Documentary On Mets’ First Home Game After 9/11 Delivers Memories And Lessons That Resonate 20 Years Later
A documentary about one of the most remarkable and universal feel-good moments in baseball history begins with a necessary reminder of why everyone took the field at Shea Stadium on September 21, 2001, filled with a terrified uncertainty.
The first minute of “Remembering The Game For New York” — which airs tonight on the MLB Network and looks back at the Mets-Braves game that featured the iconic go-ahead home run by Mike Piazza — includes footage of hijacked planes flying into the Twin Towers before both buildings collapsed on September 11, 2001, when 2,977 were killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where a plane believed to be headed to the White House or Capitol was crashed into a field.
The opening narration delivered by Mark DeRosa — a New Jersey native who played that night for the Braves and is now an MLB Network host — will resonate with anyone who lived through that awful day.
“I’ll never forget any of it,” DeRosa said. “Where I was, what I was thinking, what I was feeling.”
More importantly, DeRosa’s words — and those of his fellow New York-area natives who were in uniform for the Mets or Braves that night — could help to convey the chaotic emotions of 9/11 to a younger generation that might not understand the trepidation with which everyone tried lurching back to the tiniest slice of normal 10 days later.
“To think of 20 years past — and I know you guys know this, because we’re here, we have kids, I have kids, they don’t remember other than pictures,” said Al Leiter, a former Mets pitcher and New Jersey native who joined DeRosa and Staten Island natives John Franco and Jason Marquis on the MLB Network set across the river from the rebuilt One World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower.
For a few hours on 9/11, there seemed no limit to what might happen next. Bridges and tunnels into and out of New York City were shut down almost immediately after the attacks began. The Mets, who were in Pittsburgh to play the Pirates, were moved to a hotel in the suburbs because the hotel they were staying at downtown was next to a federal building.
Franco and Marquis — the latter of whom started for the Braves and tossed six solid innings on Sept. 21 — discussed the pain of losing firefighter friends who died while fighting the blazes and of the collective grief New Yorkers felt for the employees who went to work that sunny late-summer morning and never returned.
“You see pictures of people running out — these guys are putting their lives on the line to be heroes and running in the opposite direction,” Marquis said.
“Feeling so sad for just the average person going to work, trying to put food on a table for their kids and the Moms and Dads and the lives that were lost,” Franco said. “It’s so sad.”
Over the subsequent days, the enormity of the death toll begin to sink in with the around-the-clock sight of rescue teams searching for survivors. With baseball games postponed for the remainder of the week, players from both New York teams visited Ground Zero. Shea Stadium became a staging center and Mets players helped load boxes with supplies for rescue workers.
The baseball schedule resumed Sept. 17 with the Mets in Pittsburgh — the series was originally scheduled to take place in New York — and the Yankees in Chicago to face the White Sox. As Sept. 21 loomed, the usual emotions yielded in anticipation of a Mets-Braves game — the rivalry was fierce bordering on mutually contemptuous after a six-game NLCS in 1999 and a season-long pennant race in 2000 — were replaced by a universal fear.
“My thoughts were I can’t imagine even playing in this game,” said then-Braves first baseman and current Nationals manager Dave Martinez as he stood with DeRosa across from Citi Field at the site of Shea Stadium’s home plate.
“You felt like you were in the safest place you could possibly be,” DeRosa said as footage of sniper atop Shea Stadium and video of cops frisking fans aired. “But you didn’t trust anything.”
The Mets, wearing first responder hats, mingled with the Braves beforehand. Prior to first pitch, the teams stood along their respective baselines, with most players and staff members being moved to tears by the solemnity of the ceremonies, which included a 21-gun salute in a silent stadium, Diana Ross and Marc Anthony performing “God Bless America” and the National Anthem, respectively, and the NYPD bagpipers playing “Amazing Grace.”
The most vivid images came at the end of the pregame program, when the Mets and Braves — led by Mets coach Dave Engle and Braves catcher Eddie Perez — exchanged hugs and handshakes.
“Our rivals, a thorn in our sides, when that happened — hugging and shaking hands — that’s when you’re like, hey, this is where everybody comes together, we’re in this together,” Franco said.
“Amazing sight in the center of the diamond,” said current SNY play-by-play man Gary Cohen, broadcasting the game on WFAN. “Meeting for hugs and handshakes — who would have ever thought that possible?”
The teams traded runs in the fourth before Franco, who earned the win in the Mets’ first game back against the Pirates, allowed a pair of baserunners and was charged with a run when Armando Benitez gave up a run-scoring double to Brian Jordan.
In the bottom half, another New York native — Queens product Steve Karsay — took the mound for the Braves. Karsay issued a nine-pitch, one-out walk to Edgardo Alfonzo to bring up Piazza.
“You could feel a little bit of a buzz,” said Karsay, who earlier in the documentary spoke to DeRosa as the two walked around his old neighborhood.
Piazza, as was his custom, took the first pitch, a strike. Karsay remembers his next pitch running back across the plate as Piazza swung.
“This one has a chance!” yelled Howie Rose on Fox Sports New York. “HOME RUN!”
At first base, Martinez barely resisted the temptation to congratulate Piazza.
“At one point, I was like ‘Go, go, go!’” Martinez said with a laugh. “And the ball goes out and you want to just jump on him. I thought, wow, this is what’s meant to be.”
Benitez allowed a leadoff single to Javy Lopez in the ninth but got Keith Lockhart to hit into a game-ending double play.
“It was the only game I ever played in from the time I was nine years old I didn’t mind losing,’’ Karsay said.
The concept of sports as a representation of something resembling normalcy continued taking root. By Sunday, the 41,168 fans at Shea Stadium were frustrated with the blown save by Benitez that cost the Mets a chance to pull within 2 1/2 games of the Braves.
Two decades later, the most memorable Mets-Braves game of all continues to reverberate with those who experienced it…and perhaps, in the midst of far more fractured times, for those who didn’t.
“I know it had a huge impact on me — it put things, life in a different perspective,” Marquis said. “I was 23 at the time, so you’re starting to still find yourself and figure things out. It was definitely the most meaningful game I played in.”
“To me, that was very important to be part of that,” Franco said. “Just to see how New York came together, how the city came together, how the country came together, watching us play. Fortunate enough to pitch in that game and be a part of it. Think about it 20 years later (and) how important it was at that time to put a band-aid on a wound and seeing the fans happy just for a little while.
“That’s what stuck out with me. That made me feel so good, that we helped out in a certain way. And I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”