I was 9 years old in September 2001, too young to fully comprehend the magnitude of the smoke surrounding what were my hometown’s largest buildings, suffocating my city in hate.
I was too naive to process falling towers, too sheltered to see footage of The Falling Man spiraling from the sky. We lived across the harbor on Staten Island. When my dad, who worked right there on Vesey Street, told us he made the last boat home, and that people were jumping off it, I was too disconnected to recognize the hell he’d seen.
Major League Baseball was canceled that night, which is what I remember being angry about. It was canceled the next night, too, and the night after that, and the night after that. Instead of taking to the sofa to watch the Mets, my family congregated for Peter Jennings, who provided marathon updates about how our world was falling apart. The more he spoke, the more terrified I became. Every night that week, I went to sleep worrying Osama Bin Laden was going to sneak through the window and woke up wondering when baseball would return.
That was the year the president threw the first pitch at the World Series and the year Derek Jeter became Mr. November. It’s easy to forget the Mets were pretty good, too, as the defending National League champions. Mike Piazza, Robin Ventura, Al Leiter — for Amazin’ fans too young to remember Buckner, these were the greatest players they’d ever seen. It was these men who brought New York back from the brink weeks before Jeter hit that home run on Halloween off Byung-Hyun Kim.
They finally returned to Queens 10 days after the attacks, on a chilly Friday night to face Atlanta. Pregame ceremonies included the honoring of local heroes, the performance of an enormous pipe band, Mayor Giuliani and hugs between the two clubs. Never have opponents looked so much more like friends than enemies.
The Mets ditched their normal caps that night for navy blue ones stamped with the letters N-Y-P-D. I watched them bend the brims on this little TV in my upstairs bedroom. I couldn’t watch the game in the basement, not anymore. There were shadows down there. Shadows the color of that smoke.
The Braves led 2-1 by the time the eighth inning rolled around. Having threatened but not yet pulled ahead, the Mets had failed so far to ignite the crowd of 41,000-plus hanging on their every move. A crowd inching to erupt. Then-Atlanta manager Bobby Cox brought in reliever Steve Karsay, who gave them a reason to.
Karsay recorded the first out before walking Edgardo Alfonzo. To the plate came Piazza, representing the go-ahead run. Calm, stoic, professional Piazza, the Mets‘ biggest star and the one man who could once again make his city shine. His weapon rested above his right shoulder, cocked and ready. A bat the weight of the world.
Karsay’s first pitch buzzed across the outside corner for a strike. Piazza almost always took the first pitch automatically. But this time he started and stopped before letting it go by, like he had been stuck in the mud for the past week and a half like everyone else, like he was just about to break free. Karsay’s next pitch went to the same exact spot. This time Piazza extended his arms and drove it over the center field fence, and Shea Stadium almost exploded.
It’s hard to measure exactly how far that ball traveled. You’d have to take into account the distance every tear ran down every cheek and the length that spark of hope took in igniting our city's recovery. Mothers cried, fathers cried. Everyone at Shea seemed to be waving an American flag. Police officers and firefighters, men who had seen so much more than anyone should, were smiling because of a baseball game.
My memory has faded when it comes to who started that night, but nobody has forgotten the finish. It was an ending of something so much more than a ball game. Piazza’s blast saved a city after a tragedy that would have made Shakespeare tear, from the suffocating malaise under which we forgot it was OK to cheer. As he rounded the bases, every step reminded us not to be afraid to keep on living. And when he crossed home, he made us forget, just for a minute, so we never would again. It was at that moment I ran downstairs and hugged my dad so hard I’m still hanging on.
Ten days. Just 10 days, and we were all old enough to understand.