On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was fast asleep in a dorm room in Philadelphia. I’d been up late the night before, watching the Giants play the Broncos on Monday Night Football, and baking chocolate chip cookies that I planned to bring up to New York the next day, to share in the press box at Game 2 of the best-of-three New York-Penn League championship series between the Brooklyn Cyclones and Williamsport Crosscutters.
I remember my alarm clock sounding, and hearing someone on the radio say “the chaos in New York” as I turned the alarm off. I don’t know how much later it was that my roommate pounded on my door to wake me up, but by the time I got out of bed, both towers of the World Trade Center had gone down, and we lived in a totally different world than we did the night before.
That summer, between my junior and senior years of college, I worked for the Brooklyn Eagle, covering the Cyclones in their inaugural season. It was an incredible three months, starting with Mike Jacobs’ walkoff sacrifice fly in the home opener, all the way through a playoff semifinal with the Staten Island Yankees, won by Brooklyn in a dramatic deciding game in which catcher Brett Kay deked Jason Turner into not sliding home with the tying run in the seventh, then put the game away with a homer in the eighth.
The Cyclones headed off to Pennsylvania to start the finals in Williamsport, with Games 2 and 3, if necessary, set to be played back in Brooklyn. I headed to the start of my senior year at Penn, planning to return home to cover the end of the season.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, most of the Cyclones were fast asleep in New York. They’d been up late the night before, winning Game 1 against the Crosscutters to come home needing just one win in two games, at a ballpark where they’d gone 30-8 in the regular season, to take the title.
“It was 2 in the morning when we got back,” remembered Kay, who shared an apartment in Manhattan with a friend for that summer. “I’m like, I’m not taking the F or the N train, by myself, back. That’s not happening.”
Five or six of the Cyclones were staying with a host family across the Verrazano Bridge from Brooklyn, while other players, who had spent most of the summer at either Xaverian High School or in dorms at St. John’s University, were at a JFK airport hotel as those schools had returned to session. Kay headed to Staten Island and an extra bed there.
“The host dad woke us up, and there was a bullet on the breakfast table,” said Kay, now the head baseball coach and assistant athletic director at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. “And I’m like, what the shit is going on?”
Ross Peeples, the Cyclones’ ace that summer and the winning pitcher in the semifinal clincher, lived in the Staten Island house and checked his still-novel cell phone when he woke up. There were 17 messages.
“The host daddy came upstairs and got all of us up, and said, you’ve got to come out to the living room,” Peeples said. “We went in there and turned on the TV, and started watching the news and saw everything that was going on. I’ll never forget it. We actually walked to the bay, because we were two blocks from the bay, and we saw the buildings go down. You could see it. They just come tumbling down, and right when they hit, I mean, like the dust, the clouds, the smoke, and everything, it just spread out and covered almost the whole city.”
The bullet made sense. There was no use for it, but now its appearance made sense.
What happened that morning was shattering. Lives and families, shattered. Buildings, shattered. Any sense of what was normal before, shattered. The shattering of an incredible summer is galactically less important, but it’s still quite real.
Kat Seelig, now an associate producer on ESPN’s First Take, covered New York’s minor league teams in the summer of 2001 for WFUV, the radio station at Fordham, where she was a student. As the two college kids coming out daily to work Cyclones and Staten Island Yankees game, we became friends and commuting buddies, whether on the long train ride back from Coney Island or the Staten Island Ferry.
“It was an amazing summer, and it somehow feels unreal,” Seelig said. “Because of the way it ended. It feels like that summer couldn’t have happened, especially because of how many times we were on the ferry. I’ve never been on the ferry more times in my life than that summer, and every time, we’d go out to the deck on the ferry as it docked and you’d get this beautiful view of the city. Now, the ferry is one of my favorite free things in New York, you know, and you go and it’s like, this is different.
“That thing I remember doesn’t exist anymore, in a giant way that I didn’t believe was possible, that you never even would have imagined was possible. So, now it feels like other things maybe didn’t exist, like that summer couldn’t have happened. It happened. I have recordings from it, all those things are true, but, like, maybe it didn’t happen. There was no championship. The skyline isn’t the one we saw every night. Maybe it’s just not real, like something from before and before doesn’t fit with now.”
