Gil LeBreton

For New York after 9/11, it was time to play ball

Manager Bobby Valentine and catcher Mike Piazza salute Mayor Rudy Giuliani before the game against the Braves at Shea Stadium on Sept. 21, 2001. It was the first sporting event in the city following 9/11.
Manager Bobby Valentine and catcher Mike Piazza salute Mayor Rudy Giuliani before the game against the Braves at Shea Stadium on Sept. 21, 2001. It was the first sporting event in the city following 9/11. ALLSPORT

Writer’s note: Fifteen years ago, I spent an emotional four days in New York in the wake of the World Trade Center tragedy. The dust from the collapse of the towers still covered the streets of lower Manhattan. The handmade signs and photographs desperately pleading “Have you seen this person?” were posted on walls and fences.

Ten days after the tragedy, the New York Mets had the privilege of hosting the city’s first major sporting event after 9/11. Below is the column I wrote that night from the Mets-Atlanta Braves game at Shea Stadium.

It originally appeared in the Star-Telegram on Sept. 22, 2001.

The center-field gate swung open and the wail of bagpipes, each of them coming from a New York policeman, filled the night air, sending a silvery chill up 41,235 spines.

Diana Ross, a supreme choice, stood later at home plate and sang God Bless America while strangers hugged and tough guys from Queens wiped away tears.

And there was a moment of silence that spoke more sadly, yet never more eloquently, than any that has ever been heard.

Ten days after the fearful morning, there was a baseball game Friday night, and The City That Hasn’t Been Able to Sleep — New York, New York — sorely needed it.

Across the East River at the foot of Manhattan, the rescue effort continues. Loved ones are still missing. Funerals are being held.

Two days ago, in fact, the lot at Shea Stadium, home of the Mets, was being used to stage rescue vehicles and sort emergency food supplies.

But to everything there is a purpose. A time to weep. A time to mourn. A time to play ball.

Last Monday, when the major leagues resumed their season, the Mets were scheduled to host the Pittsburgh Pirates at Shea. With their parking lot more nobly occupied, however, and a piece of their hearts immersed in what was happening in lower Manhattan, the Mets switched the games to Pittsburgh’s PNC Park.

Friday’s game, therefore, marked the first meaningful professional sporting event in the city since the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

“It is time to move forward,” New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani told reporters. “This is a way to get things back to normal.”

Yet, though the nine innings were filled with vestiges of normalcy, the night was anything but.

As game time neared, the lines waiting to get into Shea Stadium stretched hundreds deep. Because of heightened security, all bags and purses carried through the turnstiles were being checked.

“Not a single person has complained,” a security man at Gate D reported, shaking his head.

The inside of the stadium was awash in red, white and blue. Atop the visiting Atlanta Braves’ dugout, the old message, “Welcome to Shea Stadium,” was changed to read, “Welcome to New York City.” The top of the Mets’ first-base dugout bore the new hope, “God Bless America.”

As they had first done in the Pittsburgh games, the Mets wore baseball caps with the logos and initials of the gallant rescue workers: the New York police and fire departments, the Port Authority Police, and two major emergency services.

The team also announced that manager Bobby Valentine, his coaches and the 34 uniformed players were each donating their night’s salary to a fund that directly benefits the surviving spouses and children of the police officers and firefighters who perished in the tragedy. The total donation is expected to be close to $450,000.

No, there was little normal about Friday night.

As part of the pregame ceremonies, Mets management assembled not only the police bagpipers, but also choirs and former Supremes, and color guards and flag bearers from each of the city’s rescue units.

“I truly felt that we were just spectators, standing there while they saluted their fallen brothers and sisters,” said Mets catcher Mike Piazza, who watched from along the first-base line. “It was just an incredibly moving ceremony.”

Perhaps only the heavens can explain how the Mets themselves came to make the night even more meaningful. Written off as underachievers for most of the season, Valentine’s team came into the series against Atlanta having won 20 of its past 25. The Braves are looking over their shoulders.

The Mets have not lost since the World Trade Center tragedy. The Mets have not lost since they began wearing their rescue-worker caps.

The Mets, some have suggested in print, have become symbols for a city determined to rise from the ashes.

“There’s a real weight to carrying that kind of symbolism,” Valentine said. “But we’re going to do everything we can to keep it going, just like those rescue workers, though it may be hope against hope.”

New York has never been a town, though, to go quietly. With the Braves clinging to a 2-1 lead Friday, the crowd stood for the seventh-inning stretch, and superstar performer Liza Minnelli began to sing New York, New York.

It’s the town’s anthem, and it probably has never been more welcomed. A line of six uniformed officers behind Liza joined arms and, like a heroes’ chorus line, began to kick in time with the music. Both the Braves and Mets came to the top dugout steps to cheer.

In keeping with what almost seemed a script, Piazza came to the plate in the eighth inning and slammed a two-run home run off the TV scaffolding. The Mets went on to win 3-2, as more strangers hugged and more tough guys from New York wept.

“There was a lot of emotion tonight in the stands,” a drained Valentine said afterward. “There was probably some trepidation just coming here. There were certainly caring and sadness shown by the crowd in the pregame.

“We allowed them to have the emotions they deserved. Emotions are a part of our lives.”

Emotions, we were reminded Friday night, have a purpose.

A time to weep. A time to cheer. A time to play ball.