One of the many things that I remember about Sept. 11, 2001 was how it was a beautiful morning on the East Coast, just like we’re having today in Seattle. I told you a year ago about what I did that day, of having covered the aftermath of the terror attacks in Washington, DC and at the Pentagon. Of meeting the brother of Sharon Carver as he searched for details of whether she was still alive. For the three days I was in Washington, the sun never stopped shining. But the perspective grew increasingly gloomier. The lack of sleep didn’t help. The constant running around during the day, always smelling the smoke that lingered from the Pentagon as I returned to my hotel across the street. A favorite cousin had also died after a long illness back in Montreal and I’d been told about it on the second day I was there.
One particular morning, on my third and final day there, I found myself getting short tempered in a discussion with my associate sports editor at the Toronto Star, who was co-ordinating my whereabouts for our news department. She was a former columnist, so knew about working in the field. I was somewhat put out, having spent the previous day tracking down the family of Sharon Carver, in the Civil War town of Manassas, Va., off nothing more than a first name mentioned in a television interview the day before. I’d gotten her photo, as the paper wanted, followed her brother around town and written a pretty good account of what it was like searching for a missing Pentagon employee in those crazy days following the attacks. I had no way of knowing my paper had given the story a full-page layout. All I knew, from reading off my computer, was that it had been placed on the inside news pages and not the front of the paper.
My editor could tell I wasn’t happy with the treatment given the story. But she could also sense that I wasn’t getting the full picture.
“Just try to remember, that years from now you won’t care where the story went,” she told me. “This thing is the biggest story you or any of us will ever get to work on. It’s bigger than any of us.”
And of course, she was right. But when you’re running around, doing your job, you aren’t seeing the bigger picture hammered home to you 24/7 on television. Your perspective is lacking. I’d been too tired to watch much TV upon returning to the hotel at night. My car radio had been on throughout the first two days, but it became more like subliminal messaging as I sought out addresses and highway signs. I’d listened to audio accounts of the towers collapsing in New York, but never actually saw footage of it until days later when I was back in Canada.
But the biggest problem was, there was no time to stop and think. To think about what was going on all around me.
Where that changed was on the drive home, from Washington, DC to Toronto. There was no air service yet and driving — door-to-door in 12 hours — was going to be the quickest way back. When you’re trapped in a car that long, you have little choice but to stop and think. And think some more. You think long after you turn off the radio, unable to listen to any more of the reality you just lived. You think as the rolling hills of Williamsport, Pa. whiz past you, the beauty having a calming effect. As the strains of a jazzy Boz Scaggs CD play over and over again for hours on end on the car stereo. You think about your stay in a hotel at the World Trade Center two weeks earlier and how everything around it is gone. Think about what you just saw in Washington and what it really meant to those who were there before you showed up. You think about Sharon Carver and how she was more than a picture. Of how her brother was never going to find her, despite that little bit of false hope you kept in the back of your brain to get you through the day. You think about your cousin, of what he meant in your life, and how he was more than just a footnote to a date everyone would remember for something other than him.
You cry a little on your own, with no one around to see. And you keep on driving for hours more. Life goes on. The only difference now is, a little bit of what just happened stays with you. And in quiet moments, sometimes years later, when the world stops whizzing by and you have a chance to think, these things you live, that have stayed with you, resurface for just a little while. And you remind yourself of what’s important. Of what matters and what doesn’t. And then, usually, when the moment passes, you forget about it all again until the next time.
That’s what we call perspective. We all have it. All need it. Not to carry around like a shroud, influencing our every decision. But to recall in moments that matter. Life does go on. It has gone on for the families of victims on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s gone on in the sports world, where athletes who swore seven years ago that they realized what they did was of little consequence in the greater universe, these days continue to act as if they are at the epicenter of life itself. Hey, we all do it. Our lives, for better or for worse, have all moved on since that day.
