Marty Foster usually loves when he gets to travel to New York City. It is one of the favorite stops for many Major League Baseball Umpires, and Foster is no exception.
But 20 years ago, Foster was not so certain he wanted to be in the Big Apple. He recalled being overcome by a “weird, weird feeling,” and felt sick to his stomach. He was not alone. The country came under attack, with terrorists overtaking airplanes and destroying the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, and less than two weeks later, Foster found himself preparing to work a baseball game not far from Ground Zero.
Foster, along with Ron Kulpa, Wally Bell and Mark Hirschbeck, all became part of baseball history when they set foot in Shea Stadium, where Atlanta Braves faced the New York Mets on September 21, 2001, in the first game in New York City since the attacks. Bell was behind home plate, Foster was at first, Mark Hirschbeck was assigned to second, and Ron Kulpa was at third.
“I remember walking onto the field in kind of a daze,” Foster recalled. “The emotion leading up to that game was so intense. I figured once I got on the field, I could get my mind off of the attacks and focus on baseball, and I will say that being on the field was a lot easier than getting onto the field.”
Nothing about the lead-up to that game was normal, and the MLB Umpire crew was abundantly aware of how much this game meant not only to baseball, but to the country.
On September 10, 2001, Marty and his wife, Mary, had flown to Phoenix, where his crew was scheduled to work a weekend series. He was awakened at around 6 a.m. by a phone call from his sister, who told him about the attacks.
“My sister knows I travel a lot so she figured I might be on a plane,” Foster said. “I didn’t know what to think. I thought maybe we would not be playing that night. Then she told me to turn on the TV, and that’s when I realized the magnitude of everything.”
Of course, no games were played in Phoenix that day, or anywhere else that day. The crew was called back to work a series in Los Angeles, and then they boarded a plane to officiate the series in New York. MLB Umpires travel on commercial flights, and although they are more than accustomed to flying, the world of air travel changed after 9/11 and it was a new dawn for the umpires as well.
“I kept thinking that day that we couldn’t be more safe,” Foster said.
Ron Kulpa recalled boarding a red eye flight to New York. Less than two weeks beforehand, on the morning of September 11. The first hijacked plane had already crashed into the World Trade Center, but he had no idea how much the world was about to change. Not long after, the pilot explained that all flights had been grounded. He was fortunate to be at home, in St. Louis, and he actually got a phone call from another umpire, Eric Cooper, who happened to be traveling through St. Louis that morning.
So to get back to an airport and fly to New York, of all places, was an emotional experience.
“Our feelings were all over the map,” Kulpa said. “The plane was pretty empty. People really weren’t back to flying then. On the airplane, at that time, people really started watching if anyone got up to go to the bathroom or walk to the front of the plane.”
No one knew quite what to expect when they arrived at the ballpark, but the feeling was different than anything Kulpa has experienced in more than two decades as a Major League Umpire.
“There was a feeling of electricity,” Kulpa said. “It was electric, dynamic, all of those cliches. It was more than baseball. It was a feeling of being a proud American. I remember being on the field and hearing fans chat U-S-A, U-S-A.”
Foster remembers standing right by then-Mets Manager Bobby Valentine, whose voice boomed during the singing of the National Anthem.
For a couple of hours, the umpires thought they could distract themselves by returning to their routine, watching Bell call balls and strikes and keeping close watch of the foul lines.
With Atlanta leading 2-1 with one out in the eighth inning, Braves pitcher Steve Karsay walked Edgardo Alfonso, and Karsay began arguing with Wally Bell about the call. In true umpire fashion, Foster was a bit upset about Karsay’s outburst. He thought that for one night, maybe there would be some semblance of civility on the field.
Most fans do not remember that dispute. What is remembered is that Mike Piazza came to bat next, and he hit a home run that not only left the park but also propelled him into history.
The Mets won the game, 3-2, but the victory really belonged to the city of New York, and really the entire country.
“After that game I felt so relieved that it was over,” Foster said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be that emotional again in a game. I don’t care if it’s Game 7 of the World Series.”
The Mets’ crosstown rivals, the New York Yankees, had returned to action a fewys earlier but they were in Chicago, playing against the White Sox. Retired MLB Umpire Mike WInters was on the crew for that series, along with Ted Barrett, Alfonso Marquez and Rob Drake.
Winters had flown from his home in San Diego to work that series.
“Once you get on the field, you’re forced to concentrate,” Winters said. “It pushes things out of your mind. And if you don’t focus, you’re going to find yourself in the center of a controversy.”
Winters does not recall much from the game that night, but the next night, he worked behind the plate and Roger Clemens recorded his 20th victory of the season. Winters does not have any mementos from that series – not even the lineup cards, which he kept from every game except the night of Clemens’ milestone win. Clemens had asked the crew for the lineup cards, and Winters obliged.
Marty Foster kept one item from the game in New York – his game cap. The umpires wore ball caps honoring the New York Police and Fire Departments. Kulpa has no memorabilia. He handed his hat to a fan as he walked off the field.
“Baseball can really bring people together, and it can help people heal,” Kulpa said.
Every year on the anniversary of the attacks, Foster is reminded of that moment in time in New York.
“People always ask me where I was on 9-11, and they cannot believe I was at that game,” Foster said. “I don’t want to be reminded of it, but I never will forget it.”