All the possibilities were scattered inside three baseball hats. In the first hat was every month from January to December. In the second, every number from 1 to 31. And in the third, every year from 1970 to 2019.
The idea, pilfered from Gene Weingarten’s book “One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America,” was to cobble together one day with the assistance of the three ball caps, and then write about what happened in the world of sports. In all, there were 17,885 options lurking inside the hats. But pick by pick, the day started to come into focus:
It was a Wednesday in the middle of the dog days of summer, but still there were headlines: Randy Moss signed a $75-million contract with the Minnesota Vikings, making him the third-highest paid player in the NFL behind Drew Bledsoe and Brett Favre. That morning, Andruw Jones testified in court that he had had sex with two women from Atlanta’s infamous Gold Club; that afternoon, he walked three times against the Reds. A Wisconsin Badgers running back, Erik Bickerstaff, was arrested after a bouncer refused to let him in with a fake ID — the old ID of former Wisconsin running back Michael Bennett, the Vikings’ first-round pick that year.
But in many ways it was a regular day, which meant there was both life and death and the blessing and curse of routine existence. At 2:10 p.m., an 18-year-old in Gainesville, Fla., said goodbye to a twin brother. At 8:59 p.m., a husband and wife in Philadelphia welcomed a baby boy who would one day lift the Heisman.
Two mammoth big-leaguers were glad to get the hell out of Milwaukee for no other reason than they were terrified of their hotel. A young quarterback at a tiny private college in Rhode Island went to sleep totally unaware of the great heights awaiting him. And in Philadelphia, a bombastic NBA executive resigned from his post, setting him on a course to discover the remains of a long-lost sunken ship.
Even the most random day has secrets and surprises waiting to be unearthed.
Eric Gagne doesn’t know if he believes in ghosts, but he knows he once convinced himself he did.
It all started with veteran catcher Chad Kreuter. Kreuter was in his 14th season in 2001, so he had been everywhere and seen everything. Before the Dodgers’ three-game series in Milwaukee, he told the 25-year-old Gagne about the old downtown hotel where visiting teams always stayed.
It was called the Pfister Hotel, and it was long rumored to be haunted.
Opened in 1893, the Pfister has all the spooky trappings: moody chandeliers, stained glass, Victorian artwork. Over the years guests claimed they spotted the hotel’s founder, Charles Pfister, standing on the grand staircase, gazing down at the lobby.
Chad Kreuter had his own story to tell Gagne. A few years earlier, Kreuter swore he fell asleep with his door locked and lights off, but the next morning, when he woke up, the lights were all on.
Gagne had always been afraid of scary movies, so when he arrived at the Pfister on July 22, 2001, he was on high alert. He tried to distract himself, going to a casino “pretty much every night” and staying out as late as possible in the hopes that he would crash when he got back to his room. It didn’t work.
Teammate Adrian Beltre told reporters that ghosts kept him up until sunrise by flipping the lights and tickling his toes. Gagne didn’t report anything that extreme; he just changed rooms three times in the course of his three-night stay.
“Two little scared baseball players that weighed 240 pounds,” Gagne says now.
Stephen King was asked after a lecture in 1979 if he believed in ghosts or paranormal activities, a natural question for someone who has explored those areas extensively. King said no, but added when he “was alone, late at night, yes, always.”
On July 25, the Dodgers lost to the Brewers. But it was a day game, as well as the final game of the series, which meant one thing: Gagne went straight from the ballpark to the airport, leaving behind the horrors inside the Pfister and his own mind.
Robert Autin was happy for his brother, but a part of him felt like a ghost. That’s how he described it.
Robert was a freshman walk-on at Louisiana Lafayette, while Eraste, his younger brother by one minute, was a freshman fullback on scholarship at Florida. It was a thrilling time, those first wonderful weeks of college when possibilities flow from an unlimited tap of hope.
