CLEVELAND -- The plane had just hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center about the time James Ruzicka got off work.
A correctional officer working the night shift at the Washington State Penitentiary, Ruzicka returned home shortly after 6 a.m. on the West Coast, turned on his TV and …
"Boom," he says now.
That boom changed all of our lives. We associate 9/11 with our individual experiences -- where we were, who we were with and, sadly for so many, who we lost. And we share those associations with each other on every anniversary of that awful day.
Here in the baseball world, we perform the now-common communal experience of taking a moment of silence before the first pitch, and we are, hopefully, a little more attentive when the "Star-Spangled Banner" is sung. Beyond that, there's nothing baseball or any news channel or public gathering can accomplish to completely convey the utter shock to the system that Sept. 11 was. The lives it altered, the sense of security it betrayed.
That's why I sought out Ruzicka before he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Indians' home game against the Royals at Progressive Field on Wednesday. I didn't want to just reflect on 9/11 and my own interpretations of its aftermath. I wanted to look at that aftermath square in the face, shake its hand, express my gratitude.
Maj. Ruzicka, as James is now known, is serving with the Army at New Kabul Compound in Afghanistan, immersed in a war too few of us think much about or even understand. The first air strikes on Afghanistan took place Oct. 7, 2001, and Operation Enduring Freedom endures to this very day.
Ruzicka watched this war from afar in those initial years after 9/11. By then, he had been out of the Army for several years. He first enlisted in 1984, did three years of active duty in the infantry, four years with the Washington State National Guard and six years in the Army Reserve. He served as a company commander in Operation Desert Storm, a relatively swift struggle to liberate Kuwait. In '97, with the defense budget in decline and a civilian life awaiting him, Ruzicka left the Army, presumably for good.
"I never thought I'd come back," he said.
Sept. 11 changed his thinking, just as it changed so much else. Ruzicka would follow the reports from the front in Iraq and think, "God, I was there once."
"It was mainly a feeling of support for the guys over there," he said. "Because all of us that go, we're doing our job. It's not our plan to go over there. Our main thing is to keep them safe, keep our own people safe and keep terrorists out of the States."
Ruzicka's stepson, Patrick Neal, had enlisted and done three tours of duty overseas as the war evolved. It was at the conclusion of Patrick's third tour that Ruzicka had a revelation about his place in the all-volunteer effort.
"I said, 'You know what?' That's enough kids going back again and again and again," he said. "I thought I should do a tour, too."
Ruzicka re-enlisted in 2009 and is in his second tour now. He reports it's getting better. The Afghani people, he said, are increasingly prepared for that day at the end of 2014, when America's mission officially changes from one of combat to one of support.
"They're actually trying," Ruzicka said, "and they're realizing that we're leaving. They're taking it to heart that they really need to protect their country from all these enemies of their state."
Americans have taken that notion to heart in the aftermath of 9/11, but, of course, international operations are increasingly complex. We've lived with the conceptual nature of the "War on Terror" so long that it's become embedded in our background, and now new international issues arise that have our government straddling that thin line between diplomacy and action. The threat of war and the act of war have been at hand literally every day in this country since Sept. 11, 2001, though only a small percentage of us have lived it the way Ruzicka has.
He was at Progressive Field on Wednesday with his wife, Lori. They met in Afghanistan, when she was serving at the Kabul Compound as a civilian member of the Department of Defense. They married in Louisiana in January, when Lori was on leave and James was in the midst of a two-month training session between tours.
Lori's a native Clevelander, a baseball fan, an Indians fan. So she inquired with the team about the possibility of having James, as a complete surprise to him, throw out the first pitch during his too-brief, two-week leave.
"We got married when I was on break and then we switched -- I came home, and he was over there," Lori said. "So this is the first time we've actually lived in our house together."
They soaked in this experience of standing on a tranquil field on a muggy morning. James told the story of the time Nick Swisher visited the base as part of a USO Tour around Christmas in 2011, and how he was looking forward to having Swisher catch his pitch. Lori proudly displayed her Tribe jersey with the Ruzicka last name on the back.
When his time came, James took the mound in his Army fatigues, reared back and tossed a slow but on-target strike to Swisher's mitt. He shook the first baseman's hand, got his autograph on the ball and spoke jovially for a couple minutes. Then Swisher took the field and James took his seat.
On Friday, Maj. Ruzicka will be back in the air, bound for Kabul. Back to a war that endures, back to the aftermath of 9/11 and all it has wrought.