When I think about September 11, I immediately become angry. Angry with malevolent terrorists who committed mass murder on American soil, terrorists who participated in one of the greatest atrocities in American history. I have no sympathy for the terrorists, and no interest in hearing about their reasons for murdering innocent people.
After awhile, my anger turns to sadness. I think about Adam Lewis, the one person I knew who died in the Twin Towers. Adam and I were classmates at Hamilton College, part of the class of 1987. I didn’t know Adam well enough to call him a friend, but knew him well enough to realize that he was a good guy and a strong family man. Like all of the other civilians who died that day, he deserved better.
And then my sadness turns to a smile. I think about the way that Americans responded to the tragedy. So many firefighters, medical personnel, and policemen reported to Ground Zero on a day when they were not supposed to work. They had no obligation to report, but knew it was the right thing to do. So many volunteers went there, gave hours and hours of themselves, in an effort to rescue whoever might have survived. These were Americans at their finest.
One of those Americans was a former Yankee, Frank Tepedino. A veteran member of the New York Fire Patrol, Tepedino was at home that day when he heard about the terrorist attacks. He, his son, and two other firefighters immediately drove to the towers. Even though they were coming from Long Island, it took them four hours to reach the site.
By the time they arrived, the towers had already collapsed. Tepedino and the others did what they could, searching the rubble for other potential survivors. “Moving debris, opening manhole covers, helping with food, water and excavation,” Tepedino told the Syracuse Herald American in 2001. As they helped in the recovery efforts, Tepedino and his friends worked in 24-hour shifts.
What began as a rescue mission eventually became a job of cleaning up, once they realized that no other survivors would be found. It was frustrating for Tepedino and the others, knowing that the missing would not be found, but they also knew that the cleanup had to be done.
Tepedino’s rescue efforts put him in the spotlight for the first time since 1975, when he wrapped up a journeyman career with the Braves. Originally drafted by the Orioles, Tepedino was then selected by the Yankees in the Rule Five draft. The Yankees loved his left-handed swing, envisioning him as a possible answer at first base. But there were roadblocks at the position, Mickey Mantle and Joe Pepitone early on, and then Johnny Ellis and Ron Blomberg.
The Yankees switched him to the outfield, but there was no room there either, not with people like Roy White and Bobby Murcer holding down starting jobs. As a result, Tepedino never received even close to a full opportunity to play regularly in the Bronx.
He spent a good deal of time at Triple-A Syracuse, where he became one of the Chiefs’ most popular players. Early in 1971, the Yankees finally gave Tepedino a reprieve, sending him to the Brewers for strongboy Danny Walton, who had enormous power but an alarming propensity for striking out.
The Brewers gave Tepedino a look at first base, but he couldn’t beat out veteran Johnny Briggs. So the next spring, the Brewers sold him back to the Yankees. They used him exclusively as a pinch-hitter, and then used him as part of a package to acquire Pat Dobson from the Braves. In 1973, Tepedino became part of the Braves’ celebrated bench brigade, which was known as “F-Troop.” As Tepedino explained to The Sporting News, “F stands for fearless and faithful.” Playing as a backup first baseman and pinch-hitter, Tepedino hit .304 for manager Eddie Mathews. He also had the opportunity to play with a fellow named Hank Aaron, bookending a career that had seen him start his career playing with his boyhood idol, Mickey Mantle.
Two years after leading F-Troop, Tepedino was out of baseball. At the age of 27, Tepedino had to seek out a new career, while continuing his battle with alcoholism. Not only did Tepedino beat the bottle, but he found himself doing worthy work as a fire fighter, beginning a 30-plus year stint with the New York Fire patrol.
On September 11, Tepedino, like thousands of other first responders, became a hero. It was still an awful day, a day that brings with it so many bad memories. But it was a day when people like Frank Tepedino showed us only their best and helped us feel proud.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.
[Drawing by Larry Roibal]