I still remember that day minute-by-minute. If you were alive at the time, chances you do, too. How could 20 years go by so quickly?
I was living near Seattle at the time, and my job at Pacific Trading Cards required me to travel about once or twice a month. When I had to go to New York, I always stayed at the World Trade Center Marriott. If you had ever been to the twin towers in New York, the Marriott was the seemingly smaller and flatter building between the towers.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was supposed to be in the Marriott. I had a meeting scheduled in New York for 9 o’clock that morning. I was to fly in Sept. 10, stay at the Marriott, have my meetings for the day, and then return home Sept. 12.
Had I gone to New York, I would have walked out of the hotel about five minutes before the first plane struck one of the towers.
But I didn’t go.
Every now and then, you have to put your family ahead of work. Sometimes, it’s tough to do. This time, however, it wasn’t.
Sitting at the dinner table, I told my family I would be heading to New York for a few days. My son, Jack, started crying.
“I can’t believe you’re going to miss my birthday,” he said through tears. Jack’s birthday is September 11.
As Jack cried and begged me not to go to New York, I realized how big the price of constant work travel was. When I worked for Collectors Edge/Shop At Home, I flew out early every Monday morning and got home late Thursday night. Sometimes, I didn’t get home because there was a weekend show, or the National, or a Chicago Show, or the Expo in Toronto, or the Super Bowl or NHL All-Star show. They all added up. I didn’t realize the toll that travel took on my family.
“Please don’t go Dad,” Jack continued. “I was just getting to know you.”
And there it was. That comment made by a kid a few days short of his ninth birthday completely shattered me. I called American Airlines and cancelled my flight. The next morning at 6 AM Pacific time, I called everyone involved in the NHL meeting and informed them I could not make it because of “a family situation.” I didn’t dare say it was for my son’s birthday. The one thing that bothered me the most about living and working in corporate America was that too many guys trying to get ahead treated their family as nothing more than objects to pose for portraits and photos so that they could be in frames and look nice on their desks.
I didn’t want to be that guy.
The Moment of the Attack
On the morning of Sept. 11, I did what I did every morning. I woke up at 4:30 a.m., drove from my home in Puyallup, Washington to the Seattle suburb of Lynwood. Across the road from Pacific was a Gold’s Gym, and I went there every morning.
I got on the treadmill and started my workout. There was a row of TVs above the row of treadmills, and they alternated between CNN and ESPN. Just before 6 AM in Lynwood, a plane flew into one of the towers. Before long, everyone in the gym headed over to watch what was going on.
“I wonder if the pilot passed out or had a heart attack or something,” I said to the guy beside me. He was a retired man who had been in the military. He wasn’t buying it.
“That wasn’t an accident,” he said. “That was bin Laden, that lunatic from Afghanistan.”
I don’t think many of us had heard of Osama bin Laden before that day. As the second plane crashed into the other tower, it was painfully clear that America was under attack and hijacked commercial flights were the weapons.
I went to my office that day and we just sat around talking and watching the news. On my way home, I picked up a special edition copy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that had been printed hours earlier. I still have the newspaper.
During those discussions, we came to the great realization. Everything we did was coming to a standstill. The country was shut down. We designed our products in house, and then our cards were printed in Dallas and shipped back to Seattle, where we did our own packaging. Trucks weren’t running. The press at Great Western Press wasn’t running. The box vendor was shut down. Our Styrofoam vendor was shut down. He supplied the little bricks of Styrofoam that went in our boxes to secure the packaging. Everything had come to a halt.
Sports was also shut down.
We all remember the moments when sports returned after 9/11. But when it shut down, do you remember what was happening? Even though we were in our first year of not making baseball cards at Pacific, we were still big fans. In Seattle, 2001 was a special year. The Mariners went on to win 116 games that year and tie the record set by the 1906 Chicago Cubs. Ichiro and Albert Pujols burst onto the scene as the hot rookies.
And then there was Barry Bonds, He hit 73 home runs that year. Sure, the number 73 is tarnished and it is not as hallowed as the number 61 was for generations. At the moment, however, it was thrilling. I bought boxes of baseball cards from my local card shop in Puyallup, WA based solely on the excitement of Barry Bonds and Ichiro. When baseball shut down after September 11, we didn’t know if the season would be completed. It did finish with the Arizona Diamondbacks beating the New York Yankees for the World Series. That wasn’t the memorable moment of the 2001 season, though. More people remember Mike Piazza’s dramatic home run to lead the Mets to victory in that first game back.
Week 1 of the NFL season had just ended, with the next weekend’s games rescheduled for January. Having the season come to a standstill threw a stark blanket over the country. Terrorists had taken away more than a game. They had taken away part of the fabric of America. When football returned, New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffered an injury. In the next game, a sixth round draft pick who had platooned with Drew Henson at Michigan made his first NFL start. Tom Brady is perhaps the greatest link between the sports landscape of 9/11 and today.
When the NHL season started, New York Rangers captain Mark Messier wore the helmet of fallen New York Fire Department Chief Raymond Downey during pre-game ceremonies during the Rangers’ home opener at Madison Square Garden.