In my case, the editor was right. I have not covered anything nearly as big as 9/11 in the seven years since. But the other day, slipping that same Boz Scaggs CD into my car stereo for the first time in years, I got to thinking about the things that have happened since. About the other stories and events that have unfolded to shape my life the way it’s turned out.
Four months after 9/11, I was walking the streets of Buenos Aires. This wasn’t the same place tourists now flock to for nightlife and bargains. It was a dangerous time. The Argentine peso had been devalued shortly after my arrival. People had lost their life savings overnight. Banks had locked out their customers and were refusing to give them their money. Only two weeks before, 27 people had been killed in an anti-government demonstration in a part of town I walked through daily. The country’s fifth president in two weeks had been sworn in a few days before my arrival. Talk of revolution filled the air and the country teetered on the brink of anarchy. Street riots were taking place after dusk on a nightly basis. I knew what I was getting into before going. But I also knew people in town. This was to be part vacation, part history lesson. A chance to witness the fragile state of democracy firsthand. It turned out to be more than I’d bargained for. Street crime was at an all-time high. Much of it carried out by corrupt, off-duty police officers. One night, foolishly hailing a cab on the street outside my hotel, instead of ordering one through the bellhops, where names and plate numbers were recorded, I got myself kidnapped.
It was 9:30 p.m. and the driver, taking me on what was supposed to be a five-minute ride to the port, pretended his cab was stalling in a dark intersection. Another man jumped in through the backdoor and immediately began throwing punches and demanding money. We struggled in the backseat, while I yelled for the driver to help me throw the assailant out. Instead, the driver, an accomplice, walked out, shut the door and started driving. At first, I naively thought he was taking us to a more populated area to get help. I now had control of my attacker in the backseat. He was pinned against the door, unable to move, trying frantically to head butt me and screaming at the driver. The driver was screaming back. Express kidnappers in Argentina weren’t used to resistance. But they’d left me little choice with their swing-first, make-demands-later approach. When we headed on to a highway, the cityscape fading, I realized I had to get out. There were traffic lights every quarter mile or so and I waited for one that would be red. By this time, the five minutes or so since the ordeal began seemed like an eternity. The driver also began reaching back underneath his seat — where taxi drivers in Argentina keep their guns and knives. I grabbed his arm with one hand, then somehow kept the other attacker pinned against the door. Everyone was screaming. Miraculously, a red light appeared in the distance, with stopped cars blocking all three lanes. The driver hit his brakes and — with me pinning his gear shifting hand behind the seat — the standard transmission cab stalled. I released my attackers, popped the lock on the back door and headed out the passenger side, darting through stopped cars as they honked their horns, then sprinted up the shoulder of the highway about half a mile to a gas station.
The police later told me I’d been fortunate. That I could have been killed. That it was probably another cop, running a scam with a bogus cab driver, who’d attacked me. But I already knew that. A friend in town later told me an event like that had an opportunity to be life changing. That you forget all else, count your blessings and just go for the stuff in life you’d been afraid to try before. I don’t know that this was necessarily true. But stuff like that stays with you. It took years before I could joke about it. To this day, I don’t understand people who go looking for fights in bars, or elsewhere. Can’t stand ballplayers who seek it out on the field, as if they don’t understand the potential consequences of even minor violence. Some of them don’t know any better. And it’s not always their fault. The football and hockey teams I played on as a teenager got into their share of on-field and on-ice scraps. But I’ve been in a fight with something more than Saturday night pride on the line. And it changes your perspective.
A few years later, a more upbeat, life-changing experience occured. The Blue Jays were flying to Puerto Rico to play the Montreal Expos and I wanted Carlos Delgado’s take on the island of Vieques. I’d done a story on Vieques and Delgado’s involvement with anti-Navy activists there years before. The U.S. Navy had since moved out, facing too much pressure from those activists, who felt that the military’s use of the island for test bombing with uranium depleted shells had raised local cancer rates. That was all before 9/11. Now, it was 2004. The U.S. was fighting in Iraq, having used munitions in their “Shock and Awe” campaign that had been tested in Vieques. I suspected Delgado would have feelings about this. He knew I was going to visit Vieques and talk to the activists he’d been tied to. But when I interviewed him, a couple of days before flying to Vieques, I wasn’t prepared for what he told me. He didn’t hold back. Said he was no longer standing on the field with other teammates during the playing of “God Bless America” at games and opposed the war in Iraq.
