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It Was More Than Just A Game: Baseball in New York After 9/11
Sports can sometimes transcend the relatively simple events that occur on the field of play. Sometimes a game is more than just a game. A sporting event can carry social, cultural, or political significance. There have been countless examples of this over the years including Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947, “The Miracle of Bern” when Germany defeated the highly favored team from Hungary in the 1954 World Cup helping to restore German self-esteem on the world stage after the disgraceful events of World War II, or the United States hockey victory over the USSR in the 1980 Winter Olympics which symbolized a seismic shift in global politics.
Just last week in Los Angeles, Japan played Korea in the finals of the second ever World Baseball Classic. There were political and cultural overtones that clearly elevated the game from being just a game. The atmosphere in Dodger Stadium last Monday night was simply electric.
In 1896, Baron Pierre de Coubertin reestablished the modern Olympic Games. He believed that sport brought people together and created a better understanding between peoples and nations. In his eyes, the Olympic Games could achieve social change and provide an arena for countries to compete in something other than war. It can certainly be debated whether de Coubertin’s vision for the Olympics has come to fruition or not, but that is an argument for another day.
One event that had enormous cultural ramifications and symbolism occurred in New York City on September 21, 2001 when the New York Mets hosted the Atlanta Braves in a Major League Baseball game at Shea Stadium.
It was the first sporting event of any kind in New York City after the terrorist attacks of September 11. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the Shea Stadium parking lot became a staging ground for much of the relief effort. Mets manager Bobby Valentine and many of the Mets players worked along side citizen volunteers doing what they could to help.
My friend Adam, who, like me, is a long-suffering Mets fan, and I trekked up to New York from Wilmington, Delaware via Amtrak for the Friday Night game. I bought the tickets on EBay that day. It was a last minute decision to go, but both of us felt like we wanted to be in the house that night. Adam spent most of his life living and working in New York but did not directly know anyone who had died in the attacks. I knew someone on the United 93 flight that crashed in the field in Pennsylvania. He was a close friend to my sister. He was married with two teenage daughters.
Early in the day, Adam and I trained into Manhattan. We ate lunch at the famous Old Town Bar and Restaurant on 18th Street. It was as far downtown as you could get before hitting the blockades that were still up after the attacks. The OldTown, which has been serving incredible burgers and cold draught beer since 1892, is a favorite spot for many Wall Street workers. I will never forget the glazed look on some of the people walking the streets and sitting at the bar that day. The city’s wounds were still very fresh, very raw, and very real.
After lunch, we took the famous number seven train from Manhattan to Queens and Shea Stadium. Once at Shea, the feeling before the game was eerie. At first people weren’t sure how to act. Was it okay to cheer or even boo while the WorldTradeCenter site was still smoldering in plain sight off in the distance?
The Mets and Braves are bitter baseball rivals and under normal circumstances the tensions would run high for a late season clash like this, but I knew right away that it was not going to be a normal night when Mets fans actually cheered for Chipper “Larry-Larry” Jones, the Brave they love to hate the most, as he saluted them with a doff of his cap. Marc Anthony sang the Star Spangled Banner with forty thousand patriotic fans providing the backing vocals and Diana Ross sang a stirring rendition of God Bless America. The Mets wore caps honoring the New York City Police and Fire Departments.
Liza Minnelli came out for the seventh inning stretch to sing a playful and powerful rendition of New York, New York, which seemed to lighten the mood for a moment.
It was a close game. Going into the eighth inning, the score was tied 1-1. The Braves, however, would score in the top of the eighth when that Chipper Jones guy would drive in a run and give the Braves a 2-1 lead. As the Mets came up to bat, Braves manager Bobby Cox went to his bullpen and brought in the hard throwing Steve Karsay to pitch the eighth. The first batter up was Matt Laughton who struck out on a 101-mph fastball. The next hitter, Edgardo Alfonso, walked which brought up Mike Piazza.
Karsay had gone to a 1-2 count on both Laughton and Alfonso using the exact same pitch sequence: fastball, fastball, and curve before throwing a blazing 100+ mph heater on 1-2. After walking Alfonso, Karsay was visibly upset with the umpire. He didn’t like the calls during the Alfonso at bat. With Piazza now at the plate, Karsay, still distracted with the umpire from the previous at-bat, once again showed the exact same pitch sequence: fastball, fastball, and curve. I turned to Adam just prior to what I knew would be a 1-2 fastball and said, “Watch this,” as I felt I knew exactly what was about to happen.
As Karsay released the pitch, time seemed to slow down. The pitch flew in at 102-mph, but moved in slow motion towards the plate. WHACK! The exploding sound as the bat hit the ball resonated throughout the stadium, the city, and maybe even the entire country. The crowd watched, seemingly in silence, as the ball traveled farther and more majestically than any I have ever seen, waiting as it disappeared deep into the New York City night before erupting into the loudest and most incredibly emotional ovation I have ever felt. The stadium foundation shook. The sound was deafening as forty thousand people leaped, screamed, and cheered, “USA! USA!” What a moment for Piazza and the city I thought as I jumped up and down hugging everyone around me.
Piazza at the Plate
The Fans React
The Mets would hold on to win 3-2 on Piazza’s mammoth home run that traveled over 440 feet to left centerfield. Afterward Chipper Jones, confirming the surreal nature of the evening, would concede that he was happy that the Mets won.
In a recent interview on ESPN Radio in New York, Piazza, who retired from baseball this past winter, reflected on the moment. He talked about the overall vibe of the stadium that night and how torn he was before the game because he didn’t know whether it was appropriate to play baseball so soon after 9/11. But once the game got started and especially as it moved into the later innings, Piazza talked about how the players fed off the electricity coming from the fans. He said he felt like divine intervention helped him do it. He said, “That if he’s remembered more for that one home run than any other big home rune he’s hit, then that’s perfectly fine with him.”
Sports made a difference that night as it helped ever so slightly the healing process for some while providing a brief distraction from reality for others. I was proud to be at Shea Stadium that night when a baseball game was clearly more than just a game.
It is a night I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life.