Jason Marquis had made exactly 13 major league starts before he was called on to start one of the most emotional games of his career.
In his rookie season with the Atlanta Braves, Marquis, a Staten Island, N.Y., native, was - like the rest of the United States - still reeling from the attacks on 9/11 when the Braves called on him to start Sept. 21, 2001 against the New York Mets.
It was the first game in New York since the Twin Towers had fallen and life for Americans everywhere was changed forever.
“I had to focus on the game, but it was very, very emotional,” the Nationals pitcher said Monday night - less than 24 hours after President Obama announced the death of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and just before a fortuitous, previously planned Military Appreciation Night at Nationals Park.
“For at least two hours or three hours, people could get away from real life and have a little joy if there could be at that point,” Marquis said. “It was definitely special to be a part of it - if anything could be special about that.”
With the news of bin Laden’s death rippling through the country late Sunday night, several televisions in the Nationals’ clubhouse Monday were tuned to CNN, as opposed to the usual choices of MLB Network or ESPN.
And with the Nationals donning their “stars and stripes” uniforms as they took the field with members of the five branches of military, many couldn’t help but recall the memory of 9/11 and where they were on that day.
Marquis was somber in remembering the friends and relatives he tried to contact who worked in or around the World Trade Center.
A Little League teammate who’d become a firefighter and was part of one of the first ladders to enter the buildings, an aunt of his wife’s friend who didn’t make it out of the towers.
“It affected a lot of people throughout the country,” he said. “People with ties to New York, people who were from there.”
Many of the Nationals remembered being in high school when they got the news - a day of education spent watching history unfold instead of reading it from a book. Others, like Jerry Hairston Jr., reflected on what it was like to be in the Washington area playing baseball at the time of the attack.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Hairston, who was a member of the Baltimore Orioles at the time. “My parents were on their way to come see me in Baltimore from Arizona, and I first got news that planes went down coming from the east or west coast and it was surreal. Sports took a back seat at that time, and everybody was just wondering if their family members were OK. Once a few weeks went by, fans wanted to see us out there. Without question, we felt obligated to do that to at least start having that healing process really begin.”
Baseball was able to serve as the setting for another epic moment in U.S. history as news of bin Laden’s death spread via social media Sunday night and chants of U-S-A broke out spontaneously during the baseball game between the Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Monday, the Nationals got to honor that moment as military members, Wounded Warriors and veterans filled the seats at Nationals Park, each one given up to four free tickets for the game against San Francisco.
“We’re proud of every game when we honor the military, but this is special,” said Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner. “This is bigger than anything in sports.”
“It’s a great honor. Every night when we honor the military you get a little tear in your eye, but this is something special… It’s one of the first things I thought last night, ‘You’ll remember where you were when you heard the news.’ I was sitting at my desk and as soon as I saw that [the President would be speaking], I said, ‘It’s bin Laden, they got him.’ “
“This is a great opportunity for our fans to do what they always do here, which is to honor the military vets and Wounded Warriors,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman, who greets Wounded Warriors on the field before each home game and often visits Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“And I know that those [military members] who are here tonight are going to be beaming with pride about what took place last night.”
Riggleman, a Maryland native with ties to the military and Walter Reed Army Medical Center, recalled the ‘60s and ‘70s in Washington, D.C., and witnessing scenes of flag burning at the Washington Monument.
“When better feelings can take place the way it does with the news we got last night, I think it’s a point of pride for our military in particular,” he said. “I’m very glad, and I hope we’re very well-represented with the military here tonight.”