When the Pirates squared off against the Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday, they turned to 23-year-old fireballer Gerrit Cole, a rookie who got his chance this season. And what a chance it's been! With a 3.22 ERA and 100 strikeouts in only 19 starts this season, Cole has given the Pirates another strong arm in the rotation. When Clint Hurdle gave Cole the ball against Adam Wainwright in the winner-take-all game earlier this week, no one batted an eye. Cole had been that good.
And it all wouldn't have happened if not for what happened on September 11, 2001. In fact, the Pirates are hardly alone in having their playoff hero so closely tied to the attacks of that day.
Allow me to explain. In the months after the attacks, the United States government tightened its borders, and this included more stringent reviews of documents like passports, visas, and birth certificates.
As Paul Meyer described it in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 2002: "Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., the United States has tightened security at immigration offices world-wide. And that meant that baseball players reporting to spring training this year faced tougher scrutiny of their birth records when they applied for their visas."
As you might have guessed, this led to a rash of players getting older in the spring of 2002. In Atlanta, shortstop Rafael Furcal, one year removed from winning the 2000 National League Rookie of the Year award at 19, turned out to be two years older than was thought. Instead of a 21-year-old shortstop returning to spring training that February, the Braves suddenly had a 23-year-old on their hands.
In New York, the Mets saw their own shortstop, 29-year-old Rey Ordoñez, suddenly become 31. In Kansas City, it was Neifi Perez who aged two years, going from 26 to 28 overnight. Some players aged even faster. Angels pitcher Ramon Ortiz, for example, threw his last pitch of the 2001 season as a 25-year-old. By the time spring training rolled around, Ortiz was about to celebrate his 29th birthday. The list went on. Luis Cruz, Timo Perez, Deivi Cruz, Enrique Wilson. And more.
While most of these players have long vanished from the big leagues, there are a few survivors of the "great age correction" still playing. In fact, some are even still making a difference this month.
Take Juan Uribe, for example. Now an elder statesman at 34, Uribe hit a huge two-run homer against the Braves in Game 4 of their Division Series earlier this week.
Back in 2001, Uribe was a 20-year-old shortstop for the Colorado Rockies. By the time he reported to his first camp following September 11, however, he had grown a year older. Thanks to a more thorough check of Uribe's birth certificate, the Rockies suddenly had a 22-year-old in their starting lineup.
Up in Oakland, the A's benefited from a Cy Young-caliber performance from Bartolo Colon all season, his 2.65 ERA ranking second in the American League. In Game 1 of the ALDS, Colon allowed three runs in the first inning, but nothing else for the rest of his six innings. His late-career resurgence has been invaluable to the A's. If not for the post-September 11 crackdown, however, we might not have known just how "late-career" this resurgence has really been.
Following the 2001 season, Colon, then with Cleveland, was 26 years old and two years removed from a fourth-place Cy Young finish. Due to the increased scrutiny, it was discovered that Colon was actually 28 years old, a significant jump for any player let alone a pitcher with body issues like Colon. The Indians would trade Colon to the Expos later that summer for a smorgasbord of future stars.
But what about Cole? How could a Dominican age scandal from 11 years ago have led to a young pitcher like Cole (who was barely 11 at the time) starting a pivotal Game 5 here in 2013?
Believe it or not, it all comes down to Wandy Rodriguez. Acquired from the Astros in 2012, Rodriguez pitched well in his time for the Pirates before going on the disabled list for good in June. When it came time to fill his spot in the rotation, Pirates GM Neal Huntington saw his top-rated prospect pitching well in the minor leagues and decided to give him his chance. It was Cole's first trip to the big leagues.
It's a fairly straightforward story, but things might have been different if not for September 11. For one thing, the Astros would never have traded "Wandy Rodriguez" to the Pirates. Instead, they might have traded "Eny Cabreja", the name Rodriguez used when he signed his first contract back in 1998. At the time, Rodriguez was 19 years old and likely too old to interest the scouts. By taking on the name of Cabreja, a 17-year old from his hometown, Rodriguez looked more appealing. It worked, with Rodriguez getting a $5,000 signing bonus and a chance to play for a big league club.
As players started getting busted for inaccurate documents following September 11, Rodriguez learned that the real Cabreja had applied for an official government i.d. card back home. Knowing that he would likely be found out soon enough, Rodriguez chose to contact the Astros organization himself and come clean. The timeline is unclear on whether Rodriguez did this before or after the 2002 season, but we can be sure that Rodriguez played his first season under his given name in 2003.
If September 11 never happened, Rodriguez might never have come forward about his true identity. In 2012, with the Astros looking to clear out bigger contracts, they might have looked at 31-year-old Eny Cabreja differently than they did 33-year-old Wandy Rodriguez. Maybe they don't trade him at all, or maybe they find a better package for the southpaw than Pittsburgh was able to muster. Either way, Rodriguez doesn't get injured while pitching for Pittsburgh and maybe, just maybe, Cole doesn't get called up in time to earn the trust of his manager.
It's all a lot of ifs and buts, of course, but a 34-year-old Wandy Rodriguez did get hurt just in time to launch Gerrit Cole's career, and it all may have hinged on the truth of Rodriguez's identity coming out in the wake of one terrible Tuesday.
The world changed on 9/11, in big ways and small. The ramifications of that day are still felt everywhere, from taking your shoes off at the airport to standing up for "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch. Gerrit Cole, Juan Uribe, and Bartolo Colon as playoff heroes are just the latest examples of its wide-ranging and surprising effects on the baseball world.