my coverage of his team.

I knew he would have the right grasp of things and speak in the right tones, given his place in baseball history and his appreciation and knowledge of history in general.

"Today, we're all in a state of shock," MacPhail said on 9/11.

The rest of the ballpark was quiet. No players reported, even to take any treatment from the athletic-training staff.

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"We thought it would be best to keep people away from the park today," said MacPhail, the scion of baseball royalty. His grandfather was flamboyant executive Larry MacPhail and his father was the more measured executive and former American League president Lee MacPhail.

On Sept. 11, 2001, nobody was sure what was going to happen with Major League Baseball.

"We don't know what the schedule will be for tomorrow," MacPhail said on 9/11." I think we have to go with the events and do what is appropriate at the time. There's no blueprint for this. You do the best you can."

MacPhail revealed he had spoken with baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who made the decision to cancel that day's games.

"I've talked with Don (Baylor, the Cubs manager) and neither one of us thought we would accomplish anything by bringing players in," MacPhail said. "With the magnitude of events, baseball is not important right now. There will come a time when it will be, and we will do what's appropriate then. I've talked with Bud a couple of times. He's a bit of a historian himself. He's cognizant of doing the right thing."

The Cubs held a voluntary workout at Wrigley Field on Sept. 13. The day was surreal, as I wrote:

"When Wrigley Field should have been filling up with fans anticipating a Thursday afternoon ballgame, the only sound breaking the eerie silence came from the flags whipping in the wind high atop the stadium.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Old Glory itself flew alone at half-staff atop the center-field scoreboard, where the colorful pennants of all National League teams also usually fly.

"The information on the board was frozen where it was at the end of Monday night's game, a seemingly long-ago 8-2 Cubs victory over the Cincinnati Reds."

The Cubs embarked on a road trip to Cincinnati, Houston and Pittsburgh the next week. With air-travel schedules uncertain, three of us writers piled into a rental car and headed to Cincinnati. MacPhail invited the writers onto the team charter to Houston.

Things then got personal for me. When the team was in Pittsburgh, Cubs media-relations director Sharon Pannozzo called me over and said she needed to talk with me. She said the Cubs wanted catcher Joe Girardi to address the crowd when the Cubs got home. They had given him some remarks, but Girardi didn't like them.

"Would you help Joe?" Sharon asked.

Given the spirit of the country at the time, I was glad to erase the line between player and reporter and pitch in.

So I hand wrote some remarks in my reporter's notebook and handed them to Joe. I said, "Change whatever you like." I waited. He read them and said, "I'm not changing a word."

Joe stood before the Wrigley Field crowd of 38,154 on Sept. 28 and knocked it out of the park. After the game, Joe came up to me and we shook hands. It's rare for players and writers to collaborate, but I like to think I did my small part. Joe did add his own touches to the speech and made what I offered him much better.

The Cubs' tribute to first responders that night was pitch-perfect, starting with then-marketing chief John McDonough, who oversaw the touching pregame ceremonies.

The Cubs lost the ballgame to the Houston Astros, but Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, still at the height of his popularity in Chicago, put the perfect capper on the evening.

With the backdrop of buildings around Wrigley draped in American flags, Sosa ran out to right field carrying a small flag. With seemingly uncanny timing, Sosa homered in the first inning. First-base coach and Hall of Famer Billy Williams handed Sosa another small flag to carry around the bases.

During a conversation last year, Billy told me the story of the flag.

"A lot of people don't know how he got that flag," he said. "After 9/11, we came back to play, and of course we had it planned because he was hitting home runs so frequently. The wind was blowing in that night. I didn't think the ball was going to go out.

"I had the flag down in my sock. When Sammy hit the home run, I was looking at the ball out in right field, and Sammy was getting close. The wind was blowing in and Sammy was getting close. I was looking at the ball again. I had to reach down quick and give it to him. By that time, the people had (followed) the ball. They didn't see me give Sammy the flag. It was really neat. When he ran around the bases, he had the flag in his hand. After the game, I got Sammy to sign the flag, and I still have it at home."

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