In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, New Yorkers were left with loved ones to mourn, injuries to heal from and rubble to sweep away.
There was an understandable aura of gloom, fear and shock at the realization that terrorists motivated by an ideology of pure hate could be evil enough to murder nearly 3,000 innocent men, women and children.
But the last thing on anyone’s mind was sports.
Now, at the time, baseball and football were the only two major professional sports being played.
Put simply, it was a time for mourning in the wake of a devastating national tragedy, not a time for cheering on sports teams.
But of course, eventually life would have to go on.
Part of the healing process in the wake of any tragedy — including 9/11 — is going back to your everyday life.
You never forget the lives that were lost, but by getting back into your ordinary routine, you regain a sense of normalcy, even in extraordinary times.
A week after 9/11, baseball resumed. Still, many fans weren’t sure how to respond.
Americans — and especially New Yorkers — were presented with a sort of dilemma: Was it right to be entertained by a baseball game and cheer on your favorite team while you, your family, your friends and your neighbors were still in mourning?
This situation was perhaps most evident on Sept. 21, 2001, when the Mets hosted the Atlanta Braves. Not only was this the first game at Shea Stadium since 9/11, it was also the first professional sporting event to be played in New York City since the attacks.
Before the game, the victims and heroes of the 9/11 attacks were recognized, and the game was played amid chants of “U.S.A!”
The home team trailed 2-1 until the bottom of the eighth inning, when superstar catcher Mike Piazza came up to bat.
He crushed a booming two-run home run to left-center field, sending the Shea Stadium crowd into an absolute frenzy.
It was a huge moment, not because of baseball (the Mets won the game but missed the playoffs that year), but because of what it meant to New Yorkers. It gave them something to cheer about, only 10 days after the city had experienced an almost apocalyptic scene.
“Anyone who saw it will be happy, anyone who didn’t see it will be told about it,” then-Mets manager Bobby Valentine told reporters after the game, according to SNY.
Nobody could bring back the people whose lives were claimed, but they could finally have something to be glad about, if only for a little while.
“It told the rest of the country and the rest of the world what New York is about,” Piazza said of his home run. “I’m just so happy I was able to come through in that situation and give people something to cheer about. That’s what they came out here for, to be diverted a little from their losses and their sorrow.”
“This isn’t life and death, this is baseball.”
Piazza hit 427 home runs over his 16-year major league career, but perhaps none was as important as the one he hit that night.
In fact, he talked about it 15 years later during his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2016. And while Pizza’s home run may have helped New York heal, he knew who deserved the real credit for their response to 9/11.
“To witness the darkest evil of the human heart,” Piazza said, per USA Today, “and witness that as it tore many loved ones from their families, will forever be burned in my soul. But from tragedy and sorrow came bravery, love, compassion, character, and eventual healing.”
“Many of you give me praise for the home run on the first game back, but true praise belongs to police, firefighters and first responders, who knew that they were going to die, but went forward anyway,” he added.
“Jesus said there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for his friends. I consider it an honor and privilege to have witnessed that love. Your families and those left behind are always in my prayers. I pray we never forget their sacrifice and work to always defeat such evil.”
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