Twenty years after he lost his two sons at the World Trade Center, Hank Grazioso wants to get back to work in The Bronx. He is 86 years old, waiting for surgery on the blockage in his leg, and yet his goal is to return this month to the office of his childhood dreams.
At retirement age in 2000, Grazioso answered an ad for a job at Yankee Stadium. He used to sell communication systems to hospitals, and now he was going to sell baseball tickets to fans. It made sense; Grazioso was a big fan himself.
His old man took him to Yankees games all the time. He had met Babe Ruth as a young boy and later worshipped Mickey Mantle. Grazioso shot Mantle’s farewell day at the old Stadium with an 8-millimeter camera, though the film is shaky because he was crying so damn hard. He passed on his pinstriped passions to his sons, Tim and John, and to his daughter, Carolee, and cherished their rides together to The Bronx. Sometimes they arrived at the Stadium in mid-morning for a night game, ate a packed lunch and waited by the players’ parking lot for autographs.
So Hank Grazioso was busy loving his second-career life on the radiant morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, after Monday night’s rain washed out the game against the Red Sox and Roger Clemens’s historic bid to go 20-1. Grazioso was walking to his ticket window with his money bag when he saw Frank Swaine, vice president of ticket operations, intently watching TV coverage of a story that had just broken. A plane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, where Swaine’s son John worked with Tim and John Grazioso at Cantor Fitzgerald.
After the second plane hit the south tower, Grazioso said, Swaine took out two pairs of rosary beads and the men dropped to their knees and prayed. Both fathers had sons who had survived the Trade Center bombing in 1993. They were hoping against hope that on this one day their hard-working boys had been running late for work, and had never made it to their north tower offices on the 104th and 105th floors, the scene of an unspeakable crime.
Their sons would be among the nearly 3,000 who were murdered on 9/11. In the days after the terrorist attacks, the Graziosos provided authorities with toothbrushes, hair brushes and dental records for potential DNA matches. John’s brother-in-law, a federal prosecutor, visited the Ground Zero site and threw a golf ball into the rubble, because John loved playing golf as much he loved watching the Yanks.
Rescue workers would find remains of John and Tim, dedicated husbands and fathers, that were identified and returned to their families at different times over the years. Hank Grazioso spoke in detail about what was recovered from each of his sons, and how John’s remains, in particular, were ultimately substantial. “It gave us a big sense of closure,” Hank said.
Tim was a 42-year-old COO of over-the-counter training at Cantor, and John was a 41-year-old eSpeed salesman. Hank likes to believe his boys were together, comforting each other, when they died. The father has done some reading about the fall of the twin towers, and came across a story about employees who gathered on Tim’s floor in an office that overlooked the Statue of Liberty, just as Tim’s did. Those employees hurled computers through the windows as the building burned. “And a bunch of them were stacked on top of each other and leaning out the window to get air,” Hank said. He likes to believe that was Tim’s office.
His boys were tough Jersey kids, after all. They played varsity football at Clifton High School, and after getting injured one day at practice, Tim walked the long way home on what turned out to be a broken ankle.
But more than anything, Tim and John were baseball guys. Yankees fans. “Fanatics,” Hank called them. Young Timmy adored Joe Pepitone, at least until the day the flamboyant first baseman stiffed him on an autograph. Timmy chased Pepitone to his red Cadillac after the Yankee had promised to sign, only to end up crying and promising to never again root for his favorite player. When the two met again at a fundraising event decades later, Pepitone offered to make up for the bygone snub, and Tim stood up for his younger self and declined.
The rest of their Yankee memories were far sweeter than that. Hank would pick up his sons and Carolee at their mother’s house, drive across the bridge and park on 155th Street. Timmy and Johnny once got their picture taken with Elston Howard on the field. After games back then, fans were actually allowed to walk on the outfield grass and exit the Stadium at the right-field gate. Timmy and Johnny loved stopping in center and reminding their father that they were standing where the great Mantle had once stood.
Nobody in the family was thrilled when Carolee married a passionate Mets fan named John Azzarello; the two were engaged at Shea. The Graziosos were supposed to stay on the same side of the Subway Series. Like most Yankees fans, they loved all the sights and sounds of the old Stadium. The boys used to tell their father, “Can you imagine Bob Sheppard saying our names?”
