Cory Aldridge joined the Atlanta Braves in 2001 as a September call-up in the middle of a tight pennant race. After an injury-plagued minor league season, the Braves hoped the experience would groom the rookie outfielder for a spot in next year’s lineup; however, just a few days into Aldridge’s major league career, the September 11th terrorist attacks suddenly brought any momentum he had to a screeching halt.
“I was very excited I got the call up,” Aldridge said during a recent phone interview. “I was hoping I’d get to see the field a little more when I first got there, but because of September 11th, I really sat there for almost two weeks without even doing anything. It wasn’t the glory that I wanted, but we’re also in the playoff race.”
The Morning Of September 11, 2001
Aldridge was in his downtown Atlanta hotel the morning of September 11, 2001, when he received a phone call from a friend to turn on the television. Minutes later his mother called telling him to do the same. After seeing the same image on multiple stations, Aldridge knew something was very wrong.
“That’s when I kind of put things together,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I tried to call my agent, and nothing was going through. Shortly after that I got a call from the Braves basically saying, ‘Hey, you’ve gotta get out of your hotel.’ Right next to my hotel was the CDC building, and [the Braves] were like, ‘Hey, you know all these federal buildings are being targeted.’”
Still fresh to the team in an era when cell phones and social media weren’t prevalent, the 22-year-old Aldridge quickly found himself isolated in a major city under the threat of a terrorist attack. Luckily, he had a friend nearby to stay with in the interim, but otherwise he felt like he was out of the loop.
“Nobody really knew what to do,” he said. “It wasn’t like social media and things like that, so everything was word of mouth and phone calls; there wasn’t any texting going on. You were getting calls from certain people telling you this is what’s gonna happen. I just remember [the Braves] basically just saying, ‘Hold tight, we’ll see what happens.’ Every other day on the news, there’s another threat here, another threat at the CDC, and I’m downtown trying to figure out if this building is going to get bombed. I was kind of in a scare of what was going to happen next.”
A Rookie’s Heavy Dose Of Reality
The 9/11 attacks and ensuing days of isolation revealed how low Aldridge and his fellow rookie call-ups were in the team’s pecking order. With everyone focused on their safety and the uncertainty of when baseball would return, Aldridge said he was almost an afterthought to the organization.
“When all that happened, there were so many other things more important than worrying about what the rookies were doing,” he said. “That’s what kind of sucked for a couple of other guys and me. It was like, ‘Okay, you guys are here, but there’s so many things right now that are superseding you guys at this moment.’ … It was like, we’re not really worried about you guys right now, because number one, we’re in a playoff race, 9/11 just happened, there’s security, and all these other things are way more important than making sure [we were taken care of].”
Not The New York He Saw In The Movies
When the Braves resumed practice a few days later, it gave Aldridge and his teammates a distraction from what was going on. There was still uncertainty that MLB would resume its season; however, that cleared up when MLB notified the Braves they would be playing the Mets on September 21, 2001, at Shea Stadium. The following trip to New York was a wake-up call for the rookie from Abilene, Texas.
“I think we flew to Philadelphia and drove to New York,” he said. “I just remember coming over the hill to New York; you could see the whole city and there’s really nobody outside. It was the weirdest thing ever. … My first real major league trip, and I expected to see what I’ve seen on every movie in my lifetime in New York, but nothing happened. There was really nobody outside; it was crazy, a ghost town.”
Watching the recent MLB Network documentary, Remembering the Game for New York, Aldridge relived the highly structured routine leading up to the September 21st game. He recalled entering the field with an ambiguity that clouded not only the game, but his safety as well.
“The morning of the game, I remember it was just weird,” he said. “Everything was just protocol. We had to be here at this time, versus everybody doing their own thing getting cabs and things like that. It was all protocol, security protocol, media, you’ve gotta be here and do this, but when we got to the field it was a surreal moment.
“We didn’t feel like we’re supposed to win. It just wasn’t the same. It was like we’re playing this game and putting a band aid on a huge wound, but it wasn’t the same as going out there saying I want to compete against these guys. It was more or less saying, ‘Hey, we’re not scared.’ I remember going to the stadium and being like, ‘Man, s—t, somebody could [do something].’ We were looking for planes in the sky, crazy stuff like that. It was 50,000 people there, but I just remember there were all kinds of guards, yet it didn’t really feel that safe.”
