How Chicago's sports teams reacted to 9/11

The White Sox were the closest to the national tragedy.

How Chicago's sports teams reacted to 9/11

Saturday marks 20 years since 9/11, an anniversary that will cause us to pause and reflect on where we were that painful day.

It dawned on me yesterday that my first Cubs game as a credentialed media member came on September 9, 2001. I was working as a freelancer for The Northwest Herald and the assignment was a big one for someone who'd only graduated college a few months earlier.

The game wasn't out of the ordinary. The weather at Wrigley was great, the Cubs lost their fifth straight game to fall farther out of a playoff spot and Sammy Sosa hit his 54th home run of the season. I filed my story without incident. Everything felt great and like it was going according to plan.

Two days later, the world as we knew it shattered. I remember being shocked I still had to drive out to Crystal Lake Central that night to cover a volleyball game that somehow hadn't been canceled.

But most sports and school officials were in uncharted territory when it came to deciding on whether to play. While the pandemic accustomed us to postponements that lasted months, the closest playbook anyone had back then was the John F. Kennedy assassination almost 40 years earlier.

And yet it still took then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue almost two full days to avoid repeating what Pete Rozelle called the biggest mistake of his career (playing two days after JFK's death).

Here's how Chicago teams handled the tragedy.

  • The White Sox were closest to the story. They'd arrived in their Midtown NYC hotel the night before and were set to play the Yankees for a three-game series. At 74-70, they trailed Cleveland by eight games in the standings and were playing out the string. But it all became inconsequential as the Twin Towers fell (pitching coach Art Kusnyer was out on a walk when it happened) and then a suspicious package caused the evacuation of the team's hotel later that day. Bud Selig canceled that night's games almost immediately and the sport did not return until the following Monday. With all flights grounded, the Sox traveling party got on chartered buses to drive back to Chicago on the morning of Sept. 12. "The fact that we were there that day, it was something you're not really proud of, but it was something that will always stick with you," Paul Konerko told ESPN in 2011.
  • The Cubs had defeated the Reds at Wrigley Field on Sept. 10 to stop their losing streak and move to 78-65. They wouldn't play at home again until Sept. 27, when Sosa homered and produced one of his best memories — carrying a U.S. flag while circling the bases after hitting a home run. Though the Cubs were only one game out of the wild card spot on Sept. 11, they'd end the season 10-9 to finish 88-74 and miss the playoffs by five games.
  • The Bears were coming off a season-opening 17-6 loss to the defending champion Ravens in which Shane Matthews went 24-for-39 for 138 yards and two interceptions and two Paul Edinger field goals were the only offense. While Tagliabue said immediately that the New York and Washington teams wouldn't play that Sunday, it took until Thursday for the league to postpone the entire week 2 slate until the end of the season. Even then, some members of the Bears still wanted to play. "If we stop and let everything go, then the terrorists win," defensive coordinator Greg Blache told reporters. The Bears would return on Sept. 23 with Jim Miller under center and embark on a six-game winning streak that keyed a surprise 13-3 season.
  • The Blackhawks opened training camp as scheduled on Sept. 12 but the weekend's exhibitions were delayed. Dale Tallon paid tribute to friend Garnet "Ace" Bailey and Mark Bavis, who were with the Kings' scouting department and aboard United Flight 175, the second plane to hit the World Trade Center. Bavis had previously coached the Chicago Freeze junior hockey team based in Geneva.
  • The Bulls hadn't started preparing for the season, but the NBA was awash in rumors that Michael Jordan would be coming out of his second retirement. MJ finally announced his comeback on September 25 and donated his Wizards salary to 9/11 relief efforts.
  • Most local colleges postponed that weekend's football games, but Northwestern's contest with Navy was canceled outright. It was a tragic year for the Wildcats, who were still coping with the death of Rashidi Wheeler during a practice a month earlier.
  • Finally, the Fire playoff opener against Dallas didn't happen until September 20 at Soldier Field and I remember attending that game as a fan. Members of the Chicago Fire Department walked around soliciting donations with boots. When I threw my contribution in, I noticed that it was full. The Bob Bradley-led Fire ended that season in first place and beat Dallas in the opening series, but fell in the semifinals to the Galaxy.