Still, it was the first time they had ever been apart. They had shared the same friends, the same teams, even the same room; had wrestled over a jar of peanut butter, argued over who got top bunk and gone head-to-head in football drills.
Eraste loved technology and rigged a contraption that allowed him to turn off the lights and tape episodes of “Seinfeld” without ever leaving his bed. Robert’s side of the room was filled with books, encyclopedias and maps.
In high school, Robert was good enough to start at linebacker and offensive line, but Eraste was gifted: a 6-foot-2, 245-pound brick who emulated Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott. Alabama, Arkansas, Northwestern and Tulane wanted him. But when Eraste committed to Florida at the end of his senior year, it was a bit of a surprise.
“I just didn’t tell a lot of people about it,” he explained to the (Lafayette) Daily Advertiser, “because I didn’t want people to think I was just bragging if I didn’t end up going there.”
Not long after high school graduation, Robert headed to Lafayette for summer workouts. Eraste headed to Gainesville in June. He took a full physical and started his first day of summer classes, blowing away his new teammates with his strength and work ethic, his desire to finish first in every drill.
To Robert’s delight, Eraste declared pre-med as his major, same as his brother.
On July 20, Eraste lifted weights for an hour in the afternoon. Then he took the field with other freshmen for his 10th offseason workout. He warmed up for 10 minutes and stretched for five, then bounced between four agility stations. Eraste took a water break and finished with a string of gassers: two sets of 200-yard sprints, two sets of 150 yards, two sets of 100 yards and, finally, one more 200-yard sprint.
It was 88 degrees, with 72 percent humidity and a heat index of 102, a typical Florida afternoon. The workout lasted 50 minutes.
Afterward, Eraste jogged from the practice field to the locker room. No one saw him fall, but a teammate found him on the sidewalk, alone and unconscious, his face pale. A local dentist on the scene poured water over Eraste’s face, hoping to cool him down. A campus police officer called 911. The paramedics arrived at 5:26 p.m., and he was admitted to Shands Hospital on the Florida campus at 5:47 p.m.
Robert was back home when his father, a urologist, got the call. When Robert heard the words “heat stroke,” he didn’t think much of it. After all, his dad had suffered a heat stroke a couple years earlier, and he was fine. Eraste was younger, stronger and in peak condition. Robert’s dad, however, seemed to grasp the severity right away.
According to Robert, Eraste was combative and disoriented when he arrived at the hospital, and in order to calm him down before a CAT scan, doctors gave him a sedative. Eraste suffered a heart attack. Doctors fought to revive him for 20 minutes, by which time Eraste had slipped into a coma.
Robert is a general surgeon now, so rarely a day goes by when he doesn’t see intubated patients. But back then he was an 18-year-old college freshman who walked into a hospital room and saw his big, powerful twin brother — the “epitome of brawn” — hooked up to a ventilator, a breathing tube down his mouth, his face swollen.
Florida coach Steve Spurrier and his wife visited the hospital. So did Eraste’s teammates. Back home, in Lafayette, Eraste’s and Robert’s high school held prayer groups and vigils.
On July 25, Robert hugged and kissed Eraste. He told his brother he loved him and would miss him. Then, at 2:10 p.m., Eraste Autin died. His parents and sisters flew back home with his body. Robert drove his brother’s car nine-and-a-half hours from Gainesville.
The loss hit all members of the Autin family hard, but David Autin, Robert’s and Eraste’s father, worried most about Robert. Robert wore his brother’s No. 40 during Lafayette’s first game that year, but he quit the team in the middle of the season.
“My brother’s in a boneyard,” Robert told a reporter from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “I just couldn’t be a meathead football player anymore.”
Twenty years later, Robert still has the scapular Eraste wore around his neck and the black patch Florida players wore on their jerseys. There is the Eraste Autin Fighting Heart Award at their old high school and two scholarships in his brother’s name.
