September 11, 2001 was the first day off I had since July from my job at PNC Park. It wasn’t a job I loved by any means, but it was a day job that kept me busy while I tried to figure out the big question of what I was going to do with my life.

The plan had been to fly to New York after work on September 10, be there for the first table reading of my friend Josh‘s film CANCER CITY, fly back that night and be back at work on September 12. September 10 came and I was too tired from the job that required me to be at the stadium at 5:45 in the morning nearly every day and stay right through the first few innings of each game, so I called off my trip, promising to be there for the next read through.

What my September 11, 2001 was like is of little consequence other than confirming my friend Jeremy was still alive and calling the stadium when the news reported there was a plane missing around Pittsburgh. I reached Kevin, one of my bosses who told me they were shutting down the building and evacuating as soon as possible. It was impossible to go to sleep that night, but I forced myself to go to bed knowing I had to be up for the 4:45 a.m. trolley that would take me downtown to my daily solitary walk across the Clemente Bridge, down the river walk, ending at the employee entrance at the far side of the ballpark.

At 5:45 a.m., PNC Park was locked up tight as a drum. I stood outside the employee entrance with the concessions warehouse manager and Adrianna, an employee who worked at the stadium newsstand which was due to open at 6. No one had told us not to come, so we waited. After a bit one of the stadium security guys stuck his head out the door and said they had been told not to let anyone in. So we kept waiting outside, holding the doughnuts and newspapers that were delivered to the newsstand every morning, including that one. No one told the printers, bakers and drivers not to go to work either. The concessions manager worried about his larger game day shipments showing up before the docks were reopened as the warehouse crew began to filter in for their shifts. After about a half an hour out in the cold, we were finally let in the park and allowed to go about our work. I bought one of the New York Times I’d been holding earlier from the newsstand and tucked it away to read when I had a spare minute later in the day. Everyone just kept moving.

Baseball was canceled and we didn’t know when it would be back. The stadium was empty save the day-to-day employees who were still busy even without the games being played. I don’t recall if it was that day or the next that the Pirates held an on-field prayer service at mid-afternoon for anyone in the stadium who wanted to come. It seemed odd to me to pray in a ballpark, not for anything real at least, so I kept my own meditations private and went about my work. We still didn’t know when baseball would be back and we had to be ready.

Over the inaugural season at PNC I got to know one of the ballpark architects who stayed all summer to work through the stadium punch list with the construction company. Ali. Ali was a small, kind, shy man who had asked Adrianna at the newsstand when he got his morning coffee why I didn’t wear a ring even though I had a boyfriend, why I wasn’t married. I’d run around between the shops all day while he walked around with blueprints and a foreman looking at cracks in the cement, walls, bolts and everything else that settled as PNC Park made the dirt beneath it its own. I learned his family had fled Iran in 1979, he liked Pittsburgh but he was looking forward to his next two projects working on the proposed expansion of Wrigley Field and then the new stadium they were building in London. A few days after September 11, something wasn’t right with Ali and there was an extra person walking around with him and the foreman. He seemed sad, distant. The foreman later told me that while Ali was out to dinner after the attacks, he had been harassed and threatened by some locals so they had hired him a guard. Ali no longer liked Pittsburgh and was going to leave for his next assignment as soon as possible. I was heartbroken for my friend and mortified for my city.

Baseball was coming back. Stadium security became strict. My other boss George had been put in charge of making sure every single vendor, security guard, maintenance worker, cleaning crew member and all the other various stadium staff had an American flag pin to wear as part of their uniforms. It took endless calls to countless vendors to find American flag pins to outfit the staff. None of our usual suppliers had enough American flag pins they could get to us in time for the return of baseball there had been such a run on patriotism. Eventually he found a seller who said they could get us the pins the day before the game, so an order was placed. The American flag pins they sent us were awful. Cheap, tin flags missing some stars and stripes stuck on tiny safety pins, that is, the ones that were not broken completely in two. George just stared at the box of dusty pins that probably had been buried in a warehouse for years, if not decades. He picked up a bag and shook his head at me in disbelief. He was exasperated. George had a rather thankless job of making the retail union vendors and cashiers happy, trying to meet sales goals for a team that would lose a hundred games that season and satisfy both his Aramark bosses and the Pirates management. The staff’s lack of bright, shiny patriotism was going to be his fault.

The first game back for the Pittsburgh Pirates was against the New York Mets. Security was now forcing everyone to go through the same entrance, from the janitors to the players. Everyone had to show ID. I had run out to our shop on the outside of the park which didn’t have a door to the interior concourse, so I had to go all the way back through security a second time, but this time I was going through just as the players started to arrive. Mike Piazza teared up as he was asked for his identification and shook hands with every person working his security line. Some nameless Pirates behind me balked at needing to identify themselves, saying they should be known at their own park. I had worked there all season long merchandising jerseys with players names on them, been a Pirate fan since I was a kid and I couldn’t have told you who these particular Pirates were, and now they were taking the field as heroes for playing a game.

I don’t think any of the guests at that first game after September 11 cared about the sub-par American flag pins. I don’t recall much of the baseball season after that game, other than we got new flag pins at some point. My job moved over to Mellon Arena where they already had American flag pins. I shared an office under the concourse with my new boss that was sniffed by bomb dogs my first day there for an event. Sometime during the hockey season the bomb dogs either stopped searching the arena or I stopped noticing them.

