HBO Documentary: Nine Innings from Ground Zero Review

Updated: August 29, 2011

I initially saw this documentary a few years ago on HBO, and with the ten year anniversary of September 11th approaching I was able to catch it again recently.  It accurately depicts the horror surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the despair felt in the days and weeks after,  and how the Yankees playoff run that Fall provided a temporary distraction to those in New York City. 

The film begins with the Yankees Mariano Rivera on the mound in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, about to deliver a pitch to Luiz Gonzalez of the Diamondbacks with the Bank One Ballpark crowd in Arizona in an absolute frenzy.  From there it flashes back to scenes from Ground Zero, as at that very moment people were still working around the clock to clean up the remnants of the attack.  The stark contrast between these two scenes is powerful and sets the mood for the entire feature. 

Scenes from the horrific September 11th are shown; with Mayor Giuliani describing the attacks and the impact they had on NYC (and the country in general).  The enormity of what had happened was still clear in the days immediately following 9/11, as bagpipes echoed all over the city as wakes and funerals were being held daily for the many firemen who lost their lives.  Members of the NY Mets and NY Yankees are shown volunteering, visiting firehouses, and helping out in any way they can.  The somber mood didn’t let up until 09/21/01, as the first game in New York since the attacks was played at Shea Stadium.  The emotion of that night is displayed in great detail, and Mike Piazza’s go ahead home run against the Braves in the 8th inning gave people a reason to cheer and feel normal again for the first time in ten days.   

The country’s feelings towards the New York Yankees are illustrated, as one of the most hated teams in baseball became the object of the nation’s affection and a symbol of the fight and resiliency of NYC.  The American League Division Series against the Oakland A’s beginning at Yankee Stadium provided people a brief escape and something else to focus on besides the war on terror.  As a Yankee fan I remember the 2001 playoff run in great detail, and reliving those games here definitely brought me back to that time.  The Yankees were on the brink of elimination in that opening series, down 0-2, and then the “Jeter flip” in Game 3 brought the team back to life.  They went on to defeat Oakland in five games before rolling over the Seattle Mariners in the American League Championship Series.  The film describes how the Yankee players were slowly beginning to develop a sense of fate during the playoff run, and realized they were playing for something far bigger than themselves. 

The Yankees opponent in the World Series was the Arizona Diamondbacks, a veteran laden squad led by pitchers Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson.  A likeable team in just their fourth season of existence, it was noted how the backdrop of the series was Arizona vs. America due to the nation’s growing attachment to the Yanks.    Games 1 and 2 in Arizona were dominated by the Diamondbacks, as Schilling and Johnson shut down the powerful Yankees lineup.  The series then went back to New York.

The three games of the 2001 World Series played in New York were the most exciting and memorable contests of my sports viewing life, and this documentary did an outstanding job of detailing those moments.  The behind the scenes look at the various storylines going into Game 3 were fascinating; personal reflections discussing how the Yankees brought the city together, nervousness and paranoia remaining sky high as the terror alert was raised the day before Game 3, and how bomb sniffing dogs were trolling through the Yankee locker room.  The conversation between President Bush, who was throwing out the first pitch that night, and Derek Jeter was priceless (“don’t bounce it, they’ll boo you”).  In an emotional and patriotic moment the President threw a perfect strike to home plate that ignited the crowd and the nation.  The Yankees went onto win Game 3 as Roger Clemens pitched a gem, while workers nine miles to the South of the Stadium took momentary breaks from cleaning up at Ground Zero to cheer on the Bombers.

Games 4 and 5 were a microcosm of the entire series, as the Diamondbacks dominated throughout only to see the Yankees win with two dramatic ninth-inning comebacks against Arizona closer Byung Kim.  Tino Martinez and Derek Jeter (as the clock hit midnight Jeter instantly became “Mr. November”) were the heroes in Game 4, with Scott Brosius providing the big hit in Game 5.  Watching those two games live was truly something special, you almost had to see it to believe it.  Yankee Stadium was in a state of absolute euphoria, as the Yankees lifted the entire city of New York with the back to back comeback wins.  Personally, I couldn’t believe they came back to win those games, and a part of me felt for Kim as it had to be devastating to give up those home runs on consecutive nights. 

Back in Arizona, the Yankees got crushed in Game 6.  Mayor Giuliani, who had flown out for the game, had to fly back to New York to deal with an Anthrax scare, which further illustrated the post-9/11 world we were now living in.  Game 7 was a game for the ages, and was later selected by Sports Illustrated as the Best Postseason Game of the Decade (2000–2009).  With Schilling and Clemens engaged in a memorable pitching duel, it was only fitting that such a classic series would be decided in the later innings. 

I vividly recall the moment Alfonso Soriano hit a home run of Schilling to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead in the top of the 8th.  As described in the documentary, like most others I felt the series was over.  After all, the great Mariano Rivera was coming in to get the final six out for the Yankees, and at that time he was invincible.  After breezing through the 8th inning, a pair of bloop singles and uncharacteristic defensive miscues doomed the Yankees, as the Diamondbacks won the game and the series in dramatic fashion.  I remember feeling empty at the time, as even though the Yanks had been completely outclassed the entire series it seemed they were destined to win the Series that year. 

Though disappointed in the outcome, this is still the best World Series I have ever seen.  With touching personal stories mixed in under the backdrop of baseball, this film is an excellent representation of the sometimes healing nature of sports.  It clearly puts into context the uncertainty and fear our nation felt in the months immediately following 9/11, and illustrates how the joy the Yankees provided with their playoff run gave people a temporary escape and made baseball fun again.