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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Mike Piazza's HR helped ease some pain after Sept. 11 attacks

Mike Piazza is greeted at home after his

Mike Piazza is greeted at home after his homer in eighth inning against Atlanta at Shea Stadium on Sept. 21, 2001, the first game in New York since the Sept. 11 attacks. Credit: NEWSDAY/Paul J. Bereswill

Two decades later, the question posed Saturday to Mike Piazza was about his timeless home run, the game-winning blast that helped pull a city up from the ashes, the one that lives eternally on a loop inside New York’s collective memory.

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, what was Piazza’s perspective on that Shea homer off Atlanta reliever (and Queens native) Steve Karsay? What had these two decades done to shape his view of that history?

"I don’t think it gets any easier as the years go on," Piazza said before Saturday’s game at Citi Field. "I think time has a healing effect, but for me, especially when this date comes every year, it’s difficult to look back. The images for me -- and I’m sure for a lot of people -- are still very vivid in their minds.

"I think it’s a wonderful thing that we do to continue to honor them on this day, but it doesn’t get any easier as time goes by. But the positive effect is that you see a lot of outpouring of love and affect -- the same sentiments that I think we had after the attacks in the city. Unfortunately you do have to experience tragedy to see triumph and courage and bravery."

 

Piazza, as he always did in a Mets’ uniform, proved again to be a tone-setter Saturday, striking the right chords for the emotional night to follow in Flushing. After all, this wasn’t the anniversary of the homer that beat the Braves at Shea. That was Sept. 21, the date forever remembered in New York as the day the Mets helped restore some small shred of normalcy amid the devastation.

But when it comes to 9/11, at least in these parts, from a baseball standpoint, Piazza remains the flag-bearer, the favorite son of a city that had its soul ripped apart twenty years ago and still can’t feel completely whole again.

"I think the always has a certain amount of reverence to it," Piazza said. "It always takes on a bit of solemness. I think it’s very important to not only recall and remember and reflect, but also the educate the next generation and teach them what transpired ... I think the general lesson should be that life is precious. It could be short, and you have to love the people around you every day, because we know from experience that it can end very quickly. That sadness is prevalent."

As Piazza emphasized, it can be difficult to balance the celebration of the 9/11 heroes with the mourning of the murdered victims, or the struggles of those who continue to be tormented by the fallout from the crumbled Twin Towers. Piazza relayed a story Saturday about the enduring legacy of that Shea homer, on one occasion when he was approached at an airport baggage claim by someone who told him of its tremendous impact on his grieving family.

Even for a 16-year Major Leaguer, a Hall of Famer with 27 home runs, those type of experiences seem to stick with Piazza most, or as he explained, exist in separate, special compartment, away from the rest of the on-field heroics. How can he equate repairing a city’s smashed psyche with a pennant chase

"I don’t think it can rank in the realm of importance as far as in the standings, or in the playoffs, or an All-Star Game, or anything like that," Piazza said. "I think it’s just something that I’m proud and honored and enjoy in its own sort of little world. The way people honor me year after year after year, and it’s so tough on social media because I wish I would tell everyone thank you. But the comments I get are so thoughtful and so sweet it really strikes my heart -- it’s overwhelming at times.

That’s quite a statement from a player like Piazza, who stood center stage in New York for eight years, and no one commands the spotlight like a charismatic slugger. But when it comes to baseball’s connection with that horrific day, and the heart-wrenching aftermath that has stretched for 20 years, Piazza seemed like he was created for this moment.

"It will always be with me," Piazza said. "It will be on my Hall of Fame plaque even when I’m gone, so my kids and grandkids will be able to remember it and look back. Hopefully they can put it in context and they can understand how much of a cool thing it was."

Piazza’s right. It hasn’t been any easier, and Saturday night’s remembrance at Citi couldn’t help but contain similar measures of joy and tears. But thanks to the enduring video of Piazza’s home run, there will always be those few moments of relief from the pain.

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