9/11 20 years later: Much more than a game – a look back at magical night reminds us how sports helped

Mike Piazza rounds the bases on his two-run home run in the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves Sept. 21, 2001
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Mike Piazza rounds the bases on his two-run home run in the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves Sept. 21, 2001

While Saturday marks 20 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, another significant anniversary will come 10 days afterward, marking a poignant occasion that took place just miles away from where the Twin Towers once stood.

It was on Sep. 21, 2001, when New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza swatted a dramatic go-ahead two-run home run that not only helped his team win a game against its biggest rival but gave the Empire State a reason to smile again.

For those who have never seen footage of that first major sporting event in New York City following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, one that was highlighted by Piazza’s drive at Shea Stadium on that cool Friday night, I definitely recommend it. It will give you a jolt.

For those who on that night watched it all go down, you might want to dig up that old VHS tape or find the replay online and watch it again, as I did, to recall when the steps of an enormous comeback first took place in a sea of red, white and blue. It will jolt you again.

To this day I still find it fascinating — and very cool — how the game of baseball, and more specifically one swing of the bat from a future Hall of Famer, meant so much to so many. I count myself among them as both a proud New Yorker and lifelong fan of the Mets.

“People just wanted to cheer about something,” Piazza had said of his home run several years ago as a guest on the TV show MLB Central.

Piazza connected in that 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves not far from the Shea Stadium parking lot that served as a relief station for Ground Zero front-line workers and the families of those lost earlier in the catastrophe.

Many of them were in the crowd of more than 41,000 that attended what was at different times an occasion to honor and remember the fallen; praise those front-line workers; emphasize that better days were, indeed, ahead; and show that even in those times of so much uncertainty, New York wasn’t about to back down. To anybody.

It was an occasion for baseball, too, and though the Mets and Braves were both contending for a playoff spot that 2001 season, that race was really just a side note that magic night as the teams exchanged hugs before the first pitch and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a well-known Yankees fan, was heartily cheered by the Mets faithful.

Noteworthy, too, was Diana Ross’ pregame performance of “God Bless America” and Liza Minnelli’s singing of “New York, New York” during the seventh-inning stretch. Minnelli’s stirring rendition served as a prelude to the game’s most critical moments, when the Braves pushed a run across in the top of the eighth on a double by Brian Jordan and the Mets countered with two in the bottom half, courtesy of Piazza.

“When it left his bat and he posed for a second, as he does, we were shaking our heads in disbelief,” Mets first baseman Todd Zeile had said to Joseph Wolkin of the Long Island Weekly. “I know Mike well. He had some big home runs. There was nothing before or after that matched that moment.”

With one out in the home half of the eighth inning, Edgardo Alfonza walked on a could-have-gone-either-way 3-2 count, and Desi Relaford came on as a pinch runner. After Queens native Steve Karsay threw over to first and then threw a strike to Piazza, the Mets star drilled the next pitch high over the left-center field wall and into the camera tower. The place exploded, and after rounding the bases and heading to the dugout, Piazza — who doubled twice earlier in the game and scored the Mets’ first run on a sacrifice fly by Tsuyoshi Shinjo in the fourth — emerged for a curtain call.

More Remembrances: We remember; The Daily Gazette’s special Sept. 11 anniversary section 

Mets broadcaster Howie Rose made this call: “[Braves catcher Javy] Lopez wants it away … and it’s hit deep to left center … Andruw Jones on the run … this one has a chance! Home run! … Mike Piazza, and the Mets lead 3 to 2!”

It was a great moment for New York and cemented that game as one of the most memorable in Mets franchise history. It was great theater; better than I had remembered. It was the perfect spark to begin the healing process.

“They wanted to shout and scream all night, and boy, did they get that opportunity from Mike Piazza,” Mets broadcaster Fran Healy would say.

WIN STREAK

The Mets’ comeback effort against the Braves was part of a five-game win streak, which began with a sweep at Pittsburgh in New York’s return to play Sept. 17-19 of that season. The Mets beat Atlanta again on Sept. 22 when Robin Ventura and Timo Perez homered in a 7-3 win.

The Mets’ final game before the 9/11 attacks was a 4-2 loss at Florida on Sept. 9.

YANKEES CAME HOME

The New York Yankees played their first home game following the 9/11 attacks on Sept. 25 of the 2001 season and lost to Tampa Bay, 4-0. The World Series-bound Yankees clinched their fourth straight division title, though, when Boston lost to Baltimore earlier that day.

THE LEAD-UP

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig postponed a week’s worth of games. The following weekend, the NFL resumed play, but the Jets were in Foxborough to meet the Patriots and the Giants were in Kansas City to take on the Chiefs. So, exactly 10 days later, professional sports returned to New York when the Mets hosted the Braves at Shea Stadium.

TIP OF THE CAP

Both the New York Mets and the New York Yankees got the OK from Major League Baseball to don commemorative hats to honor 9/11 first responders in their Sept. 11, 2020, games. Major League Baseball had not previously allowed either the Mets or Yankees to wear caps during games featuring the logos of the FDNY, NYPD and other organizations that aided in the effort. Piazza wore a Port Authority Police cap and his helmet was adorned with a NYPD decal that special night when he achieved legendary status.

The Mets beat the Toronto Blue Jays 18-1 in Buffalo, and the Yankees defeated the Baltimore Orioles at home, 6-0, in those Sept. 11, 2020, games.

MOMENT MEMORIALIZED

Piazza was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016 with 427 career home runs. One of them is highlighted on his Cooperstown plaque that reads: “Led Mets to the 2000 Subway Series and helped rally a nation one year later with his dramatic home run in the first game in New York following the 9/11 attacks.”

The Atlanta Braves 2001 roster included future Hall of Fame inductees Bobby Cox (manager), Chipper Jones, Greg Maddox, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, who also pitched for the Mets later in his 300-win career.

Piazza joined the Mets Hall of Fame in 2013, and Alfonzo, the guy who walked ahead of his historic blast, got the Mets hall call earlier this summer.

METS, YANKS MEET SEPT. 11

New York’s Major League teams will meet at Citi Field in a three-game set Saturday, Sunday and Monday, which will include the first-ever September 11 game between the Mets and the Yankees. When the teams played four games at Yankee Stadium July 3-5, the Mets took three of them, which included a doubleheader split on July 4.

More Remembrances: We remember; The Daily Gazette’s special Sept. 11 anniversary section 

Categories: Life and Arts, Sports

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