Mike Piazza’s drive soared into the night, a two-run shot to left-center in the eighth inning that lifted the Mets past the Braves and lifted a reeling region. The Shea Stadium crowd erupted in sheer joy and proudly waved American flags at the first pro sporting event in New York City after 9/11.
John Franco and Todd Zeile stood there watching on Thursday, taking a trip back in time to Sept. 21, 2001.
They were at Shea as members of the Mets, and now — a few days before the 17th anniversary of the attacks — they were viewing Piazza’s homer at the National September 11 Memorial Museum on Greenwich Street at Ground Zero. The video played next to a case containing Piazza’s jersey from the game. Another case contained his “NYPD” helmet and Franco’s “FDNY” cap.
“I think when Mike hit that home run, everybody just took a big sigh,” said Franco, who relieved in the top of the eighth. “I remember looking in the stands and just seeing people hugging and crying and kissing each other. We were doing the same on the bench. I get goosebumps talking about it now.
“I think it was very important. Just for the 2 1⁄2 hours that we played that game, we put a Band-Aid on something. I think it’s something that I will and my teammates probably will never forget.”
The video and memorabilia are part of the “Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11” exhibit. It opened in June and will remain through the spring. Franco and Zeile spoke about that time after touring the museum with FDNY commissioner Daniel Nigro and Clifford Chanin, the deputy director of museum programs.
“I’m proud to have been a little part of it and I’m grateful that they did something to commemorate it because I think sports just sort of as a metaphor was a return to something normal and familiar for the city,” said Zeile, the Mets’ primary first baseman that season.
“As the player rep, we had a lot of discussions internally with MLB and the players association about when was the right time to come back to New York to play. We started playing outside of New York. We all felt it was time.”
The Mets bused back from Pittsburgh a few days after the attacks. They reached the George Washington Bridge in the middle of the night and looked to the right.
“The whole left side of the bus came over to the right side and all we saw were the lights and smoke, and you could smell, I guess, the electrical burning,” Franco said. “You could hear a pin drop on that bus. I think from the G.W. all the way to Shea Stadium, nobody said a word.”
The Mets helped with supplies in a staging area in the Shea parking lot. They wore caps for the rest of the season in honor of the police and fire departments and other agencies. They visited workers at Ground Zero. The players donated a day’s pay to the New York Police and Fire Widows and Children’s Benefit Fund Foundation.
And they returned to play that game against Atlanta.
“The crying didn’t end,” Nigro said. “The digging down here didn’t end. But it was a sign that we were still standing. The home run was just the icing on the cake.”