This article originally appeared in the Oct. 1, 2001, edition of The Sporting News.
The power of emotion
The Shea Stadium crowd taunted the first-place Braves with the tomahawk chop last Saturday night and chanted, “Let’s go Marlins!” to urge on the second-place Phillies’ opponent. To the fans, it was a pennant race. To the Mets, it was something more.
“It’s so tough to go out and beat a team that has so much to play for,” the Braves’ Chipper Jones says. “They’re going to win ballgames for this city. It’s almost like the division title is secondary in their minds.”
Foremost were the families of thousands who perished in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the rescue workers trying to pull miracles out of the rubble, the millions of New Yorkers trying to overcome their greif.
By any measure, the Mets’ season will end as an inspiring success and not simply because of the 22-5 run they made after falling 13.5 games out of first place on August 17.
The Mets were four and a half games out with 13 to play after winning two of three from the Braves, but they didn’t need to do the math to figure out their place in a changed universe. At a time when baseball never was less important, it took on greater meaning than ever before.
“The emotion this team is running on is not the pennant race,” Mets third baseman Robin Ventura says. “It’s the emotion of people who have been around, the people you see who are strong.”
New York’s other team, the Yankees, is more likely to carry the city’s mantle through the postseason. But the Mets are a more soulful bunch, and circumstances thrust them into a more visible role.
The parking lots at Shea were used as supply centers after the attacks, and manager Bobby Valentine and several players helped volunteers organize the distribution of food, clothing, medicine and blankets being sent to lower Manhattan. Valentine even skipped a team charter to Pittsburgh to work an extra day in relief effort.
The Mets resumed play a day before the Yankees, donning caps to honor organizations that lost members in the attack and were assisting in the recovery effort. They also returned to New York first, though their series against the Braves almost was moved to Atlanta because of security concerns.
Not every manager would have immersed himself in the recovery process as deeply as Valentine did, and not every group of players would have reached out to share the anguish of their city as sincerely as the Mets did. A native of Stamford, Conn., Valentine always has been a soft touch for charities, and he lost a friend, Chris Quackenbush, 44, in the attack. The players who have followed the lead of Mike Piazza, who is from outside Philadelphia but connects to the city as well as any baseball star — including retiring stars Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn.
Like most major league teams, the Mets’ roster is an international mosaic, featuring players from six countries, including Cuba and Japan. But as second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, a native of Venezuela, says, “It doesn’t matter what country you’re from. You still have the same feeling.”
Piazza, who lives in Manhattan, visited hospitals and witnessed candlelight vigils. Valentine, third base coach John Stearns and four players — Ventura, Todd Zeile and local products Al Leiter (New Jersey) and John Franco (Brooklyn) — rode a police van to ground zero the day before the Mets began their series against the Braves.
The scene at the site of the attack was harrowing, yet moving. Workers discovered an arm with a wedding ring, raising hope that the victim could be identified, providing closure for his window. The fire company closest to the Trade Center displayed a door recovered from one of its trucks, symbolizing the quest to find all who were lost.
“We were all nervous driving down there,” Zeile says. “Not nervous to see the destruction, see what these (terrorists) turned the city into — nervous that we would be presumptuous to think that we might have anything to add to (the workers’) plight, that we might be able to inspire them in the least.”
Little did the players know.
“Everyone wanted to talk about the Mets, the pennant race,” Leiter says. “It made it very clear to me that we are absolutely an outlet for them, for everybody in this city, for America.”
The Mets played the next day for free, donating salaries amounting to nearly $450,000 to the relief effort. They lined up along the first base line for pregame ceremonies, with the Braves taking their place along the third base line.
Piazza’s eyes filled with tears as a color guard strolled through the center field gate. Valentine rocked back and forth as Diana Ross sang “God Bless America,” smiling, singing, shouting his approval. Players from the two teams embraced.
The game reached an emotional peak before it even started, but Piazza took it to another level with his go-ahead, two-run homer in the eighth inning. The crowd of 41,235 burst into chants of “USA! USA!” Zeile compared the moment with Casey at the Bat. But the Mets’ “Casey” didn’t strike out.
Piazza insisted on maintaining perspective, declining to call the homer the biggest of his career. The Mets are the lowest-scoring team in the National League, and general manager Steve Phillips wonders how the season might have turned out if they had scored only one more run per game. But that’s baseball talk. The Mets are playing with an even greater sense of purpose than they did in last year’s World Series.
“There’s healing to be done,” Valentine says. “We’re doing our little part. But this is not a page we’re going to turn. We’re not putting this aside.”
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