As always, I appreciate your patience, and look forward to returning to regular blog rotation soon, if not sooner.
The following is a recap of the Mets’ first post-September 11 home game, played ten days following the events of that fateful morning.
At this point, the team had already played a number of road games since the tragedy, but baseball had yet to return to New York City. No one in the tri-state area was anywhere close to the point of healing, yet Mike Piazza and the Mets gave an appreciative home crowd something to take their minds off of reality.
And though the Mets were close to elimination from the division race, I made sure I procured a seat to what would surely be an emotional evening at Shea.
I had lived only a few miles from Ground Zero, and had first hand visual knowledge of the day’s events, but even a few weeks down the road, it just didn’t seem real.
My trip to Shea on 9/21 wasn’t baseball fandom, it was catharsis.
The evening began with a nearly full Shea Stadium making as little noise as possible. A pre-game tribute to the heroes of 9/11 had been showing on the aging, but venerable DiamondVision in left center. By the time I stepped off an eerily solemn 7 train and made way to my seat, a gathering of New York’s Finest and Bravest were already leaving the field to a warm, but not raucous ovation — the likes of which were not typical of Shea fans.
Notables in the crowd included Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, and lifelong Yankee fan, former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani. However, despite Minnelli’s rousing “New York, New York” during the seventh inning stretch, the celebrity presence seemed awkward and unnecessary for a night that clearly had nothing to do with showmanship. Those in attendance seemed to disagree, as every time one of their faces appeared on the screen, riotous applause burst from the seats.
The usually hated Braves also were greeted warmly by the faithful, with only Chipper Jones being subject to any sort of acrimony. And even the chants of “Larry” seemed to die completely once he made his second trip to the plate. I remember getting considerably more choked up during these moments than during the actual tributes, solely because they reminded me that no matter how poorly the rest of the world perceives New York and its fans, we were well-aware of baseball’s importance as escapism.
It was a game - one we perhaps take too seriously at times - but in the end, just a game.
Once actual play was underway, things began to feel normal - a luxury most New Yorkers hadn’t enjoyed in some time. We were quickly reminded that the Mets, despite a season of struggles, were only five games back of these Atlanta Braves following a taut 10 of 11 winning streak. Mike Piazza was clearly absorbing the emotion of the evening, having already sent two doubles rattling around Shea’s cavernous outfield.
With each moment things began to settle into the comforts of normalcy, we were reminded of just how different the world had become. The NYPD and FDNY had made their way from the field back to seats behind the home dugout, which prompted a standing ovation from nearly everyone in attendance. I am proud to say that to this day, police officers and firefighters receive very similar treatment at all NY team home games. And rightfully so.
But for every moment like that, there were also the more cruel reminders of the new society we lived in. I remember seeing someone being chastised for leaving a bag under a seat while walking to the restroom. Security guards were present at every entrance, and were very active in needling “questionable” fans in attendance. Current world headlines often replaced scoreboard highlights between innings. And perhaps most damaging of all, each time a plane took off from nearby LaGuardia Airport, fans could simply not help themselves from looking skyward with nervous anticipation.
Yes, I was one of those fans.
For all the good that a night of baseball was doing, it was clear that the outside world wasn’t going away, no matter how much we wanted it to do just that. Then Mike Piazza stepped up once last time.
In the eighth inning, with the Mets down 2-1, and the fans’ enthusiasm rapidly waning, Piazza hit the defining shot of his career. A fastball by Steve Karsay, left right in Piazza’s wheelhouse, promptly found its way over the center field fence, giving the Mets a 3-2 lead which would hold up as the game-winning RBI.
Piazza tried his damnedest to maintain his composure as he rounded the bases, but the fans weren’t as controlled. Despite the thinning attendance, the cheers were as loud as I’ve ever experienced in my 31 years. It was as if 41,000 people, after two weeks of holding their breath, finally allowed themselves to exhale.
Having just witnessed one of the most dramatic sports moments in history, I high-tailed it back to the 7 train, awaiting a long ride back to Manhattan.
Entering the subway platform, I had my shoulder bag checked twice, and had to wait a considerable amount of time while security carefully filtered the revelers on to each car. But nothing was wiping the smile from my face that night. I had my moment of catharsis.
What’s ironic is that it took an amazing, but ultimately superficial, feat of sports heroics to make the actual heroics of the FDNY and NYPD seem real. Once the joy from the game finished washing over me, and the 7 train approached the Queensboro Plaza tunnel, I took one last look at the downtown New York City skyline, and noticed what was missing.
September 11 was all too real. I finally realized this. But for the first time in two weeks, I also realized that it was okay to smile. It was okay to cheer. It was perfectly okay to start living again.
On Friday, September 21, 2001, ESPN’s John Anderson wrote the following:
“There’s no telling how far Mike Piazza’s eighth-inning game-winning home run against the Braves flew on Friday … because how do you measure the healing power of a swing?“