CHICAGO -- Every year for the past eight or nine, from mid-August through early September, Ken Williams knows at least one topic of conversation will come his way through the media.
It's a tragic subject concerning a time in United States history that must never be forgotten. But it's the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, that the White Sox general manager has a hard time talking about, even on the 10th anniversary of the terrorists' attack.
"Honestly, I know it needs to be revisited because it has to stay in our minds and we have to be aware, but that was not a good day to flash back on," said Williams, who was part of the White Sox traveling party in New York during the horrific but life-changing event.
"I can still smell the burning of the buildings," continued Williams, speaking in measured tones, as if the events just transpired recently. "If I close my eyes, I can still see the people jumping out of the World Trade Center that you saw more on local television than you did on the national television. I can still feel the emotions of the day."
The White Sox had arrived in New York early that Tuesday morning, after completing a four-game series the previous night in Cleveland. A few players grabbed food before they went to bed or simply moved to their rooms at the Grand Central Hyatt.
Many would be awakened three or four hours later by phone calls with news of a plane crashing into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. What started as disbelief quickly moved to shock, then on to confusion and finished at downright fear, with a mix of anger.
Mark Buehrle is a happily married father of two, currently pitching in his 12th big league season. He seems to get asked as much about the possible end of his career nowadays as he does about future pitching performances.
Back in 2001, Buehrle was single and completing his first full season in the Majors. He also carried a sense of excitement about getting a chance to finally see Yankee Stadium.
"I remember how pumped I was to get there and see all the history," said Buehrle, who along with Paul Konerko, serves as one of only two current White Sox players who were present in New York on Sept. 11.
Buehrle got his first look at Yankee Stadium during that 2001 season, but not until Oct. 1-3, when the three postponed games were eventually played. As for that morning of Sept. 11, hours before the originally scheduled series opener, Buehrle truly didn't know what to expect.
"Once I turned the TV on and realized what was going on, all I remember is getting dressed and going down to the lobby," Buehrle said. "Five or six guys were down there and we were trying to figure out if we were playing tonight, leaving, flying out or busing. Should we stay in our rooms? We didn't know what to do."
"There were these windows in our hotel where you could see out two different ways. I remember all the people on the road suddenly started running [away from] the World Trade Center. I remember standing there looking out in the street and thinking, 'All right, we are dead,'" he continued. "I looked at the other window, which you could see higher up, and I was waiting for the building to fall on us like we saw on TV."
This moment of chaos Buehrle described was sparked by a man dropped off by a taxi in front of the hotel, fleeing the vehicle and ensuing talk of how he left a package behind. The Hyatt was considered a possible terrorist target because of its connection to the Grand Central Terminal, so even the slightest behavior outside the norm increased tension.
"Just walking down the hallway from [fellow pitcher Matt] Ginter's room to my room, I had the [feeling] someone was going to jump out of another room and kill me," Buehrle said. "We had to take the stairs one time and walking down the stairs, I was totally freaked out, because you had no clue what was going on."
White Sox head athletic trainer Herm Schneider remembers going for a walk that afternoon in a dusty New York atmosphere with a haze in the air.
"It was pretty intense for a while, pretty eerie," Schneider said. "All of a sudden, nightfall came and New York looked like a ghost town -- literally like a ghost town. There were no people. We all went out to dinner. There happened to be a restaurant that was open.
"You could walk right down the middle of 42nd Street and there was not a car in sight. It was very, very strange. It was scary."
White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was driving from Chicago to Milwaukee to attend a Major League Baseball Owners' Meeting on Sept. 11 when he received a call from White Sox senior vice president of stadium operations Terry Savarise, asking Reinsdorf what he wanted to do with the team in New York.
"I said, 'What are you talking about?'" said Reinsdorf, who had a fraternity brother lose a son in the attacks. "He said, 'A plane has run into the World Trade Center.' So I figured it was an accident. And I said, 'Don't do anything right now.'"
"Then, a little while later, we found out it was two planes, and it wasn't an accident. And we were staying at the Grand Hyatt, and the first thought I had was 'That's a potential target.' So I told him to get them out of the hotel. Get them out on the street someplace. But we couldn't leave. They put the island into a lockdown."
Reinsdorf made it to Milwaukee and was informed by Sandy Alderson, who was then working in the Commissioner's Office, to leave the team in New York because they weren't certain when baseball would resume. The response from Reinsdorf was that as soon as the White Sox could get out of there, they would.
Two buses took the White Sox from New York to Chicago early Wednesday morning, a trip that included giving two nurses a lift across the George Washington Bridge. One of the two buses and one driver were swapped out in Cleveland. It was a sense of relief taking over a sense of shock for all involved.
"Really, it was the most relaxing and comfortable ride I've ever had," Buehrle said. "Fifteen or 20 hours? You snap your fingers and it felt like you were back in Chicago. You are so tensed up for the day and a half we were there, and you didn't know what was going on or if you were going to die."
"Once we got out, I remember driving down the street and seeing wildlife. I took a deep breath and remember saying, 'Finally we can relax.'"
Baseball returned on Sept. 18 for the White Sox, with the Yankees visiting U.S. Cellular Field. The national pastime's resumption provided one of the many small senses of moving forward for the country.
"When something like that happens, you've got to get back to normal," Reinsdorf said. "As long as we weren't playing, things weren't normal."
"Maybe it helped people take their minds off what happened," said White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper. "I don't know if your mind should go off of that. It should always be a remembrance. This was an evil act. That's why the United States, we won't stand for evil. We'll stand up for the right thing and it doesn't matter where it is. We are going to try to make it right."
Upon returning to New York in October, veteran White Sox broadcaster Ed Farmer took a group of players down to Ground Zero. He talked to one of the many police officers on duty, explaining how the White Sox were in town when the attacks took place and how his players needed closure.
That officer told Farmer to assemble the group because he would take them in.
"We left there better people for that. Our hearts will always be with those people," Farmer said. "I didn't go in. It wasn't my place where lives were lost, but it was the place for the players to go have closure."
Arizona claimed the 2001 World Series title in seven games, playing out one of the more exciting Fall Classics in recent memory. Fittingly, the Yankees won all three games in New York, taking two of them in walk-off fashion.
"Even for people who weren't Yankees fans, I think it was sort of uplifting and exciting," Reinsdorf said.
Ten years later
Ten years later, those moments still don't seem so far removed.
"That's shocking," Reinsdorf said. "I remember it like it was yesterday."
"Really hard to believe," Schneider said. "Life goes by pretty fast. You got to enjoy every moment you can."
For Williams, it's a group of moments etched in his memory. It's not a memory he chooses to dramatically recall.
"You have to talk about it, out of respect to the lives lost and the families," Williams said. "But I have the big picture in mind. A lot more lives have been lost since then. That's all I'll say. A lot more needless, unnecessary lives lost.
"It was unlike any other time in my life in this country, where it didn't seem like it was this country. We were walking through the streets of New York and there was a sense of loss. There certainly was a sense of our lives that, we knew at that moment, our lives would never be the same."