For Blue Jays' Walker, Budzinski and Matz, memories of 9/11 attacks remain vivid

A Stephen Brunt Essay looking back on the tragic events of 9/11, two decades later, how that day changed our lives forever, and how sports served a purpose, and was part of the "getting on" process.

BALTIMORE — Pete Walker enjoyed a fine season for the triple-A Norfolk Tides in 2001, earning a promotion to the parent New York Mets for the final month. On Sept. 8 in Miami, he replaced Bruce Chen with the bases loaded and one out in the first inning, induced a double-play grounder from Dave Berg and proceeded to throw 4.2 innings of one-run relief.

Three days later, with the Mets in Pittsburgh for a series with the Pirates, he awoke to a phone call from his mother early in the morning. “Turn on the news,” she told him. He did.

“I was immediately blown away by what was going on,” the Toronto Blue Jays pitching coach remembered. “Everything was extremely chaotic. The whole organization, the team itself, the players, the coaches were warned that morning. Just an unbelievable, surreal day.”

Twenty years later, the memories and emotions of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers at New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington remain vivid for Walker. He and the Mets were told to flee their hotel in Pittsburgh because there was uncertainty about where a fourth plane that had also been hijacked was headed. United Airlines Flight 93 ended up crashing in Somerset County, Pa., after passengers and crew attempted to retake the plane.

Eventually, the Mets organized a bus to New York with flights grounded around the continent, “a very sombre trip back to the city,” Walker recalled. “It stirs up difficult memories for everybody. Obviously, memories you don't want to forget. But it was a difficult, difficult time.”

Once back in New York, Walker returned to his hotel and remembered as Shea Stadium, the Mets’ home at the time, was turned into a staging area for medical supplies and other first responder needs. Mets players helped move boxes around while Major League Baseball was shut down and then hosted Atlanta 10 days later in the game’s emotional return.

Like many, Walker wondered about the merits of having big-league baseball resume so quickly after an attack that killed nearly 3,000 people and wounded more than 25,000 others. “But once we actually got there that day and took part in that ceremony, I just felt like it was right,” said Walker. “The feeling and the emotion was just incredible. The reaction from the fans, from the opposing team, the feeling in the stadium, I'll never forget that, for sure.”

Mark Budzinski, the Blue Jays’ first base coach, remembers being overcome by emotion a couple of months later when he heard the American anthem for the first time at the baseball World Cup in Taiwan that November. He was representing the U.S. national team at the tournament and two security officers were assigned to watch over the club’s every turn.

"I've never felt more pride,” he said of hearing the Star-Spangled Banner. “We hear the national anthem every day. That time, I started crying and shaking, just from the pride, thinking of everything that people went through, can't find loved ones, the buildings burning and everything like that. It makes you step back and appreciate how many good people there are out there and how we responded as a nation and came together.”

Budzinski spent the 2001 season with triple-A Buffalo, which was then a Cleveland affiliate. On Sept. 9, the Bisons were eliminated in the decisive fifth game of a playoff series against Scranton/Wilkes Barre, dropping a 6-2 decision settled in the 19th inning.

He got home the next day and his wife roused him from bed the morning of. “You need to get up and watch this,” she told him.

“I'm like, 'Watch what? Why are you waking me up? I'm tired. Had a long season, I want to sleep for like a week,'” Budzinski recalled. “The TV's on, the buildings are on fire and I'm thinking to myself am I crazy, or something. I went from thinking about the playoffs and baseball and the season and reflecting as a player what I did well and what I did wrong to like, holy cow, this is one of the worst things I've ever seen in my life.”

Budzinksi watched the Mets-Atlanta game return game and also struggled with whether it made sense to resume. “It's hard to have a right time,” he said. “At the end of the day, people needed that outlet from thinking about all the difficulties out there and the tragedies we went through as a nation.”

When he and the American team left for the World Cup, “there was a definite sense of we're not sure what could be next,” said Budzinski. “You never know when on your last day is, when your last time is, so you go back to appreciating the things that really matter in life.”

Steven Matz was sitting in his Grade 5 class in Long Island when he first learned of the attacks. A call came in from the office summoning his teacher, she left the class and once she returned, she asked, “Does anybody have parents that work in New York City?”

“A bunch of kids raised their hands and she called them aside and I remember she was crying and I thought this is the weirdest thing,” said Matz. “None of the kids in the class had parents affected, but I remember that.”

Eventually, Matz joined the Mets and after the 2015 season, he started doing some charitable work which led to the Tru32 program. That initiative brought first responders out to Citi Field and eventually partnered with the FDNY Foundation to provide aid to those who served at Ground Zero and are still suffering health effects, and scholarships to children who lost parents.

“I appreciate that type of blue-work and it’s something I always thought that maybe I could be doing if I wasn’t playing baseball,” said Matz. “The first responders' work took on a life of its own because they are so important to the community here.”

In 2019, he started for the Mets on Sept. 11 and each year he feels a mix of emotions.

“There’s a sense of pride toward what the people rallied together to do,” he said. “There are some people we know that were directly affected.”

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