It was billed as an important step in New York City’s return to normalcy after 9/11. But there was nothing normal about it.
The first professional sports game played in the city following the attacks came at Shea Stadium on Sept. 21, a lovely Friday night and the last evening of summer. The third-place Mets were hosting the division-leading Atlanta Braves, their arch rivals, with first place within reach.
I’d been to some big games, even historic World Series classics. But nothing prepared me for what I was about to experience, and no game etched itself deeper into my memory before or since.
I was joined at the ballpark by my brother Ray, a New York City firefighter, and two of his colleagues from Engine Co. 280/Ladder Co. 132 in Brooklyn, known as “The Eye of the Storm.” All three firemen had spent the last week on “the pile” at Ground Zero, fruitlessly searching for survivors — including seven men from their own Crown Heights firehouse. They were physically and emotionally spent, and ready to lose themselves in a baseball game.
Walking from the parking lot to the entry gate, we were puzzled by the slowly moving queue of fans that seemed to stretch a quarter-mile. It was the first clue that 9/11 had forever changed the way Americans would attend live sporting events. Guards checked every bag, frisked every fan and wanded people with handheld metal detectors.
We took our seats and looked up to see NYPD snipers in the rafters circling Shea. Another chilling first.
The crowd — and skies — were unsettlingly quiet. Shea was famous for its loud fans and even louder planes roaring overhead from nearby LaGuardia Airport. Post-9/11, flights over populated areas were forbidden.
It was assumed then that NYC and densely-populated targets were still very much in the sights of terrorists. Much debate transpired before MLB, which had moved three Mets home games to Pittsburgh earlier in the week, decided to allow baseball back in NYC. And everyone attending the game that night accepted a certain level of risk. They were also making a statement: New Yorkers would not bow to fear and let terrorists change our way of life.
Such weighty thoughts had never entered my mind before something as trivial as a ballgame before.
The pre-game pageantry was gut-wrenching. Most of the 41,235 in attendance didn’t know what to expect or how to act. The crowd mustered only a low murmur and a few scattered cheers of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Both teams exited the dugouts to line up along their respective baselines — something that only happens on Opening Day or in the postseason.
Cameras scanned the faces of the ballplayers and their images appeared on the giant screen in centerfield. Mike Piazza, the Mets’ star catcher, was struggling mightily to stay composed. Manager Bobby Valentine egged the crowd on, as if to say, “It’s OK to cheer.”
But I’ll never forget the face of Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. Like most Met fans, I hated this cocky future Hall of Famer and inveterate Met killer. He enjoyed so much success at Shea that he named one of his sons after the ballpark.
His eyes welled, his bottom lip quivered, as he fought tears. It was a stirring show of compassion for a city that had always treated him as the enemy. I became a Chipper Jones fan in that moment.
Cavernous Shea fell silent as the bagpipers began their mournful dirge and sailors in their dress whites began the slow march from centerfield holding a horizontal, giant American flag.
The cheers began to build, as another solemn march formed — dozens of firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and other civil-servant heroes of the city, taking their places next to the sailors to lay their hands on Old Glory.
I remember thinking, “How many of these men and women lost co-workers, brothers, husbands, wives?”
I began to weep. Embarrassed, I glanced around, only to find everyone else, including my companions, wiping away tears.
Diana Ross sang “God Bless America.” The crowd embraced every note. It was the first time I had heard that song at a sporting event. Now it is almost mandatory.
Some of the details of the game have grown fuzzy with time. But these are inconsequential when measured against the enormity of what we had lost, and the huge national catharsis we were experiencing firsthand. It was a tight, low-scoring game.
In the fifth inning, I climbed the stairs to buy more beer. But when I got to the concession, I was told they had run out. The next stand was sold out too. I was stunned. A giant stadium had run out of beer halfway through the game. Fans were drinking as if at an Irish wake — some to forget, some to toast those we’d lost, but I believe most were celebrating getting back to living.
By the 7th-inning stretch, when Liza Minelli belted out a rousing rendition of “New York, New York,” the crowd was raucous.
In the top of the eighth inning, the Braves scored to take a 2-1 lead. The hope of a fairy-tale ending to an extraordinary night seemed to be draining away.
In the bottom of the inning, with one out and a man on base, Piazza stepped to the plate. He had seemed more affected by 9/11 than most of the players. Maybe it was because he lived in an apartment not far from Ground Zero.
As if scripted, the future Hall of Famer slammed a towering home run into the night, and the Mets took a 3-2 lead they would not relinquish. Delirium filled the stands. The normally stoic Piazza pumped his fist as he rounded first base, knowing he had given New York a gift it would never forget.
Over the years, several Braves players, including Jones, have come out and said it was the one game of their careers they did not mind losing. John Smoltz put it best: “It was like a game that wasn’t really a game. It was a healing.”