Robert is not a particularly spiritual person, but he was taught growing up to pray before meals and before bed, and he maintains that tradition. He thinks about Eraste all the time, but he is busy, and sometimes days slip away from him. So at night, he lays in bed and says his prayers: Hail Mary, Our Father, Glory Be and Act of Contrition.
Then he prays that he sees Eraste again that night. His dreams are always the same: There is Eraste, with his dark hair and dark features. He is a doctor, just like Robert. There’s usually a little fogginess, a little distance, as if Eraste had been sick and away but now is healthy and home again.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what happens in the dream. Robert is always just glad to see his brother.
The visitors who filled the dorms at Bryant College every summer since 1976 arrived earlier than usual.
The New England Patriots floundered en route to a 5-11 record in 2000, Bill Belichick’s first as the franchise’s head coach. And even though Hall of Famers, superstars, future cult figures and last-second heroes riddled the roster, nobody knew it then. The 2001 Patriots were still just a crew of names attempting to sort out what went wrong and how to avoid becoming the long-term occupants of the AFC East’s cellar.
The summer of 2001 was peak post-Y2K pop culture. It was another summer of NSYNC and O-Town. MTV’s “Total Request Live” dominated living room TVs. The initial “Fast and Furious” debuted, as did Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde.”
Tom Brady’s last summer of anonymity featured what you’d expect from a 23-year-old: epic bouts of “Tecmo Bowl” on the original Nintendo system in his Boston condo with roommates and teammates David Nugent and the late Chris Eitzmann. Brady always chose the San Francisco 49ers, his hometown team. Beyond that, the summer of 2001 played out in quiet offseason workouts at home in the Bay Area, on fields in the greater Boston area and, lastly, on a private Civil War-era campus in northern Rhode Island.
July 25 was the eve of Patriots camp. Drew Bledsoe had recently signed a 10-year, $103 million deal in March 2001, then the largest contract in the history of the NFL. The battle for his backup was a trivial camp storyline compared to the Patriots’ real issues.
At Bryant, Brady, like all his teammates, slept in a dorm room furnished with twin beds and he made the long walk each day from the gymnasium, where fans circulated hot, humid air in the pop-up locker room, down a dirt pathway that led a half-mile to the practice fields.
Brady and other young players lugged helmets and pads down the dirt walkway after practice. Veterans like cornerback Ty Law rode electric scooters. At night, some players took flashlights to the ponds of Bryant’s campus and speared bullfrogs; team chefs cooked up frog legs as a trophy delicacy.
Offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi recalls a tall, scrawny and slow quarterback who spent his spare time watching highlights of Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Phil Simms. Nugent said safety Lawyer Milloy was the first veteran mainstay to voice Brady’s rapid ascent during defensive team meetings.
“It was like he was preparing for his moment,” Nugent said. “He didn’t know when it would happen, but he knew it would happen.”
The photo galleries highlighting training camp on the team website showcased every quarterback in a red practice jersey other than No. 12. There’s one photo of Andruzzi pointing out assignments. The No. 12 is visible behind him, but the image has cropped out the head of the man who would go on to become the most successful quarterback in NFL history.
“Nobody knew the future then,” Andruzzi says.
The night of July 25, the world went to sleep not knowing who Tom Brady was. Brady, in his bed in his muggy dorm room at Bryant, truthfully didn’t know what was coming, either.
On the day Joy Fawcett had her third child, a 7-pound, 7-ounce baby girl she named Madilyn Rae, she released a statement through her professional soccer team, the San Diego Spirit.
“I’m just glad the pain is over,” Fawcett said, “and I’m looking forward to slowly getting back on the field.”
Anyone who knew Joy Fawcett knew that last part was a lie.
Fawcett was many things — a devoted mother, a two-time World Cup champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and determined defender, the type of person who has been called a badass more than a few times in her life. One thing she was not: patient, at least not when it came to getting back on the field. Just two-and-a-half weeks after having Madilyn in June 2001, Fawcett wrote in an online diary that “it’s time for me to get back into shape.”
