How Mike Piazza helped return a sense of normalcy to post-9/11 America
By JOHN DORN
It's easy to remember the pain and grief inflicted upon the entire nation on Sept. 11, 2001. Painfully easy. In some cases, those feelings will never be shaken.
The attacks that rattled our nation that day stripped Americans of core qualities that we'd hardly even questioned to that point: Safety, security and peace of mind chief among them. Previously normal activities like going to work or gazing up at an airplane incited fear. The streets of Manhattan were empty, like the emotions of the tens of thousands directly affected. As hearts were heavy, the city that never sleeps was stunned to a hush.
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What else came to a hush: Baseball, which cancelled all of its games for the first time since Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office in 1945. No games would be played until the follow week: Monday, Sept. 17, which featured a six-game slate featuring one New York team on the road -- the Mets, who had spent the previous week in their home stadium's parking lot helping doll out food, supplies and lodging to New Yorkers in need.
Baseball's most iconic post-9/11 scene came at that very stadium 10 days after the attacks. The Mets hosted the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium on Sept. 21, in the first pro sporting event in New York City following the attacks -- which wouldn't have been played if a majority of the Braves players voted to postpone the trip.
See photos of NY teams returning to baseball after 9/11
The venue housed 41,235 guests that evening -- some Mets fans, some Braves fans; some in tears, all seeking a distraction from the world outside Shea's blue walls. After the nation's colors were presented with unprecedented extravagance and Marc Anthony's national anthem elicited booming "U-S-A" chants, both teams converged inside the baselines to shake hands -- a microcosm of the American camaraderie that had swept the nation.
The game's tie score wasn't responsible for the crowd's uneasiness in the middle of the seventh inning, when Liza Minnelli belted "New York, New York" -- the anthem's generally cheerful tone had fans uncertain. But when a half-dozen representing the NYPD and FDNY took the field to sing and dance, the mood was lifted, if only for a minute.
The night's highlight, though, has gone unparalleled in pro sports since the moment Mike Piazza's bat struck Steve Karsay's fastball over the middle of home plate.
With the Mets trailing 2-1 and a man on base, New York's superstar came to bat with not just a team but a city on his broad shoulders. And with one swing of the bat, Shea Stadium's tears of distress became ones of joy. For one second, Piazza made everything okay again.
Piazza's two-run home run to give the Mets the lead in the eighth inning didn't make anybody forget about the circumstances. If they'd been forgotten, it'd have sounded like just another one of Shea's 5,791 home runs. Strangers wouldn't have hugged each other while jumping in the air. Fans wouldn't have violently waved miniature American flag sticks. Piazza wouldn't have gone back to the dugout and pulled on a catcher's mask that read "NYPD," and the Twin Towers of the Manhattan skyline replica atop right field's scoreboard wouldn't be hiding behind a red, white and blue ribbon.
But right off the bat, you didn't need to be familiar with baseball to feel the liberation deployed throughout the stadium in about a millisecond. Piazza rounding first base, with a sea of arms bouncing up and down in the stands almost too lively to remain in the backdrop, wasn't just one man turning a corner. It was a city doing the same.
And with that, baseball returned to New York. But not just as games on a schedule -- as a culture. As a normalcy, or something resembling it. Yankees fans were soon ribbing Mets fans for not making the postseason; sports radio hosts fielded questions from misguided fans suggesting ridiculous trades. You know, like usual.
The healing process after 9/11 won't ever truly be complete. Images from that day will hurt today as they hurt seeing them 14 years ago. But amid the anguish, the tears, the fear and the unknown, a grief-stricken city was guided out of its darkest days by a game -- by one game, by one home run.