Baseball is more than just a stick-and-ball sport. It’s known as America’s pastime for a reason.
More than any other sport, baseball brings people together. While many fans prefer sports to be apolitical and not about anything other than the game itself, this was impossible in the days and weeks after the 9/11 attacks. A spark was needed in order to bring back some sort of normalcy to the lives of New Yorkers, and on Sept. 21, 2001, the New York Mets offered the first opportunity to do just that.
The Mets were scheduled to face the division rival Atlanta Braves just 10 days after tragedy struck America. This would be the first professional sporting event in New York City since the tragedy.
“It was the most security and law enforcement personnel not just at a baseball game, but anywhere,” Todd Zeile, the first baseman for the 2001 Mets, told Long Island Weekly. “It was a very uneasy time. A sporting event in New York City was the first thing that could be looked at as another target.”
In the days after the Twin Towers fell, Shea Stadium became one of the main areas for volunteers, first responders and supplies to travel into Manhattan. Bobby Valentine, manager of the Mets at the time, sprung into action, as did Brooklyn native and veteran pitcher John Franco. Several Mets also joined the cause, heading downtown not only to thank the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives, but to help.
“We visited firefighters, families of victims to see what baseball, the Mets or some feeling of normalcy meant to the people who were experiencing on a direct basis,” Zeile said.
Zeile was one of seven Mets to visit Ground Zero, joined by Valentine, Franco, John Stearns, Al Leiter, Robin Ventura and Mike Piazza.
They had an emotional exchange with the first responders, trading the Mets’ black, blue and orange caps with ones from the American heroes.
“I suggested to the guys that it would be a great tribute to the city, the first responders and the victims if we wore their hats in tribute,” Zeile said. “I got hats from the NYPD, FDNY and the Port Authority, and we dispersed them to the team.”
Though MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who retired in 2015, canceled games throughout the week after 9/11, baseball restarted as life began to feel slightly normal again on Sept. 17.
The Mets weren’t home yet, though, playing a series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, delaying the return to Shea until what would become the most emotional Friday evening in American sports history.
“We had one of the most emotional bus rides I’ve ever been part of,” Zeile said. “We came across the George Washington Bridge on the way to New York City. We could see the lights in the air and the smoke billowing from where the towers once stood.”
The Mets wore the caps when they returned to Pittsburgh as baseball resumed. They wanted to do the same tribute once the team took the field at Shea Stadium.
However, Selig’s office sent a controversial letter to Zeile, the team’s Major League Baseball Players Association representative.
“I personally received a memo from the league office, saying we were not allowed to wear the hats and that it’s a violation of Major League Baseball’s uniform code,” Zeile explained. “We had the hats. There was no question about it. Bud Selig was going to have to come down here to try to rip them off our heads if he thinks we’re not going to wear them.”
The players were undeterred, wearing FDNY and NYPD caps for the rest of the 2001 season, and they still do on each anniversary, showing the healing continues to this day.
After the Sept. 21 matchup, there was so much backlash from fans and New Yorkers over the caps that the league office gave the Mets permission to continue the bond they created with the first responders.
The Mets entered the Sept. 21 game 75-73, 5.5 games behind the division-leading Braves. But on this night, the hunt for October didn’t matter.
This was about winning for America.
“The pregame ceremonies with the families and first responders on the field was the most emotional thing any of us have ever been apart of,” Zeile said. “This moment was bigger than baseball.”
Who can forget the moment actress and singer Liza Minelli surprised fans by walking onto the bright green grass during the seventh inning stretch. As veteran broadcaster Howie Rose said, “With a policeman on her right arm and a fireman on her left arm.” Almost immediately, the famous words of New York, New York flowed out of not only her mouth, but of the thousands of fans in the stands. American flags waved throughout the ballpark as New York’s finest danced and held onto each other a mere three-feet behind Minelli.
“Oh my goodness,” Zeile said. “The electricity of the stadium. We stood in awe.”
The ballgame was just as enticing as the secondary events surrounding it. This was a late-season matchup between NL East rivals.
Bruce Chen, who started his career with the Braves, was on the mound for the Mets, squaring off against Manhasset-born Jason Marquis. Marquis had quite the emotional week, losing his longtime friend, firefighter Michael Cammarata, in the terrorist attacks.
Both pitchers tossed gems. The Mets only scored once against Marquis in six innings—a sacrifice fly by Tsuyoshi Shinjo in the bottom of the fourth to bring Piazza home from third. The game was tied at 1.
“We kind of plugged along during that game,” Zeile, who hit a double to a left field in the fourth inning, said.
The game remained tied until the eighth inning, when Braves right fielder Brian Jordan hit a double off Mets reliever Armando Benitez. It was 2-1 Braves as Steve Karsay, a Queens native, took over pitching duties for the Mets’ division rivals.
Matt Lawton, the Mets’ right fielder, was the first batter up in the bottom of the eighth. He grounded out to shortstop Rey Sanchez.
Second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo came up to the plate. Karsay walked him.
Here comes Piazza, the star catcher.
The Mets replaced Alfonso with Desi Relaford at first base to pinch-run. It wouldn’t matter.
As Karsay delivered the pitch, Piazza was dialed in. The ball made contact with the upper part of No. 31’s bat. Piazza stared at it, as it flew high and far to deep left-center field, leaving the building and turning Shea Stadium into one of the craziest scenes in baseball history.
It was impossible to hit a more poetic home run. It was impossible not to smile.
“When it left his bat and he posed for a second, as he does, we were shaking our heads in disbelief,” Zeile recalled. “I know Mike well. He had some big home runs. There was nothing before or after that matched that moment.”
The sign, “We believe,” was shown on television screens across New York City. Everyone did believe, and the Mets began the healing process for all of New York.
Benitez stayed in the game, pitching the ninth inning with a level of momentum unlike any other. The Mets won the game, 3-2, closing within 4.5 games of the Braves.
Eighteen years later, it’s hard not to look back at this moment and how it impacted all of America.
“The national pastime came back with an exclamation point,” Zeile said. “The city bonded together around sports to present a healing message.”
Last year, the 9/11 Memorial Museum invited Zeile, Alfonzo and other New York sports stars to unveil a sports-related exhibit at Ground Zero. The exhibit continues to showcase artifacts and footage of stunning athletic moments in the days, weeks and months after 9/11, each of which helped America heal.