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Cubs gratified team will play part in 9/11 remembrance

New York Yankees' Alfonso Soriano celebrates as he is greeted by teammates after hitting game-winning two-run home run ninth inning

New York Yankees' Alfonso Soriano celebrates as he is greeted by teammates after hitting the game-winning two-run home run in the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2001 at Yankee Stadium in New York. The Yankees won 3-1 to take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

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Updated: November 22, 2011 11:12AM

NEW YORK — The billowing smoke visible for miles. The smell of burn. The panic. The pain. The chaos.

“Crazy,’’ Alfonso Soriano said. “Now it’s 10 years later, but it feels like one year ago. Because you still remember.’’

The Cubs’ left fielder was a rookie second baseman for the New York Yankees on Sept. 11, 2001, a kid from the Dominican Republic, by way of Japan, trying to make sense of the attack that felled the Twin Towers and created aftershocks still felt today.

Four days later — with play in all American major-league sports suspended — Yankees players and staff went to Ground Zero to offer support for police and firefighters, and visited a nearby facility where thousands had gathered looking for information on missing loved ones.

What they discovered — surprisingly, even awkwardly, many said at the time — was a power they had to help make things feel normal again. Maybe even to help heal.

“We felt like we had to do something big to make those people ­happy,’’ Soriano said. “We felt like we had to win the World Series to make the city of New York happy. … We got close.’’

Ten years after Soriano’s Yankees lost that World Series in seven games to Bob Brenly’s Arizona Diamondbacks, Soriano’s Cubs are the team that takes the stage in Queens, with the New York Mets this weekend on the anniversary of 9/11.

With ceremonies scheduled at CitiField through the weekend, including Sunday’s ESPN night game, it’s at least a chance for the Cubs to forget they haven’t played a meaningful game in months — if not a reminder that there is no such thing.

“It might sound kind of weird, but being able to be in New York on Sept. 11, I’m pretty excited to see how they’re going to do it,’’ said Cubs infielder Jeff Baker, whose dad is a retired Army colonel who worked in the Pentagon for years. “I know I’m pumped up to be going on the field this weekend.’’

Baker was still in college at Clemson on 9/11, but it hit especially close to home, not only because of his military background, but also because a Clemson teammate’s father was working in the Pentagon when a third hijacked plane was flown into the military building in Virginia.

“We were supposed to start fall practice that day, and I remember going to the field and just seeing the look on his face,’’ Baker said. “His dad was in the building when it hit. A lot of the phones were dead, and he couldn’t get through. I just remember how panicked and how nervous and how frustrated he was.

“I remember the pain you could see on so many peoples’ faces.’’

The teammate’s father was one of the lucky ones.

So were many of the players whose lives were touched by the ­aftermath of the attacks.

“I’ve never been prouder to be a part of Major League Baseball than I was then’’ said Brenly, whose D-Backs lost all three games in New York that World Series before winning Games 6 and 7 in Phoenix. “We get all carried away, and it consumes our lives on a daily basis, but the reality is we’re just a distraction; we’re entertainment. And it was never more needed than it was that year.’’

Brenly, the manager of that team and current Cubs broadcaster, remembers a team bus trip to Ground Zero during that series. “Strictly optional,’’ he said, “but 20 of the 25 guys went. And we put on hard hats and talked to the rescue workers. It was just a bizarre setting.

“The rescue workers were getting their cell phones out and calling their kids: ‘Here’s Randy Johnson.’ ‘Here’s Curt Schilling.’ ‘Here’s Luis Gonzalez.’ For the couple hours we were down there, hopefully it gave them a little bit of a breather from what they were going through.’’

As impressed as Brenly was with his players, the batboy on that team — his 14-year-old son Michael, now a Cubs farmhand — did something he’ll never forget.

“We were signing autographs for all the rescue workers and they had given us these plastic hard hats to wear,’’ Brenly said. “He asked me for a Sharpie. And he took off his hard hat and had some of the firemen sign the helmet. He still has it hanging in his room at home. I was pretty proud of that.’’

For those returning this weekend, who were there then, this three-game trip to New York promises as many somber, reflective moments as anything else.

“It will remind me of what ­happened,’’ Soriano said.

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