The immediate past became the distant, almost-impossible-to-imagine past, while the present and future became terribly uncertain. We think of 9/11 now, 20 years later, and of course remember the nearly 3,000 deaths, the heroes who stopped that figure from being even higher, and the changes in the world that resulted from the terror. But there was more than that. There was the bullet on the breakfast table in Staten Island, and days of uncertainty that followed, as nobody knew then that the plane hijackings and crashes were a singular event, rather than the beginning of something even worse.
“I’ll tell you what, you forgot baseball,” said Peeples, now the manager of the Lancaster Barnstormers in the Atlantic League. “You realize there’s a lot more in this world than the game of baseball. There’s not one time I thought about baseball, you know? We didn’t know what was going on. We were just told to stay put, and you’re gonna be stuck where you are for a couple of days. Nobody’s flying out, nobody’s doing nothing. So, we hear the word, like the third day, that they’re canceling it.
“But in between that time, when we were waiting to see what was going to happen, not a baseball game or anything did we think about. It was crazy. It’s tough to explain until you’re in that situation and you don’t know. We sat there. We literally sat there for two to three days, and I don’t even know if we talked to each other in the same house. We just sat in grief and shock. What happened?”
The Cyclones and Crosscutters were named co-champions of the New York-Penn League.
The dynamic with Staten Island was a big part of the Cyclones’ summer of 2001. The Yankees were their arch-rivals not only because of proximity and the Mets and Yankees affiliations, but because they were the two best teams in the New York-Penn League — although they met in the semifinals, Staten Island was two games better than Williamsport. There also were friendships across the rivalry, as Aaron Rifkin was one of Staten Island’s top hitters, while his Cal State Fullerton teammates, Kay and Dave Bacani, were big pieces of Brooklyn’s first-place finish.
Bacani was at the airport hotel at JFK and had a similar experience to his teammates on the morning of the 11th, waking up to pounding on his door and someone saying “you gotta turn on the fucking TV.” After seeing the towers go down, Bacani was able to get hold of a friend who played football at Hofstra to come pick him up and get to Long Island and a greater feeling of safety than being at the literal airport on 9/11.
“It was just chaos,” Bacani said. “It was cars driving across medians. People obviously couldn’t get anywhere going toward the city. So, people were turning around on the highway. And that was just so surreal. We just end up going back to my buddy’s house, back at Hofstra, and waited to hear what was going to happen. Eventually we got the word that they named us co-champs, and like, obviously we felt we deserved it after winning Game 1, but there was no pushback. It was just like, dude, this is craziness. The whole mindset, everybody just wanted to be with their loved ones, and we’re 3,000 miles away.”
The chaos of everyone trying to get where they needed to be was overwhelming, but also different than anything anyone had ever experienced in New York. After a summer of being cheered nightly by packed houses of 8,000 fans in Brooklyn, the Cyclones’ time in the city ended in near silence in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
“The whole day, we could have heard a pin drop,” Peeples said. “Wherever you were in New York, I mean, it was everybody. You didn’t know what to do. You really could’ve heard a pin drop. There was nobody talking, because everybody was in shock. I mean, I will never forget it, it was just unbelievable.”
The stunned silence persisted into the next day, when Kay and Peeples drove to Manhattan to get Kay’s belongings out of the Chelsea apartment. They left at 8:30 in the morning and didn’t get back to Staten Island until 6 p.m.
“I was between 7th and 8th [Avenues] on 20th or 21st [Street], something like that,” Kay said. “And you could see the debris. Everything around us was just chaos. … We still hadn’t comprehended it all. What do we do? Some of us were going to [instructional league in Florida], and we’re supposed to be leaving in a day. And, to this day, we’re 21, 22-year-old kids, we didn’t know what the hell to do with ourselves, with what had just happened, and people had lost their lives. Baseball was important, but not important.”
The importance was in baseball getting through it as a family, and eventually representing markers along the road of a return to something approaching normal. There was the game when baseball returned to New York on Sept. 21 and Mike Piazza hit a dramatic homer to beat Atlanta, and there was George W. Bush’s memorable first pitch at the World Series.
“It helped bring everyone together,” Kay said.
Even as people came together, there were signs of things falling apart. Bacani heard on Long Island about a Hofstra student being beaten up because he looked Middle Eastern.
“I remember being like, oh my gosh, dude, things are absolutely crazy right now,” Bacani said. “And I just couldn’t wait. I was just like, I didn’t feel safe in New York.”
