9/21/2001: Baseball as the National Distraction

Note: My last couple of articles for this site have been Met related, and that will stop fairly soon... if I write specifically for this site, I want there to be a fair distribution of league content. I wrote this one a while back, though, and I decided to save it for today...

It was August 31, 2001. My father, sister, and I had been discussing getting out to Shea Stadium to see a Mets game for most of the year, but it just hadn't materialized. The Mets were 63-71 and the playoffs seemed unattainable, but we wanted to see a game. So, after some discussion, we opted for Friday, September 21, against the Braves.

They'd been playing better ball at that point; the week before, they were 56-68, so they'd just gone 7-3. Maybe they had one last run in them, I thought.

They continued their hot play, winning 8 of their next 10 for a 15-5 run. They'd moved into 3rd place with a 71-73 record, and they were 8 back. It still seemed incredibly improbable, but it was nice to see the team putting in some effort.

Of course, that was September 10. September 11 happened next; the games were canceled for a week. I didn't lose anyone close to me on that day, but I knew several people who did. My thoughts were not on the game that we were going to see 10 days from then. I was wrapped up in 24 hour news broadcasts for the rest of the week.

One of us finally got up the nerve to ask, at some point, if we were still going to be able to get to that game. First, we had to know that it wasn't being canceled or relocated. Then we had to know that we could get there. It's only about 80 minutes to Shea Stadium from where I am in central Jersey, but that's without traffic, and for anyone who has done the drive, there's ALWAYS traffic. The expressway can be bad in Staten Island. Somebody always breaks down on the Belt Parkway, and the Van Wyck is inadequate.

We looked at ferries, trains, everything, and we studied it. We came to the conclusion that the best and only way to do it was to drive.

We left home at around 3:30, venturing up Rt. 9, onto the Parkway, to the Outerbridge Crossing, up the West Shore Expressway onto the Staten Island Expressway and across the Verrazano. The only place where we hit traffic was on the SI Expressway, and it wasn't even that crippling. We cruised through most of the trip and were shocked to have done that. This was the first game back in New York. Security was airtight. A huge crowd was expected.

Somehow, we did it in 80 minutes, that day. On this day, the scheduled start time was pushed back a half hour because traffic was so bad getting in. And yet, somehow, we got there in 80 minutes.

The Mets swept the Pirates that week to move a game over .500. They were only 5.5 back of first place at this point, and I'd be damned if I didn't think that they could do it. They'd gone 18-5 over that stretch and were the league's hottest team. They also couldn't score runs at all, but they were somehow holding on.

It was September 21, 2001, four years ago today.

The world as a whole and the world of baseball have both changed a lot in the past four years. Barry Bonds has 700 homers. The best pitcher in the game is a guy named Johan Santana. A-Rod's hitting homers for the Yankees. So is Jason Giambi.

Colin Powell is out. Rudy Guiliani, the popular former mayor of New York, is now frequently mentioned as a potential part of the 2008 GOP ticket. Saddam Hussein is no longer the leader of Iraq. The Taliban hides in the mountains of Tora Bora, a shadow of its former terrorizing self. China is an industrial powerhouse and an important friend to the US. India is a technological machine.

But some things stay the same. And one of these is Mike Piazza, still crouched behind the plate for the Mets, for at least a few more days.

The giveaway was a small American flag. I was wearing a hat that said "USA" on it and my Robin Ventura jersey which we'd picked up on sale a few days back. I stuck the flag in the back of my cap. My memory was of a video I loved as a child - the Giants highlight video from Super Bowl XXV, which happened close to Desert Storm. I felt that I needed to do that to carry on some sort of tradition, a little show of solidarity with sports fans past and future.

Marc Anthony sang the National Anthem, but it was more the 42,000 patriotic fans than him. Someone down near the first-base dugout had a large banner that screamed "WE BELIEVE," which made its way onto the Diamond Vision a few times that night. American flags were all over the stands. The Mets wore their FDNY and NYPD hats. Rick White hugged Chipper Jones before the game, and it's a classic photo nowadays.

The "Larry" chants that usually fill Chipper's at bats weren't quite as loud this day, but they were there. The man that Mets fans absolutely despise because he practically has a minority share in the team (against the Mets, he's a .336/.426/.586 hitter), the man who named his kid Shea because he loves playing there, was spared on this day, I think. He went 2-4 with a run.

From our Loge seats (blue seats, for those who haven't been to Shea), we had a very good view of right field. Matt Lawton made a diving catch at one point and watched his replay proudly.

A young prospect from Staten Island named Jason Marquis pitched a pretty solid game for the Braves on that day, going 6 innings and allowing one run. He was actually outdueled, on this day, by Bruce Chen, who only allowed an unearned run in 7 innings.

It was 1-1 going into the 8th, and New York's favorite son, John Franco, came in for the Mets. He struck out Bernard Gilkey and got a line out from Marcus Giles, but he walked Julio Franco and surrendered a single to Chipper. Benitez came out of the dugout, and on this day, I still had faith in him. Brian Jordan promptly doubled, scoring the runner from second. Benitez walked the next man and got Andruw Jones to fly out to center.

The hopes were fading, but Mike Piazza, who already had two doubles, was due up in this inning. Steve Karsay came in and got Lawton to ground out, 6-3. He walked Alfonzo on a few close pitches and was noticeably upset; you could see him jawing with the umpire.

Piazza strode to the plate, wielding his weapon of choice and stood in.

CRACK!

I'd never seen a Mike Piazza home run, and I guess it wouldn't be fair to say that I saw this one. I had no idea where that ball had gone. I watched the vicious swing and its gorgeous follow-through and figured that he'd turned on one and crushed in into the left field seats. 41,235 people rose simultaneously and watched the ball sail majestically into the night sky. I just stood up and watched for the other side of the crowd, waiting for their collective leap of joy.

It came, it was gone. The ball sailed to center field, at least 440 feet deep. Piazza was serenaded with a chorus of USA! USA! USA! as he rounded the bases. He took a dramatic curtain call.

The only other detail I remember from that night was that Karsay got tossed at the end of the 8th, presumably from arguing balls and strikes. But this wasn't that night for the Braves. They'd have their night and many others. On this night, Mike Piazza rescued New York. He rebuilt it, gave it hope and make it OK to scream wildly for a child's game.

Four full years and $53 million later, Piazza is wrapping up his Met career. Like Tom Seaver, his jerseys will be sprinkled throughout the seats of Shea Stadium and the new stadium long after his retirement. It was that night that crowned Mike Piazza's career. He won't be known for winning a World Series or for countless other big home runs. On September 21, 2001, Mike Piazza saved New York. That's surely a greater accomplishment than a World Series, and it's a hell of a place to start a legacy.

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