Fawcett had always possessed two dreams. The first was to be a mother. The second was to play soccer at the highest level. Before her first child was born, she had no idea if she could do both. She had sworn to herself and her teammates that if soccer ever interfered, if she ever felt the sport was hurting her kids, she would give it up without regret.
All throughout her first pregnancy, she had pushed her physical limits: running stadium stairs, lifting weights, scrimmaging with teammates until her belly got so big they quit playing with her. At times she alarmed her doctor, but even he didn’t have much wisdom for an athlete-mom.
Katey was born in May 1994. In July, the national team played in the Olympic Sports Festival in St. Louis. Fawcett brought her daughter and arranged for childcare during practices, games and team meetings. But when she got there, the festival’s administrators said Katey could not stay in the athletes’s village.
“I was in tears,” Fawcett wrote. “What was I going to do?”
Luckily, a couple overheard the exchange and offered their master bedroom.
When Fawcett was pregnant with her second daughter, Carli, born in May 1997, she intensified her training, adding more weights and coaching at UCLA into her ninth month of pregnancy. So by her third pregnancy, in 2001, her attitude was, “OK, let’s go.”
It was always hard for Fawcett to sit and watch, but she felt a special urgency to get back in the summer of 2001. Intoxicated by the 1999 World Cup, John Hendricks, the chairman and CEO of the Discovery Channel, launched a professional women’s soccer league, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), the first high-level pro league in America, in 2001.
Fawcett played for the Spirit, and to get back, she did daily stroller runs and snuck in wall sits and crunches while her daughters napped. On the Fourth of July, she took the day off, reveling as her girls stuck their heads in piles of whip cream in search of a hidden raisin.
On July 25, the Spirit played at the first-place Bay Area CyberRays. Fawcett’s whole family was there. In the 45th minute, Fawcett’s teammate, Julie Foudy, whipped in a corner that found Shannon Boxx, who headed the ball to Fawcett, who put the ball in the back of the net just one month and 20 days after giving birth.
“That goal was not by luck,” teammate Brandi Chastain told reporters after the game. “She was in exactly the right place to get the ball and she took advantage of it. That’s the thing about Joy.”
At halftime, Fawcett listened to her coach while at the same time breastfeeding 7-week-old Madilyn. Then she handed her daughter off and jogged onto the field, intent on closing out the win.
We know that it was 90 degrees, although the humidity easily made it feel like 100; that the game was played at Burks Park, just outside Tampa; and that Stuart Tapley pitched a shutout. What we don’t know is where Will Blankenship was that day. He played all over that season: some right field, some left field, a little third base and catcher.
Will’s best guess? That he was in left field. Either way, he watched Stuart, one of his closest and oldest friends, throw an eight-strikeout, four-inning no-hitter to keep Apopka, Fla.’s, Little League World Series dreams alive.
Stuart Tapley and Will Blankenship had been friends since they were 5, or as long as either can remember. Stuart laughs at the time a popup missed Will’s glove and smashed his face; Will laughs at Stuart’s childhood nickname, “Milk Bone,” which he earned after one of their teammates dared him to eat a dog treat. Stuart not only ate it, Will says, but also enjoyed it.
Apopka won the sectional tournament, then the state tournament, then the regional tournament. The team did not stop winning until the Little League World Series, when it ran up against a team from the Bronx anchored by a left-handed ace with a killer fastball: Danny Almonte threw a headline-grabbing perfect game against Apopka; only later did he make headlines for the wrong reasons.
Apopka battled through the consolation bracket for a rematch against the Bronx in the American championship game. This time, Almonte couldn’t take the mound because he had pitched in the previous game. Stuart, Will and their teammates won 8-2.
As they got older, Stuart went to one high school, Will to another. Stuart played baseball at Florida State, Will at a Division II school in West Virginia. When Stuart married his high school sweetheart, Lesley, in October 2013, Will was in his wedding party.
