In the now-famous photograph taken on October 30, 2001, former president George W. Bush stands on the mound at Yankee Stadium, a baseball clutched in his left hand and a bulletproof vest concealed beneath his jacket. He is looking up, his right thumb raised to the crowd in that uniquely American gesture of goodwill and triumph. Forty-nine days earlier, his administration was befallen by the largest act of terrorism in history.
It is a strange and powerful image, surreal in its banality. This morning after the national moment of silence, ESPN Films premieres a new short entitled “First Pitch,” dedicated to this moment and its meaning for a wounded country. “What President Bush told us without uttering a single word was that we could once again attempt to carry on with our lives,” said sportscaster Jim Gray. For many, the opening pitch of the 2001 World Series–as it happened, a perfect strike–acted as a symbol of America’s new normal, and of her determination to rebuild.
Fourteen years after September 11, 2001, the day itself is fading into the realm of history. As much as we continue to remember, the space between us and that great tragedy only grows. Even now it is hard to comprehend that on this day, three thousand lives were lost in minutes. It is a terrible weight condensed into 23 minutes of interview and behind-the-scenes footage of the ceremonial first pitch–an incongruously tiny moment amid an ocean of political and emotional turmoil. These are the moments that “30 for 30” strives to preserve: the intersection of sports, culture and humanity.
Still, there were some hurdles to be overcome in the production of “First Pitch.” Short films are typically only available on digital platforms, but ESPN Films’ vice president Libby Geist won the piece its critical time slot on the network itself, in addition to normal digital distribution sites. She hopes that viewers will feel the impact behind the film’s specific subject matter. “The question we always look to ask is, ‘Why does this matter?'” For the younger generations today who are approaching young adulthood with no memory of September 11, it may be a more valid question than we think.
In a brief preview on ESPN’s website, President Bush, Derek Jeter and others can be seen speaking about the way in which small strengths gain importance, how baseball can become the “anchor” that holds a struggling city together, and how throwing an opening pitch turns into “the most nervous moment” of a president’s eight year tenure. Regardless of personal political leanings, the 37-second clip hints at a sobering, yet hopeful film. “This is a moment,” later said Billy Crystal, who was in attendance at the game. “Your politics go away.”
Coming off a wave of press coverage, high anticipation, and of course, the significance of both its premiere date and time, “First Pitch” has some lofty expectations to meet, as it acts not only as a film, but also a representation of America in its most vulnerable state. The message it carries is one of hope, courage, healing–and above all, remembrance.
“First Pitch” airs in the 8:00 block of SportsCenter and will be repeated throughout the day.