But then September 11th came along five years ago, and the people of New York wanted something more from their athletes than just another game. They wanted to be uplifted, somehow, to both forget and remember at the same time. They wanted to be reminded that sports could heal and inspire, that baseball and football were still part of the torn fabric.
When the planes struck and news spread, it was every man for himself at first, and that was understandable. The White Sox had been in town to play the Yanks, and infielder Jose Valentin simply announced, “I just want to get out of here.” The Sox headed quickly for Cleveland, and several of the Yankees left the city, too, to be with family far away. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte went home to Texas.
The local athletes struggled to define themselves. What was the role, really, of a pro athlete in such an unparalleled civic disaster? At best, he could behave with dignity, offer a sympathetic presence to those grieving and perform a public service by providing escapist entertainment.
Within days, the Mets and football Giants took a tour of Ground Zero, offered solace to family members and rescue workers. By Sept. 16, most of the Yanks were back for a practice, but everything felt different, wrong somehow. I remember how the players looked almost sheepish, going through their calisthenics.
“It was certainly solemn in the clubhouse,” Joe Torre said. “It was like we were complete strangers.”
But then the Mets came back to play their first home game on Sept. 21, and everybody understood what this was about again. The game turned into a cathartic experience for everyone. There was a solemn pre-game ceremony, with Mayor Giuliani, Diana Ross, Marc Anthony and some bagpipers. Liza Minelli sang “New York, New York,” during the seventh-inning stretch. The Mets wore caps from the New York Fire and Police Departments.
And then Mike Piazza smacked a two-run homer in the eighth inning to give the Mets a 3-2 victory over the Braves, to lift everybody out of their seats and to a different place.
It would be the defining moment of his career, and when he came back nearly five years later to New York as a San Diego Padre, Piazza would make a point of that. “In death, those people taught us so much about living,” he said.
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