Proudly They Hail: Shea fills with tears, cheers for victims, rescuers

Mets fans thank rescue workers. Mets fans thank rescue workers. Photo Credit: Newsday Photo / Paul Bereswill

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For more than a week, Shea Stadium had been filled with authorities, trucks and materials in its role as a staging area for a massive rescue effort. Friday night, with cheers, bagpipes, tears and a ballgame, Shea served as a staging area for New York City's ultimate recovery.

From the moment a huge crowd let out a chant of "U-S-A" as a color guard marched through the centerfield gate to the moment Bruce Chen of the Mets threw the first pitch at 7:35, it seemed clear to the people in-volved that the meeting between the Mets and the Atlanta Braves at Shea brought new depth to the base-ball phrase, "meaningful game."

The first regular-season sporting event in the city since the attack Sept. 11, the game brought a rousing trib-ute to the victims, the rescue workers and the city - under the veil of heightened security. It was the first op-portunity for New Yorkers to gather outdoors in such a large number - about 40,000 were in the stands - and share their feelings.

"I think enough has been taken away from the city, enough has been taken away from individuals," Mets manager Bobby Valentine said. "We need to allow people to be as whole as possible."

That so many New Yorkers chose to get together in such a public way was a statement in itself. Winning the battle against fear, the Mets said, was far more important than winning against the first-place Braves.

"I just hope we keep it in perspective," Mets catcher Mike Piazza said. "We want to win, obviously, but I just think it's very delicate to try to corollate it [with the tragedy]. They're different situations."

Piazza was in tears during the ceremony that was ushered in by a color guard composed of representatives from the police and fire departments, emergency medical service workers, Port Authority police and the New York State Court Officers Association.

Valentine vigorously sang along as Diana Ross performed "God Bless America" (accompanied by the North-port High School Choir and Christ's Tabernacle Choir of Brooklyn). On a video, Mets players introduced a moment of silence. A Marine Corps honor guard fired a 21-gun salute.

Fans sang along loudly with pop star Marc Anthony as he performed the national anthem, and they grew quiet as the New York Police Department Pipers played "Amazing Grace."

Then, members of the Mets and Braves - among the most bitter rivals in baseball - hugged each other be-fore four representatives of city agencies threw out ceremonial first pitches. And just before the Mets took the field to an organ rendition of "Meet the Mets," The crowd let out what was perhaps its loudest cheer, for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who was sitting behind home plate.

It was a different Shea Stadium than the one Mets had seen at their workouts last weekend. Then, the park-ing lot and much of the first floor were filled with supplies for rescue workers. Many players and employees helped load and unload those supplies.

Friday night, the park was set up for baseball and decked out for a special occasion. A sign reading "God Bless America" was stretched atop the Mets' dugout. On the depiction of the New York skyline atop the scoreboard, a huge red, white and blue ribbon was draped over the World Trade Center.

Security at Shea was tight. Fans had small handbags searched at the gates, and there were long lines wait-ing to get in. Bomb-sniffing dogs traversed the clubhouses. There was a very large police contingent.

It also was a different New York, a boisterous and hopeful New York.

"Over the last couple weeks, you've seen New York come together," said rightfielder Matt Lawton. "It doesn't matter if you're black or Asian or white, everybody is pretty much on one thought and I think that makes the world a better place."

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