“It’s a very terrible thing that happened on September 11,” he told me. “It’s (also) a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it’s the stupidest war ever. Who are you fighting against? You’re just getting ambushed now. We have more people dead now, after the war, than during the war. You’ve been looking for weapons of mass destruction. Where are they at? You’ve been looking for over a year. Can’t find them. I don’t support that. I don’t support what they do. I think it’s just stupid.”
I was stunned at the directness of the comments. Naturally, they caused quite a stir when, after meeting with the actiivsts in Vieques and hearing of Delgado’s involvement with them, we published our story. But that wasn’t the biggest thing to come out of this experience. After covering the Blue Jays-Expos series in San Juan in the days that followed, the paper gladly gave me a couple of days off to relax on the beach. And it was there, on my final day, that I met my future girlfriend, Amy. We only spoke for about 10 minutes. And I didn’t see her again for another six months, long after she’d flown home to Seattle from her Puerto Rican business trip. We later dated long-distance for two years before I moved here to Seattle to cover the Mariners. Funny how a story you think will help shape your life and career turns out to do just that, but in a way completely different from how you ever imagined. That’s the way life works out sometimes. You can’t always plan the path. Sometimes, the path chooses you.
The Delgado story, my experiences in South Amercia and work on the 9/11 stories gave the Toronto Star confidence to send me to the Dominican Republic in 2005 to work on an investigative project about the performance enhancing drug use there by young baseball prospects. Baseball’s new steroids testing had just been implemented, but there was clearly a huge loophole in Latin America, where players could obtain such drugs easily and often bring them back into the U.S. High percentages of the players being nabbed by baseball’s drug policy were Latin Americans, who were often being exploited by illicit street agents (not to mention big league teams looking the other way as they scouted teenagers the size of grown men). This project was a major, costly undertaking. We had contacts in the Dominican who took us places too dangerous for any tourist to venture into alone. Met with drug dealers and other criminals. Gained insight into the shady world of Dominican street agents (buscones) rarely seen by Americans. Our series was very well-received. And the timing could not have been better. When acclaim for what we wrote was at its highest, and I was wondering how on earth I was ever going to get a visa to work in the U.S. and be with Amy, maybe even move to Seattle so she wouldn’t have to leave, the Times posted an opening for a baseball job on the Associated Press website. It was almost like a sign. Right then and there, despite the obstacles that lay ahead, I knew the universe was unfolding as it should. I knew that I was meant to see the job posting. That no matter how many hundreds of others would apply for it, that I would get the job. That it was meant to be. That sometimes in life, as dark as things can get, there are times when it all comes together for you as well.
Do we remember all this as we go about living each day? Usually not. Some people make it their life’s mission to change the world around them after a perspective-altering event. Most of us don’t. We all complain about the weather, sometimes about our jobs, or the traffic. About how our families can be a pain. Or how our sports teams are the unluckiest to ever roam the planet. We forget to appreciate the things we do have. Forget to stop and think as the world whizzes past us. Until we pop in a CD we haven’t played in a while. Or spend a lonely night at a bar on the road thinking of years and people gone by. Until some date in September comes up and you realize there are things in the world you can’t control, or change, no matter how much energy you waste fretting about it. How a lot of what you try to plan is already pre-determined.
And it’s on days like that, infrequent as they may be, that true perspective is found. That doesn’t make us all cold, uncaring, or thoughtless. Only human. And humans all have highs and lows. Then spend the time in-between getting by any way they can. Life goes on. That, you can always count on.