Eric Nadel went for a walk Thursday.
He left the Rangers team hotel in San Francisco and ambled over to North Beach. After lunch with an old friend, he went to Pacific Heights to find the highest promontory he could. And when he got there, he wandered a little more. To 20 years ago.
It was there in Lafayette Park, overlooking Alcatraz and the Sausalito, that he spent much of the afternoon on September 11, 2001. Then, in the hours that followed the attack on America, he contemplated the future. On Thursday, he contemplated the past.
The Rangers are back in San Francisco, their home base for a series with Oakland, on this weekend anniversary of 9/11. Nadel, now 70, is the lone member of the original travel party who is back again. Those Rangers were stranded in San Francisco in the initial days after the attack, unsure of when they would play again, unsure when they would want to and unsure how they would get home.
“I just wanted to be by myself and experience feelings,” Nadel said during Thursday’s walk. “It feels weird. And it brings back the sadness. But, at the same time, there was an element of gratitude that I was spared the worst of the horrors that so many people endured. I was lucky.”
When the 2021 schedule was announced, Nadel, who grew up in New York, didn’t initially notice the confluence of date and location. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that it hit him. He acknowledged some encroaching feelings of “creepiness” as the anniversary approached. He said last week he’d rather the Rangers not be back in the same place.
It only got creepier. The Rangers still stay in the same hotel. And, as fate would have it, when he picked up his key after the team arrived Wednesday night, he noticed it was room No. 1280. It was the same room in which he’d been when he was awakened by a phone call from broadcast partner Vince Cotroneo that morning, urging him to turn on the TV. The room has been completely remodeled in the 20 years since.
“Of all the rooms,” he said. “It was just kind of shocking. I was very cognizant of the room. I got the envelope. I looked down and I just shock my head. It kind of spurred more curiosity than dread. An anticipatory curiosity. In a way, I guess I welcomed it. It’s been easy for me to escape all of this. I haven’t watched any documentaries about the anniversary. But I do want to remember. This will make me more aware of everything.”
In 2001, he sat there watching TV for a couple of hours. Until he couldn’t watch it anymore. Then he went for a walk. But so much has been lost to the years. He doesn’t recall how he got in touch with his sister, Laurie, who lived in the city, or his mother, who lived in Long Island. He recalls going to dinner with me, Cotroneo and Rangers VP John Blake, but not that the entire restaurant burst out into “God Bless America.”
“I think I was actually in shock all day,” he said. “I was a zombie.”
‘Everyone was in shock’
On Sept. 10, 2001, the Rangers began what was scheduled for a week-long road trip. Typical of the season, they headed out on the road with some good feelings after a walkoff win over Kansas City only to be drummed by an AL West opponent.
Only a ninth-inning homer by rookie Michael Young on the 10th kept them from being shut out by Oakland’s Barry Zito in the road-trip opener. They bussed back across the Bay Bridge to sleep off another loss in a season going nowhere.
By 6 a.m. PT the next morning, phones were ringing throughout the Westin St. Francis hotel.
Rookie Carlos Peña called Young.
“Turn on the TV,” said Peña, who grew up in Boston.
“What channel,” a groggy Young replied.
“It doesn’t matter.”
That’s the same exchange Rob Bell, a pitcher from Westchester County, N.Y., had when he called Frank Catalanotto, who grew up in Long Island. It was virtually the same from teammate to teammate or from somebody calling from home.
Young was traveling with his wife, Cristina Barbosa, at the time. They’d been married less than a year. Both grew up in California; both loved San Francisco. While Michael started his career in the Toronto organization, Cristina had studied at Columbia in Manhattan. San Francisco would be an easy late-season getaway.
“All I remember when the TV came on was smoke,” Young said. “We just sat there wondering and watching. We saw the second building collapse. We pretty much sat there in silence.”
They, too, watched TV until they couldn’t any longer. And then they went for a walk, also, around the city they so enjoyed roaming. Young remembers how slow the city had become. Even when people did venture outside, they spoke in hushed tones.
In the early hours after the attack, there was some concern that San Francisco might be a target with the TransAmerica Tower being an iconic landmark. Blake, the executive vice president of communications, the highest-ranking team official on the trip, and traveling secretary Chris Lyngos divided up the roster to check on every player.
What became very clear, very quickly was that there would be no baseball that night. And the eventual resumption of the schedule became a non-factor. MLB’s offices were in midtown Manhattan, not far from the World Trade Center.
Team owners were at a quarterly meeting in Milwaukee. As U.S. airspace was shut down, the reality of the situation hit owners: They, like teams across the country were stranded. Not even their private jets were allowed in the air. Some ownership representatives started to drive back. Seattle’s couldn’t get a rental car. They instead bought one.
“The mood was the same,” Blake said. “Everyone was in shock. Safety was the only priority. Most of our players wanted to go home. But we were stuck there.”
Indeed, one player’s wife was so upset with the situation, she called union chief Donald Fehr demanding to know why the Rangers couldn’t get their players home. Fehr patched the wife through to GM Doug Melvin.
“We were just on hold,” Melvin said last week. “There was nothing I could tell her. The commissioner’s office was stunned and worried about the safety of its people. We were stunned. We didn’t know who might be a potential target of an attack. Everybody wanted to get to the safest place. That became how to get home.”
The next step
For two days, the Rangers sat in San Francisco unsure of what their next step would be.
By the morning of the 13th, MLB still had not made a call on the weekend’s games. The Rangers were looking at either a 12-hour bus ride to Seattle to play games they didn’t want to play or a 30-ride bus ride home.
Players – and their families – were getting more anxious by the moment to be home. The Rangers finally boarded busses, unsure of whether they’d head north or south. They only knew they’d start out West toward I-5 and wait there to get word from MLB. Just as they were leaving the hotel, MLB issued the word: No games for the weekend. The Rangers would head home.
“Nobody wanted to go to Seattle,” said Jerry Narron, who had taken over as manager in May after Johnny Oates resigned. “One thing I remember is this: You know, MLB players have a very comfortable life, but there was not one person who complained about getting on the bus to drive 30 hours back home.”
But first a stop, at the Greyhound Station in downtown San Francisco. Hitting instructor Rudy Jaramillo, distraught over a death in the family unrelated to the 9/11 attacks, had decided before MLB rendered it’s decision that he was going home regardless. He’d gone to the bus station and was going to take a commercial bus back home.
The Rangers’ three-bus caravan pulled up in front of the station and Narron and Lyngos sprinted through the terminal to find Jaramillo. They came out with him. A relief. And the busses headed on. Everybody settled in for the ride.
Four hours in, as the bus neared Bakersfield, word started to spread that Lyngos, who passed away in 2016, might be able to secure a plane. U.S. airspace was starting to open to charters.
“I wasn’t holding my breath,” Young said.
But sure enough, the busses pulled into the Bakersfield airport in time to see an empty 757 touchdown.
“Even when I saw that I was still scared of what could happen,” Young said. “It just spoke to how everybody’s mentality had been changed.”
Three hours later, the Rangers touched down at DFW.
“All I can remember was the feeling of relief to be home,” Nadel said. “And the feeling of relief Jeannie [his wife] had when I called her to tell her we had landed.”
For Eric Nadel, who finds himself in the same exact spot he was 20 years ago, all those emotions and memories came flooding back this week.