Bronx, NY: We were standing in the press box at Yankee Stadium where my brother Eric was calling the game for the Texas Rangers. Jason Giambi hit a home run and the young man standing next to me let out a whoop! Then, realizing where he was, he stopped. As we headed back to our seats, he said, "Thanks, Dr. Laurie. That was the first good thing that happened to me since my father was murdered."
We rejoined his brothers, a cousin, and about seven other teenage boys whose fathers had been killed in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Thanks to the New York Yankees' community relations director Rocky Halsey and Kevin Dart in special sales, we had great seats and special permission to escort two boys at a time into the press box during the game. It was a steamy night in May 2003 and I was coated with Bronx sweat and fumes from taking the boys up and down until the seventh inning stretch. A young man whose father happened to be at a meeting in the World Trade Center that day unfolded the American flag that had covered his dad's coffin. Without exchanging a word, four boys joined him in holding up the flag while everyone sang "God Bless America."
When I signed on to run an adolescent bereavement program at South Nassau Communities' Hospital's WTC Family Center in Rockville Centre on Long Island, I knew from having raised a teenager that reaching these kids would not be easy. The executive director of the program, Dr. Thomas Demaria, told me that three experts in adolescent bereavement had struck out before me. As I recall, he was hopeful but not encouraging about my prospects for success. Unlike adults who had lost a loved one on 9/11, teenagers were not going to sit in a circle and share their feelings with the group. Nor would they be willing to paint, draw, or write letters to God, like the nine-year old daughter of a New York City fireman whose letter was posted near the counseling center's front door: "Dear God," she had written. "Please give the people who hurt us a heart."
No one was more surprised than I to discover that the keys to healing for these 30-plus adolescents and young adults would be found at Yankee and Shea Stadiums. Nor was it my idea. My immediate supervisor, Dr. Minna Barrett, who had logged months of service at Ground Zero with Dr. Demaria, urged me to reach out to the Yankees and the Mets. I was skeptical. Een though Eric has been a radio announcer for the Texas Rangers since the team's first season in 1972, I was not a baseball fan.
But as I spent three baseball seasons, from 2003 to 2005, with the teens and young adults of 9/11, I began to wonder if there might be something magical in the nature of baseball that was allowing these young people who were emotionally closed off to open up to each other as friends who shared a tragedy.
On our bus rides from Rockville Centre to the stadiums, where the kids came to be welcomed by New York Yankees manager Joe Torre and New York Mets manager Omar Minaya, I began to see how 9/11 and baseball were inextricably linked. One of the biggest losses that these young people felt keenly was not being able to go to the ballpark with their dads. The younger boys and some of the girls were also missing their fathers' support at their Little League games and after school when their dads would practice batting and catching with them before dinner. When the young men in their 20s offered to start a regular baseball coaching program for the pre-teens, I knew we had turned a corner. Having disconnected emotionally to protect themselves from feeling what must have seemed like bottomless pain, they were reaching out to each other through their love of baseball. "I didn't know how I would go on," said the young man who had cheered for Jason Giambi. "But I see now that 9/11 wasn't an end; it was a beginning."
In the past six years since my program ended, many of the kids have stayed in touch. Some are in college; others are now following in their fathers' footsteps with responsible jobs and young families. One boy, whose father went to work earlier than usual on September 11, 2001 so that he could get home in time to attend his son's Little League game, took time off from college to attend a diving instructors' program in Thailand. Recently he told me, "What I learned from 9/11 is that what you love can be taken away in an instant. So you have to grab each day and make the most of it."
Whenever we touch base, I like to ask these young men and women whose lives I was privileged to share, what it was about baseball that drew us together and gave them a new sense of hope. Here are some of their insights. (We picked nine for obvious reasons.)
"Life, like baseball, is an unpredictable game."
"In the game of life, as in baseball, injuries and hardships are inevitable."
"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you get rained out."
"You have to step up to the plate. Even when you don't feel like it."
"Loss doesn't make you a loser. You can use your losses to get stronger."
"You need to believe in yourself. Even when others don't."
"No matter how good you are, you can't control everything."
"Both baseball and life are team sports."
"The spirit of baseball is a spirit of hope and renewal. There's always another game. Another season. A new tomorrow."