There was a rather bizarre disconnect working around sports in the year following September 11. It was as if being in a large venue with tens of thousands of people while being warned that a group so large would automatically be a terrorist target amped up the displays of patriotism even further than what was going on elsewhere in the community. Or maybe it was because a stadium or an arena full of people suddenly became a community to rally around. Even before September 11 I had boiled down my job to nothing more than foam finger processing, but now it was foam finger processing for games everyone was trying to give extraordinary meaning to. It felt shallow and sad, if not a bit ludicrous. As the year went on, the act of acknowledging the tragedy at almost every sporting event started to feel as tinny and cheap as the first American flag pins. There was real pain in the country, and you were going to be reminded of it by the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL each chance they got.

Up until then I had believed that sports helped define the larger narrative of the country and maybe even the world. Now I take a smaller view, that individual teams and players can sometimes move a city, but the overall place of professional sports does not hold as vaunted of a spot in the pantheon of society as their respective ownership would have you believe. Of course fans would reach out to sports for familiar comfort and distraction, but as time went on it became sports paternalistically telling fans to come together under their roof instead of just being there to help the community heal in its own time. Sports needed fans to need them in a perverse way that went beyond a game, some nachos and a beer. The continually manufactured gravitas kept them relevant in a difficult year.

After hearing the NFL had scheduled the September 11, 2011 games specifically in New York and Washington D.C. so as to be close as possible to the crash sites while putting the Steelers in Baltimore and mentioning the distance to Pittsburgh to wear Flight 93 went down, I couldn’t help but be a little offended at what the league was conveying about their plans to mark this terrible anniversary. The National Football League is not going to bring back the Twin Towers, fix the Pentagon or make whole the field outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. They’re not going to cure the illnesses the first responders are still suffering from, take away the nightmares of all that witnessed the horror or make families whole again.

Where the games take place this Sunday is irrelevant, the entire country suffered on September 11 and continues to bear the pain of multiple wars borne out of that one day. Ten years ago it made sense for sports to be a part of what we thought was going to be a single tragedy unifying the nation, but as the decade has worn on our nation’s heart has suffered one heartbreaking turn after another. For the league to position itself as part of the national narrative this weekend feels manipulative and false, especially when framed by visuals of burning buildings and downed airplanes of actual war.

The league shouldn’t ignore the anniversary of September 11, but my hope is that whatever the NFL has planned for their presentations on Sunday, it is respectful of the fact that people are still dying ten years later and all the American flag pins in the world are not going to bring them back.



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6 Responses to September 11, PNC Park, American Flag Pins and Football

  1. Ally Garner says:

    I’ll be honest, I haven’t really kept up with what the NFL’s plans are. I’m still a little incensed about the lockout frankly. So if I’m reading this right, the NFL wants to convince me that after months of bickering between greedy millionaire players and even greedier millionaire/billionaire owners (in a horrific economy), that now they’re concerned about Americans who’ve suffered terrible losses since 9/11? That somehow an NFL game involving those factions brings about comfort & patriotism? Okay. Sure.

    Sarah, you’re an incredibly talented writer. Thanks for sharing your perspective and memories. I think this sentence was my favorite: “Everyone just kept moving.” Amen.

    • sarah sprague says:

      Thanks for the compliment, Ally.

      As much as I love football, I don’t always love how the NFL (or any other league, notably Major League Baseball) projects an image that they’re the common touchstone for the American people and they unite everyone together. They’re not. This is an incredibly diverse country and what is patriotic to one person may not be patriotic to the next, and neither one of those people are wrong.

      For me, it just seems distasteful to plan entertainment events around a tragedy. (The only thing that compares in my mind is the world premiere party for Michael Bay’s PEARL HARBOR that was actually held at Pearl Harbor.)

  2. Ryan Burns says:

    Very much appreciate you sharing this, Sarah. Enjoyed the read. My only point of contention as I’ve gotten through the comments is that I would disagree that football doesn’t unite people. Nothing can unite “everyone,” of course, but football (and sports or other such public gatherings) can, and do, unite people of very diverse backgrounds and social standings, even if only temporarily. Those three hours where I have something in common with the man or woman in the next seat aren’t totally trivial to me. I enjoy that human element. Similar to a concert to me- I have met and interacted with so many people that I otherwise would not. I refuse to discard as meaningless those experiences merely because they come attendant to something that, ultimately, IS meaningless. I am certainly uncomfortable when any entity- NFL, political party, whatever- wraps itself in the stars and stripes and attempts to position itself as the authority or barometer on patriotism and love of country. But I’ve seen it happen too many times to believe football cannot bring people (even if not “all” the people) together. The game itself is absolutely trivial. But it can also be, and always has been for me, a celebration of things that are very much not. Just my two cents. Thanks again for sharing.

    • sarah sprague says:

      A fair criticism and I agree with you about the community of shared experiences. I should have been clearer in my comment, as I meant it to be about my friends who not only don’t like sports, they actively loathe it. I’ve heard people say to them, “But not liking baseball is un-American,” as if their lack of interest makes them lesser citizens.

      What unites us is that we’re all Americans. Nothing more, and nothing more is needed.

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