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One swing of the bat showed the healing power of sports after 9/11

By Steve Politi, Special to CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Mets first post-9/11 home game was on September 21, 2001
  • At first, the decision was made to "postpone the games as the nation came to grips"
  • But, author says, "The games people love became an integral part of the healing process"
  • That night Mets won, crowd honored NYPD, FDNY, mayor
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Editor's note: Steve Politi is a sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, and covered sports in the New York area in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

(CNN) -- Todd Zeile still can remember the smell. It was an awful, metallic stench, the odor of burning steel, that filled the Mets team bus as it pulled across the George Washington Bridge on September 12, 2001.

The players, returning from a trip to Pittsburgh in the only way they could after a nationwide air traffic shutdown, crowded to the right side of the bus. They saw that black cloud over lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center had stood, and in an instant understood the pain and fear that had gripped their city.

"I remember wondering, 'What do we do with the group?'" said Bobby Valentine, their manager at the time. "If we were going to just be a Band-Aid over this gaping wound or were we going to actually make a difference?"

The answer, in so many ways, was the latter. The immediate reaction after the 9/11 attacks was to dismiss sports as unimportant, to postpone the games as the nation came to grips with what happened.

Everyone agreed that was the right decision. But soon after, the games people love became an integral part of the healing process for the New York region. The athletes, some with absolutely no ties to the city but a uniform, became a source of inspiration.

They went to ground zero to meet with the men and women working night and day to clean up. They lifted boxes of relief supplies off trucks, many times in stadium parking lots that had become staging areas. They wore caps and uniform patches to honor the firefighters and police officers who lost their lives trying to save others as the World Trade Center fell.

Former Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde remembers going to ground zero a few days after the towers fell, passing the soldiers with machine guns at their sides to shake hands with the rescue workers.

"It was a little frightening to be down there, walking around, not knowing what was going to happen," Testaverde said this week, "and not knowing what you were going to see."

Then, at a time when many wondered if it was right -- or even safe -- to gather and cheer for something as trivial as a baseball game, they helped everyone realize it was OK to be normal again.

"It almost felt defiant," said Zeile, then an infielder for the Mets. "It was like New York saying to the world, 'We're going to be OK. You can hit us, but you can't keep us down.'"

It is only fitting, then, that the biggest ceremonies commemorating the 9/11 attacks will take place in NFL stadiums. It will begin in Landover, Maryland, where fans of the two cities most affected by the attacks -- New York and Washington -- will gather to watch the Giants play the Redskins.

It will continue Sunday night at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where 80,000 fans will receive a small American flag upon entering the stadium for the Jets-Cowboys game. Bagpipers from New York police and fire departments will perform "Amazing Grace" and Lady Antebellum will sing the national anthem.

Then, the focus will shift to the games, which is what happened in a cathartic way after 9/11.

"I felt like, if anything, we gave people a break from what was going on," said Kerry Collins, the Giants quarterback at the time. Collins would give $275,000 to 9/11 charities in the weeks that followed and develop a bond with a firehouse in Greenwich Village.

"It was, 'Hey, we can watch the Giants. The Giants are on,'" he said. "I felt pressure to win in Kansas City that next weekend, but more important was playing in a way that would make people proud. That we won the game was an added bonus. It was nice to know that, on some level, we had a positive influence on the events that were going on.

Nowhere was the influence greater than with the Mets, who played the first major sporting event in the city after the attacks on September 21, 2001. John Franco, a relief pitcher with the team and a New York native, remembers how different things felt when he arrived at Shea Stadium that day. The debate about whether the games should resume had raged in the city for four days.

"Just coming to the ballpark that day, you weren't sure if it was the right thing to do," Franco said. "Soon as you pulled into the players' lot you had the bomb squad out there with the dogs and the mirrors looking under the car."

The Atlanta Braves were in town, and for one night, the bitter NL East rivals became willing participants in something bigger than a pennant race. Marc Anthony sang the national anthem. Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a lifelong Yankees fan, was honored before the game and received a standing ovation.

Chipper Jones, the Braves star, admitted he was "scared to death." If the terrorists wanted to strike again, was there a better target than a major-league ballpark filled with people?

The early innings were a blur, Zeile said, a somber night until the seventh inning stretch. Liza Minnelli performed "New York, New York," and while there was some uncertainty in the crowd about how to respond to such a celebratory song, that changed when firefighters and cops joined her in a high-stepping dance like burly Rockettes.

The Braves took the lead in the top of the eighth. Mike Piazza, the Mets star catcher, came to the plate in the bottom of the inning, and on an 0-1 count, hit a towering home run to center field to give the Mets a 3-2 lead they never relinquished. The crowd responded with cheers, some tears, and then this:

"USA! USA! USA!"

Watch Piazza's dramatic home run

When Shea Stadium closed seven years later, it had seen 5,791 home runs. None was bigger.

"It was almost like a blur to me, it was almost like a dream, sort of surreal," Piazza said at the time. "I'm just so happy I gave the people something to cheer. There was a lot of emotion. It was just a surreal sort of energy out there. I'm just so proud to be a part of it tonight."

Later that fall the New York Yankees would make provide more dramatic relief to the city in their run to the World Series, where they lost game 7 in the ninth inning to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Piazza will be part of the remembrance events at before the Mets-Cubs game at the Mets new stadium, Citi Field on Sunday night, catching a ceremonial first pitch from John Franco before the Mets take the field. Everyone in the stadium will pause to remember.

Then, just as they did 10 years ago, they'll play ball.

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