The Red Sox weren’t their usual selves in 2001. That’s a lie, they were 100% as advertised: aggravating. Since they weren’t going anywhere, I allowed my baseball fandom to fully wander 220 miles south to Shea Stadium.
I began casually following the Mets in 1998 thanks to their acquisition of my idol, Mike Piazza from the Los Angeles Dodgers by way of the Florida Marlins. There was something about his swagger and mustache that really spoke to me as a kid. A power-hitting catcher that I could look up to? Absolutely. No one was going to tell me I couldn’t play behind the plate and hit dingers. If Mike could do it, so could I.
Throughout the 2001 season, I followed the Mets closely through SportsCenter and the newspaper. That was about as close as you could get to an out-of-market team. I would wake up every morning, get the sports section, find the Mets box score and then wait for the SC recap.
The 2001 MLB season saw Barry Bonds going for the single-season home run record in San Francisco. The Seattle Mariners were playing out of their minds, on their way to 116 historic wins. Ichiro Suzuki was changing the way we thought about hitters and Japanese imports. The game was changing.
And then the world stopped turning.
On September 11th, 2001, I was in my first-period middle school social studies class when they announced the first plane. For some reason we weren’t alerted to the first attack on the World Trade Center. It wasn’t until 20 minutes later when the second plane hit, that our Vice Principal voice came over the loudspeaker, shaking with the weight of his announcement.
“Sorry for the interruption… but… two planes have hit the Twin Towers in New York City. If you would like to turn on your TVs, you may.”
When I came home my mother was on the phone with my uncle who lived less than a mile away from Ground Zero. It hit me that phone calls like the one my mother was making were going unanswered all across the country. We were lucky. Our family members were alive.
Over the next few days I was glued to the TV. I think we all were. In a world that felt so dark, so cruel and so unsure, what we wanted was peace, some answers and normalcy. I wanted to go back to how things were September 10th.
Of course, we couldn’t do that.
The first few baseball games after play resumed didn’t feel the same. The game was the same. Nine innings, 27 outs, two teams, a bat, a ball and a glove, but it was different. There was this tension in the air. This unknown hanging over everything. I’ve now come to the understand that feeling as fear. We were afraid of everything, but most of all, we were afraid of the uncertainty the future held.
Each day men and women struggled to clean up the physical and emotional rubble left at Ground Zero. We all tried to clean up in our own way, to rebuild and process. The road ahead was hard. How does a person walk down a shaky road with no light ahead of them? How do you walk around with your head swimming in the darkness? How do you move forward when you can’t pick your feet up off the ground?
The New York Mets played their first three games after the MLB resumed in Pittsburgh, due to the proximity to lower Manhattan and the fear of another attack. The Mets were 71-73 going into Pittsburgh, a team that was beaten down after making it to the World Series the year before
The Mets would win their next three games against the Pirates, returning home to Queens one game over .500.
The Mets were the first professional sports team to play a game in New York after 9/11, and security at Shea was tight. The Mets were facing off against the Braves, who had a commanding 5 game lead over the Amazin’s in the NL East. The Braves and the Mets were always rivals, jockeying for dominance in the East, but that night was different. September 21st, 2001 was not about competition, but compassion and companionship.
Bruce Chen pitched for the Mets going 7 innings, giving up 1 run on 6 hits. The game was tied going into the 8th when Brian Jordan doubled off of Armando Benitez, bringing in one run. The Braves had taken a 2-1 lead.
The 8th inning was a trouble spot for the Mets in 2001. Mets bats were hitting .249 that season, but managed to drop that number to .220 in the 8th inning. If it came down to the wire, the opposing team had the advantage late in games.
In the bottom of the 8th, Matt Lawton grounded out to short on a full count, and Eduardo Alfonso drew a walk after working the count full. Both men waited to see what Steve Karsay was offering before making their move, but the next guy up wouldn’t.
After watching the first pitch miss for a ball, on the second pitch of the at-bat, Mets catcher Mike Piazza sent a message to New York, the United States, and to one scared kid in Boston.
“We’re going to be okay.”
What happened on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, will never be forgotten, nor should the men and women who lost their lives and those who risked their lives trying to save them. I was just a kid from Boston trying to make sense of the world, while men and women were climbing the stairs of the towers knowing full well they might not be coming back down. That’s a sacrifice few of us can fathom making. That’s bravery.
Did Mike Piazza save New York? No. He did, however, provide a moment where we could forget everything and watch a baseball fly into the night sky. It afforded us all a moment to cheer for something that might not matter tomorrow. Mike Piazza offered us a light in a dark world.
Sports have an interesting way of restoring faith and strength to a city. We saw that happen in Las Vegas after the mass shooting this year and in Boston after the Marathon Bombings, and many, many more. There’s a moment where you are transported elsewhere for four quarters, three periods or nine innings, to a place where the world doesn’t matter.
I was just a scared kid in Boston, and in that moment I felt something loud and clear. Something profound. “We’re going to be okay.”
There’s darkness everywhere in today’s world. Sometimes it’s a shared darkness, sometimes it’s private and personal. We all can’t be Mike Piazza, sending a home run over the fence, reuniting a broken city, but I think we can be that light for each other.
Today is a tough day for everyone, tougher those with a direct connection to the attacks. Perhaps in the name of remembrance we should make today a Day of Service to each other, for each other. Whether that’s calling a friend who you haven’t spoken to, giving up your seat of the subway, forgiving a relative, or even just listening to someone’s problems.