Yesterday, while Roy Halladay was pitching the second no-hitter in postseason history, I was reminded of one of the most historic games I ever saw.
The date was October 7, 2001, nine years ago today, and less than a month after the tragedy of 9/11.
Tony Gwynn, one of baseball’s true “good guys” was scheduled to appear in the final game of his career that day in San Diego. His teammate Rickey Henderson was sitting on 2,999 career hits that morning, with a chance at joining the 3000-hit club during the same game.
The so-called “War On Terror” began that day, when the United States and Britain launched air strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Like the rest of America, I was still getting my land-legs back after the Twin Towers disaster. I had recently been culled from the Disney herd when caught in the wake of their post-9/11 layoffs. I had a big severance check in my pocket, and no place I had to be.
The game was completely sold out. I was three hours away in Pasadena debating whether the chance at seeing history was worth the possible frustration of walking away disappointed if I couldn’t scalp a ticket. I had to try.
The 5 Freeway was forgiving that morning, and I made it to Qualcomm in record time. The game was still a good half-hour away from starting when I arrived and I lucked out when the Padres scheduled a special pre-game tribute to the troops, which gave me a few precious added minutes to land a ticket. I knew that Rickey would be the lead-off hitter at the bottom of the first, so the clock was ticking. But no one was selling.
I found myself alone in the parking lot hearing the national anthem being sung from inside and the crowd’s response to the military fly-over that started the game.
The Padres were playing the Colorado Rockies that day and I heard the PA announcer introduce their first three batters who were relieved in order. It looked like I was out of luck.
Just then a pair of Japanese tourists approached me and in broken English said, “Ticket?”
I tried to explain that I needed one myself. With a confused look they produced a ticket. I realized they were actually trying to sell me a ticket, and asked how much. They said, “No, for you,” then forced the ticket into my hand, and walked away, refusing any payment.
I sprinted into the gate as the announcer introduced Rickey Henderson to a deafening applause. My free ticket was for a seat right behind the first base dugout, and I appeared in the walkway and caught a glimpse of Rickey seconds before he swatted a double to right field. I had seen a 3000th hit.
Later in the ninth, Tony Gwynn grounded out to shortstop for his very last official at-bat, the 9,288th of his career. I later learned that it was the first time that two players with 3000 hits played in the same game for the same team.
I never found out why the friendly Japanese couple gave me a ticket that day. It might simply have been the look of desperation on my face, or just their way to help out an American during one of our country’s darkest periods.
I prefer to think of it as a simple act of kindness; one which reminded me that bullies like Osama bin Laden can terrorize, but only the kind can truly elevate and inspire.
THIS JUST IN: Tony Gwynn just reported that he is battling cancer. Read about it here.