Aldridge Makes His Mark On The Historical Game
After an emotional opening ceremony and tribute, both teams took the field. For the next few hours, fans were caught up in the action of a 1-1 game, engaged in something other than the endless news cycle documenting the terror attacks. In the top of the eighth inning, Braves first baseman Julio Franco drew a two-out walk. Manager Bobby Cox summoned Aldridge to pinch run for the 42-year-old ageless wonder. He suddenly remembered the scouting report his teammates gave about the Mets’ pickoff play.
“They were always telling me they had a great pick off move at first,” he said. “Todd Zelie was playing first, and they were like, stay in his back pocket. Wherever he goes, you’ve gotta touch it. If you ever watch that game, you’ll see me with my hand on his back. Everywhere he moves, I’m moving. He’s getting pissed, ‘Why don’t you stop touching my butt?’”
Playing in just his third major league game, Aldridge was battling his nerves while representing the go-ahead run with two outs. After moving to second base on a Chipper Jones single, Brian Jordan stepped to the plate with a chance to bring Aldridge in to gain the edge.
“I was so nervous,” he said. “This is a huge game, my first real on the base action, like what is going on here? Chipper [Jones] got a hit, I remember it being two outs and I’m on second base. I was like man, I don’t care where this ball goes, I’m scoring. Back then I was fast. I remember feeling like I was the fastest person in the world coming around third base. I was going to score regardless, but I felt at that time, I was not getting out. … When Brian hit that ball, everything felt natural to me.”
Setting Up Mike Piazza To Steal The Show
Coming back to a dugout of high fives, Aldridge did his job, putting the Braves up 2-1 going into the bottom of the eighth. Out of the game, all he could do was hope his friend Steve Karsay could hold the lead. Even with the Queens native on the mound, he knew when Mike Piazza stepped to the plate with a runner on base, it was the perfect fit for a storybook ending.
“It was almost like when Piazza came up, it felt like everything was set up,” he said. “Before that, I remember the two non-called strikes. Those were good pitches. The guy probably should have been out, but I just feel like it was just set up for that to happen. The stars just lined up for the best player on their team, their star, to win that game.”
As the 50,000 in attendance and millions watching on television erupted over Piazza’s home run, Aldridge said it was one of the few times his teammates weren’t upset over the opposition succeeding.
“Nobody was really mad as far as our team,” he said. “It was like man, you guys deserve that. … The crowd just went crazy like, ‘We’re New York, what’s up!’ In the dugout, it really wasn’t that bad. I can’t explain the energy of it, but it was like, we’re back. The Twin Towers may be gone, but we’re back!”
The game signaled much more than baseball’s return; it was permission to start moving forward with life. Aldridge found it evident the next morning when meeting Jordan and Bernard Gilkey for breakfast. Stepping out of the hotel, he saw a pulse that was absent just days earlier when the team arrived.
“I remember going outside the next morning and people were outside,” he said. “Everything wasn’t necessarily back to normal, but people were outside. I remember that same night, I was in the hotel bar hanging out trying to see the city. It looked somewhat like what I had seen on TV. … That game opened up everybody to say, ‘Okay, it’s time to kind of get back to life.’”
Life Reflections 20 Years Post 9-11
Reflecting on the game twenty years later, Aldridge said the entire ordeal exposed how little he knew about the world outside of playing baseball.
“It made me understand how ignorant I was to the real world,” he said. “Now I’ve read a lot, I’ve experienced a lot and traveled a lot. I’ve been to multiple countries and played in multiple countries. I understand baseball, business, and life a lot differently. At that time, I didn’t really take baseball as serious as I should because I didn’t know any better. I was super young, from a small city and just didn’t have a lot of information.”
He can draw on those life experiences to put the game in its proper perspective, something he couldn’t do in the heavy moment of that situation.
“I look back at all the things I’ve been able to experience, now I can reflect on a lot of stuff totally differently than when I experienced it. I think of all the things when I was in New York and the things I saw. It’s an era of baseball that’s totally different now, but that’s something that will always be historic, to be there to witness and be a part of that game. That’s probably one of the most important games ever played. … I was seeing a lot of stuff, a lot of celebrities, important people that now I understand who they are. There were so many people we saw at that time that I can now understand possibly why they were there, or just the magnitude of them even being there. … Throughout my lifetime as far as baseball, I’ve been a part of some amazing things. As bad as September 11th was, I was definitely super fortunate to even be a part of that situation.”