Wrapping Our Heads Around It
Each day at Pacific, CEO Mike Cramer; Rob Hicks, who was head of our design team, and I would congregate in the office of Phil Roth, our CFO. For days, we just sat there all day, dumbfounded. How could we even think about cards and collectibles at a time like this?
Just weeks earlier, sports seemed to be hitting an apex in every sport. Even a couple days before the attacks, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras had a classic final at the US Open in Flushing, NY. The day before the attacks, we had a deep discussion wondering why there are no collectibles of any value or demand of either Sampras or Agassi. They remain two of the greatest American athletes of all time. Yet, while other athletes became sought after in the collectibles market, Sampras and Agassi drew collective yawns from the hobby. If they were around today, would it be different?
While 9/11 brought the sports collectibles business to a standstill, the worst was yet to come. In the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks, there was a national anthrax scare. Two waves of anthrax attacks complicated things even further. People talk about 9/11, but rarely do people talk about the letters containing anthrax spores that were mailed out on Sept. 18 and Oct. 12, 2001. Five people were killed and 17 others were infected in the attacks.
Because of anthrax, a lot of people were scared to open their mail. In 2001, it was a scare that was potentially crippling to business. There was no online invoicing yet. There was no electronic banking. We sold sports cards to our distributors and direct accounts. They would not open their invoices, and they would not mail checks. In the fourth quarter of 2001, the result was a crushing cashflow problem that crippled the sports collectibles industry, along with many other business sectors.
Bruce Edwards Ivins, a scientist at the government’s biodefense labs at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, was declared by the FBI as the man responsible for the attacks. Ivins committed suicide with an overdose of acetaminophen in 2008.
A Slow Return to the New Normal
By 2002, things were getting back to normal. Sports resumed, shows were happening, and people were emotionally scarred by 9/11 but moving forward.
As far away as Seattle was from New York, the attacks affected everyone. One of our neighbors was a firefighter in Tacoma who, like many firefighters from across the country, travelled to New York to help with the clean up. After returning, he told me about the worst thing he saw.
“I found a hand,” he said. “I opened it up, and there was a child’s hand inside. There was a daycare under the towers, and we guessed this was someone trying to lead a child out of there.”
He started crying as he told me.
“I was doing well and holding it together up until that moment,” he sobbed.
The Marriott was destroyed when the towers came down. I will never forget my first trip back to New York, flying over the massive hole that had been the World Trade Center.
One of the discussions we would often have in Phil Roth’s office was about the role of sports cards in every day lives. What we were doing seemed so insignificant. Sports seemed so insignificant.
But after 9/11, our attitude changed when things edged their way back to normality. America needed sports to return. We needed everything positive sports brought – from the distraction, to the excitement, to the way that watching games and cheering on our favorite teams brought us together. When sports returned, it was like a statement to the world that no one could deny America the pleasure of enjoying the most Americans things.
And nothing is more American than baseball cards and football cards.
Back to Card Shows
When business resumed and people started opening their mail and doing business again, sales and cashflow started to get better for everyone. I remember the first show I went to after 9/11. It was in Montreal at the Maurice Richard Arena in the Olympic Stadium complex. The plane trip was an eye opener. Take off your belt. Take off your shoes. Anyone who even remotely looked Middle Eastern drew sneers from other passengers. It was the first time I had really been in the middle of Islamophobia and systemic racism against people from that part of the world. I will never forget how sickening that feeling was.
Leandre Normand was the Montreal show promoter. It focused on hockey, but there was also a special area for Smurfs collectibles. I didn’t even know that was a thing. I always thought that the sports card and comic people didn’t mix well at shows. But putting die hard Montreal Canadiens collectors in the same room as collectors of “Les Shtroumphes” was an entirely different social petrie dish. I wonder what a PSA 10 Refractor one-of-one of Gargamel would sell for.
The most memorable item for sale was a t-shirt that a dealer who was originally from Pakistan had made. He was a guy I talked to at every Canadian show, and one of the nicest people in the business. But there was a language barrier for him, not just because he had only been in Canada for a few years, but also because of the French-English thing in Montreal. The t-shirts he made were his tribute to 9/11. They had an American flag design and read: “America: My Favorite Home!”
He was so proud of them. I felt bad that people at the show were giggling about it and mocking him.
As the year went on, sports card designs became very patriotic. Every product, it seemed, had some sort of insert set that tugged on American heart strings. It wasn’t done in an effort to make money. It was more of an emotional thing for the product development people and the designers.
The biggest difference I noticed after 9/11 at Pacific is one of the reasons I loved working there. Mike Cramer treated us all like family. He was a passionate collector, so he understood the mindset of collecting much more than other CEOs did. But he was also a passionate person. He cared about all of us. Every time any of us got on a plane to go to a show or on a business trip, the last thing we did before leaving the building was get a hug from Mike. Air travel was never looked at the same. If we were going anywhere, Mike and Phil would give us a hug before we left. Until the day we closed in 2004, that was a tradition.
Today, we have an entire generation that has grown up only having a vague idea of what 9/11 was. They don’t have a reference point. To them, it’s like World War II was for us. There are movies and it’s in history books, but it seems so far away and unimaginable.
It was a difficult time for everyone. And a love of sports cards and sports helped many collectors cherish everything America stands for and get through one of the most difficult times in the history of the United States.