On New Year’s Eve 2014 they hung out with a group of friends, including Lesley’s sister Ashley. Will had packed on a few post-college pounds. Ashley was big into fitness, so the morning after the party, Will powered through his hangover to join her on a three-mile run, damn near killing himself. Later, Will and Ashley teamed up to plan a gender reveal for Stuart’s and Lesley’s first child.
In 2017, Will and Ashley married. Stuart had a prime view of the ceremony. After all, in addition to being one of Will’s oldest friends, he was now his brother-in-law.
On July 25, 2001, Pat Croce stepped down as president of the Philadelphia 76ers, citing differences with majority owner Ed Snider.
Croce grew up in Philadelphia, where he became a physical therapist in his hometown, working for local sports franchises like the Flyers and 76ers. After cashing out on a chain of physical therapy businesses, he became minority owner and team president in 1996 and lobbied to draft an undersized guard named Allen Iverson No. 1 overall.
Forty-three days before resigning, Croce scaled the nearly 400-foot-span of the Walt Whitman Bridge to help hang a 5-by-70-foot banner that read, “Go Sixers, Beat L.A.,” walking up one of the suspension bridge cables to get up there. Had Iverson and the 76ers beaten the Lakers in the 2001 NBA Finals, he had plans to drop a team banner over the Hollywood sign.
Then, in a flash, he disappeared from basketball.
Away from the sport, he leaned into his expertise in taekwondo (he is a black belt), taught himself Kanji and opened a pirate museum. “I’m a businessman with a passion for pirates,” Croce once told CNN, “and I’m all about taking action on your passion.”
So it was not surprising that Croce, eventually led a group of divers and archeologists who claimed to have discovered both the Elizabeth and the Delight — Sir Francis Drake’s long-lost ships — off the coast of Panama in 2011.
You remember Drake from world history class. A legend in his homeland, Drake drifted from decorated naval officer to pirateer and even slave trader during the 16th century. King Phillip II of Spain had a bounty out on Drake’s head that is equivalent to $8.5 million today. The Elizabeth and the Delight were both scuttled — sacrificed to the sea — in the wake of Drake’s death from dysentery in 1596. In 1977, archaeologists went looking for the ship on which he circumnavigated the planet. In 2021, Spanish researchers discovered four more sunken ships affiliated with Drake.
Like Drake, Croce was never destined for the ordinary. Like all true pirates, he left the 76ers in search of something no one before him could ever find.
Mario Encarnacion took the trade in stride, but Marcos Breton did not. The first sentence of his column in the next day’s Sacramento Bee seethed: “There is no loyalty in baseball.”
Breton admits his objectivity had long ago abandoned him. How could it not? He had met Encarnacion five years earlier, when Breton was embarking on a book about Latin American baseball players and Encarnacion was a prized prospect in the Oakland A’s farm system.
Back then, Encarnacion was the most coveted of baseball unicorns: the five-tool player. But Breton was drawn to Encarnacion because of his personality. He had a “poetic soul” and spoke “almost lyrically.” An honest, complex young man, Encarnacion could talk about the fear and anger inside of him. As Breton would write: “You loved him for who he was, not the player he was supposed to be.”
Breton watched Encarnacion’s promise crack in the minors, as soon as pitchers realized he could not touch their curveballs and sliders. Breton was there the night Encarnacion struck out in three straight at-bats. After the last time, Encarnacion returned to the dugout, hammered his bat into a concrete wall and screamed. “As if,” Breton wrote, “he were being mauled by a wild animal.”
As Encarnacion struggled, Miguel Tejada, one of his close friends, was blossoming. In many ways, they were opposites. Where Encarnacion was haunted by failures and setbacks, Tejada thought only of the next pitch, the next at-bat, the next game.
