Sports at their best are a diversion. You turn on the game or head to the ballpark to escape reality for a few hours. You may live and die with your team for those few hours, but when it is over the real world is still there. Life continues.
When the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, the games stopped. For almost a week, the diversions went away as a nation sat in front of their televisions, and instead of watching the game, took in around the clock coverage of the deadliest attack on U.S. soil.
Baseball stopped for six days and the NFL missed all their week-two games – the first time in league history games were cancelled. (Following John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Friday November 22, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle decided to hold the full slate of games two days later. After he retired, Rozelle said this was his biggest regret.)
New York teams are almost universally disliked by fans in other cities. The Mets marched onto the field in Pittsburgh on September 17, the first game back after the attacks, wearing the hats of New York service agencies and first responders. Pirates fans stood and cheered. Mayor Rudy Giuliani became America’s Mayor in the attack’s aftermath, and New York clubs became America’s teams for a short while.
It was ten days before a major sporting event was held again in New York City. The Mets faced the Atlanta Braves on Friday, September 21. In the days following the attacks, Shea served as a relief center, with its parking lots filled with food, water, supplies and makeshift shelters for the rescue effort. The supplies and food were brought into the city by the truckloads for the workers at ground zero.
Over 41,000 fans filled the stadium that night. More than 10,000 of the tickets sold were from walk-ups that day. People were ready for a diversion.
Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Mike Piazza hit a towering homerun to center field with a man on giving the Mets the lead, and ultimately, the win.
The home run was significant. It kept the Mets within striking distance of the Braves, but it seemed more important than that.
“I feel blessed to be remembered for a home run that helped the city heal,” Piazza recently told SportsNet New York (SNY).
In the stands, grown men cried. Go to enough sporting events and this is something you’ll surely see, but rarely during a late September game of a team on the outskirts of the pennant race.
Sports are often given power they don’t have; meaning that doesn’t exist. Players are called courageous or heroic, when really they are just playing a game. But their actions on the field do affect the fans that watch them play. Sometimes the diversion they provide is more than a diversion, because it can help return a grieving nation to a sense of normalcy. Help them heal as Piazza said.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the attacks and honor the victims and responders, the Mets will once again wear the hats of first responders and service agencies during the September 11 game at Citi Field against the Cubs.
Native New Yorker John Franco will throw out the first pitch to the man that helped begin the healing process for many New Yorkers, Mike Piazza.