On July 6, 2002, Bob Sheppard said the names of Tim and John Grazioso during an Old Timers’ Day tribute to Yankee family members who had died. Their father had posted photos of his son inside his ticket window, Number 61. In the months after 9/11 Hank would see a vision of Tim and John when he opened that window. Over the years he said he would occasionally see a bright light in his bedroom, and a fleeting image of his smiling boys in the light. Grazioso said it happened again about six months ago in his New Jersey home. “It’s so quick,” he said, “but it’s like they’re letting me know they’re still OK.”
So much has changed in the world since their senseless deaths. The 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden left Grazioso feeling a sense of relief and closure on behalf of his sons. The recent withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power, left the former Marine feeling frustrated over what he called “a wasted war.”
But Grazioso doesn’t spend his days consumed by anger or hate. He’d rather spend his time focused on his grandchildren, including John’s three with his wife Tina — Kathryn, Kristen, and Michael — and Tim’s twin daughters with his wife Deborah — Lauren and Briana, who would work for Cantor Fitzgerald. Grazioso said through a laugh that he might decree in his last will and testament that each of the kids should possess his 2009 World Series ring for one year.
Now he wants a second ring. Toward that end, Grazioso is really worried about these 2021 Yankees. “This team runs hot and cold,” he said. “And when they’re cold, they seem worse than Baltimore, if that’s possible.”
Grazioso had a good day Wednesday, anyway, while watching his former colleague Derek Jeter deliver his Hall of Fame speech in Cooperstown. They first met nearly 13 years ago in Turks and Caicos, where Jeter and his girlfriend Minka Kelly were suddenly seated next to him in an otherwise empty restaurant. Grazioso handed the shortstop his Yankees business card and said, “We work for the same Boss.” They talked for a while, with Jeter asking if the new Stadium would be ready to go on time. The ticket seller had just become one of the few people on the planet who could say he had a conversation with Derek Jeter and Babe Ruth.
Grazioso was only a child when the Bambino briefly entered his life. Hank was standing outside his family’s vegetable stand on Route 46 in Clifton, tossing a potato in the air and catching it with his glove, when a customer asked him if he liked baseball. When Hank told the woman that he did, she pointed to a parked Packard and told him to go over and say hello to Babe Ruth. The one and only was sitting behind the wheel. Ruth asked the boy a couple of questions, told him he would return to the stand after a trip to Lake Hopatcong, and then never reappeared.
Eighty years later, Grazioso can still feel how disappointed he was that the Babe didn’t return. But that’s OK. He’s lived a full Yankee life. He was in the building when Mantle hit his 500th career homer, and when Aaron Boone hit his Game 7 blast to walk off the Red Sox, and he is determined to get back in time for another indelible Yankee swing.
Returning from a pandemic-forced furlough in July, Grazioso worked only one day before the extreme pain in his right leg barely left him able to make it to his car. His surgery last year to clear a blockage didn’t work, so he is scheduled Wednesday for a second procedure. Meanwhile, Grazioso is facing Saturday’s 20th anniversary of the worst day of his life.
“I just can’t picture my sons in their sixties now,” he said. “My grandchildren are all grown up. My one grandson in college never knew his father, John. We had his first birthday party right after 9/11.”
Michael Grazioso is a junior at Wisconsin, and he reminds everyone so much of John. Michael isn’t the biggest sports fan, but described himself as a Yankees fan because of his grandfather. Hank got Jeter to autograph a baseball for him.
“He lost both his sons, and I’m the only man besides him in the family with the name Grazioso,” Michael said. “He sees his sons vicariously through me.”
Tim and John Grazioso’s mother, Sandra, died at 84 last year after a long illness, after Carolee kissed her and told her it was time to be reunited with her sons. Hank and Sandra had been divorced for years. “But my father said, ‘She was my first true love,’ ” Carolee recalled. “His heart broke when Mom died.”
Grazioso knows heartbreak like few people do. He grew up wanting to play in Yankee Stadium and twice ended up on the mound, throwing out ceremonial pitches to honor his lost boys.
Now 86, he just wants to get through another surgery and return to work. If Hank Grazioso makes it back to The Bronx, this much is certain: There will be no tougher Yankee in the house.