But by the summer of 2001, Encarnacion’s stock had dropped to an all-time low. He was 25, almost 26. On July 25, he woke up to a phone call from his friend and Triple-A teammate, Jose Ortiz.
“We’re outta here,” Ortiz said.
Encarnacion was part of a three-team trade that sent Jermaine Dye to the A’s, Neifi Perez to the Royals and Encarnacion, Ortiz and one other prospect to the Rockies. Breton drove to Encarnacion’s apartment and watched him pack his bats, 15 pairs of shoes and enough clothes that he paid $225 at the airport to ship them all to Colorado. The Rockies called and told Encarnacion to join the big-league club in Denver. After six years in the minors, after leaving his home with the weight of his family on his back, he was finally going to the majors. The first thing he did was call his mom, who cried. Then he called his wife.
An hour later, the Rockies called back. There had been a mistake. He was to report to the Triple-A team in Colorado Springs.
“He didn’t have the heart to call his mother back so soon,” Breton wrote.
Breton drove Encarnacion to the airport that day. Before they departed, Encarnacion smiled and handed Breton one of his bats.
“For old-times sake,” he said. “Thanks for being my friend, Marcos.”
Encarnacion made the major leagues in 2001. He played three more games in 2002, and then it was over. He bounced around the minors in 2003, getting suspended once for bumping an umpire. He played in both the Mexican League and the KBO in 2004 and in the Chinese Professional Baseball League in the fall of 2005.
In Taiwan, he tested positive for steroids and was suspended for two weeks. He complained to his wife of intense stomach pains. On the field, he hit 17 homers in 66 games, but he had floated so far away from his dream that he could no longer see it, even if he refused to believe that it wasn’t still out there.
“The last thing a player ever loses is hope,” he told Breton the last time they saw each other, in 2003, over lunch at a cantina in Sacramento.
Then one day in Taiwan, Encarnacion didn’t show up for practice. His teammates went to his dorm room. They found the lights on, the refrigerator door open and Encarnacion unresponsive on his bed. He had just turned 30.
In the years that followed, Breton would feel many things: sadness, anger, guilt, confusion. He never found out how Encarnacion died, never found answers to his questions. All these years later he still thinks of Encarnacion. Breton is not big into possessions — he drives a 20-year-old pickup truck — but in his office, off limits to his children, is the bat Encarnacion gave him, a gift from his friend.
For years Craig Young wanted the kind of relationship with his father idealized on TV shows he watched growing up. His parents separated when he was 5, and while he moved west to Los Angeles with his mom and sister, his dad remained in Philadelphia.
He saw his dad in the summer and on holidays, but for most of his childhood and adolescence, Craig wanted more. So one night, after his high school football banquet, he and his best friend vowed that when they had kids of their own, they would do everything they could for them and their dreams.
That became his promise: He would do it differently. He would be different.
Craig wanted so much for his son. More than anything, he wanted him to see no limitations, no false horizons. This meant that when his son was old enough, Craig would coach him to ensure that he would always get a fair chance. And when his son showed flashes of elite talent as a lanky young quarterback, he would research the best trainers, the best coaches — whatever it took to help him get better.
Most of all, it meant his son would always know his dad would go to the edges of earth for him.
At times he would have to check himself; there is a thin distinction between being supportive and being overbearing. He did not want to be a caricature, a stereotype of the Football Dad, but sometimes he could feel himself slipping in that direction. When he brushed up against that line, his wife, Julie, would ask: Do you want to sacrifice your relationship with him over coaching him? And he would admit that, yes, he did need to change, he did need to let his son breathe.
But back at 8:59 p.m. on July 25, 2001, when Bryce Young, the future Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Alabama, entered this world, Craig did not think about the kind of dad he wanted to be. He already knew.
(Illustration: Wes McCabe / The Athletic; Photos: Rick Loomis, Robert Gauthier, Vreeland/ClassicStock, Bill Greene / Getty Images)