Bacani and several other players made their way out of town a few days later, given rental vans by the Mets to drive down to Port St. Lucie for instructional ball, as it was clear nobody was about to be getting on a plane.
The Cyclones got championship rings for their achievements in 2001, and the rings are themselves a riddle. How do you remember that year? Is it possible to separate the magic of the three month season from the tragic way it ended, or does 9/11 make the entire memory bittersweet at best?
I’ve grappled with that question for the last 20 years, and it turns out that there isn’t a right answer. It’s personal to everyone who went through it.
“I can definitely separate it,” said Bacani, now a career coach working with athletes on their post-sports lives. “We built a bond. I mean, to this day, I still keep in touch with a lot of those guys. Yes, I remember 9/11 vividly, but the bond we built together, it carried on. A bunch of us played together in Columbia, South Carolina, the next year, and we went to the playoffs, and went to the finals in 2003 in St. Lucie. We won a championship together. So, I can separate how it ended versus the relationships I was able to build with that core group of guys.”
For Kay, the trauma of 9/11 was harder to extricate. He didn’t get on a plane for more than a decade afterward, but there was still so much special stuff in that summer when the Cyclones were a sensation that it can’t be totally overshadowed by the tragic ending.
“These are my brothers,” Kay said. “And I know these are really lifelong relationships that we’ve done great with. And you know, we can relive the good times and obviously the rough times. I still consider it, obviously aside from getting married and my two children being born, I had some of the most prominent moments of my life in that summer, what we experienced, what I experienced. Living in Chelsea, going on MTV TRL Live, Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn and a Harper’s Bazaar magazine shoot with Spike Lee and models. And the fact that we were just an ass-kicking bunch of guys that wouldn’t lose. We played as a team, more than any team I ever played for, and the individual success took a back seat. … It was just such an experience and nothing is ever going to replace that.”
Peeples was 9-3 with a 1.34 ERA that season, and only gave up one homer in 80.1 innings. It was by far his best year in professional baseball, and he kept playing until 2014, spending 10 years with Lancaster as a player on his way to becoming the Barnstormers’ skipper. But the baseball of 2001 takes such a back seat in his mind, he couldn’t remember whether he or D.J. Mattox pitched Game 1 in Williamsport the night before 9/11 — it was Mattox, as Peeples pitched that decisive semifinal game against Staten Island.
“Nope, nope, nope,” Peeples said. “Can’t do it. You can’t do it. I mean, I can picture different experiences, different things that happened that year, but there’s not one time I think about the 2001 season that 9/11 isn’t on my mind, and one of the first things on my mind. It’s not the championship we won, not the ring we got. It’s September 11.”
The players all had their own feelings, their own experiences, their own connections forged with New York in the brief time they were here. It makes sense that they would have different thoughts about how to handle the memory of 9/11 in contrast to the memory of the summer of 2001.
As a New Yorker, Seelig’s experience was also different from the young men who arrived a few months before the attacks and left shortly afterward. She went through Grand Central every day on the way to school and remembered “the hallways covered with posters of the missing.”
“It wasn’t, here, three days, and this is a bad time in your life, and then you moved on,” Seelig said. “September 11 in New York lasted for months. It didn’t just end.”
By the time I got home a week and a half later, to cover a Bucknell-Columbia football game, the Cyclones were gone, but it was true: September 11 was still happening. The rotten smell of burning still hung in the air, as the fires lasted for more than three months after the attack. The city was still in a daze. And it was then that my feelings shifted from uncertainty and fear to a kind of guilt about not having been in my hometown to help in even the smallest way during our darkest hour.
We all experienced it differently, just as everyone has had both a communal experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and an individual one, from taking up new hobbies in quiet solitude, to searing the sound of constant ambulance sirens into our minds, to trying to manage kids through remote school, to losing loved ones or suffering long-haul effects of the virus with no end in sight.
Twenty years after 9/11, it’s still not easy to talk about. There’s a lot of deep breaths amid the recollections, a lot of emotion in mentally going back to that time. Some of those parts are the same for everyone. The story of the 2001 Cyclones is that we all also go through a massive, collective experience as individuals.
Bacani got his championship ring out in the middle of talking about it. Peeples’ ring is with his father in Georgia. They definitely earned that hardware, but also never got to celebrate a title on the field. And to this day, they walk together as champions unlike any others, after a season unlike any other, with an ending that we can only hope will forever be unlike any other.