Open Mouth, Insert Football: The shot heard ‘round New York

Ben Morrow
Sports columnist

I remember Sept. 11.

No other date on the calendar embodies an emotional response like this date. Our grandparents had Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Pearl Harbor attack ushered America into the bloodiest war in the history of the world. Our parents had Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. We have Sept. 11, 2001. As the 10-year anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York approaches, I remember.

Many memories flood my mind as I return to 9/11 and the events that followed. I remember being one of a nation of people glued to my television, trying to make sense of what I was watching unfold in real time. I remember hearing about heroes I would never meet. I remember the gas lines, as the initial scare pushed panicked citizens to snatch up remaining fuel before it reached $2 per gallon. I remember the Dow Jones Industrial falling over 680 points the first day it reopened. I remember the first airplane I saw in the sky after the FAA grounded all flights for nearly a week. I remember talking to perfect strangers about our rage and helplessness as if we had been close confidants all along.

Beyond the initial events, I remember what it was like to try to go on. I remember American flags clipped to the windows of automobiles, as strangers registered a quiet solidarity of patriotism as they attempted their return to normalcy. I remember the first Saturday Night Live episode when Lorne Michaels asked guest host and New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani if it was OK to be funny. Guiliani’s response: “Why start now?”

And I remember sports. I remember how Americans found a haven in their favorite sports teams. I remember how a couple of hours watching grown men play a kid’s game helped bring catharsis and healing. I remember the goose bumps I felt the first time I heard 50,000 sports fans sing “The Star Spangled Banner”. I remember one game in particular like it was yesterday.

On Sept. 21, 2001, Major League Baseball resumed play in New York with the Mets hosting my beloved Atlanta Braves. The emotion in the crowd was tangible. Guiliani, who was typically booed at Mets games because of his affinity for the Yankees, was cheered like a war hero. Mets manager Bobby Valentine stepped out of the dugout and led the crowd in chants of “Rudy, Rudy!” The Mets team members, who had donated their salaries for the game to 9/11 charities, donned FDNY caps to honor the fallen NYC firefighters who reentered the burning buildings to save men and women they did not know. It was a night New York needed, and even as a Braves fan, it was a win I knew the Mets needed.

In the 8th inning, Mets catcher Mike Piazza stood at the plate with a runner on first with two out, down 2-1. As the slugger dug in, the same thought came to my mind as everyone else who was watching: “He needs to hit this a mile.”

Sure enough, Piazza took his patented lumberjack cut at a Steve Karsey fastball and hit the most important homerun I’ve ever seen – a shot that has yet to come down to earth.

As ESPN’s John Anderson wrote that evening: “It just kept going. Soaring off into the New York night. A baseball carrying an entire city’s emotional baggage. There’s no telling how far Mike Piazza’s eighth-inning game-winning homerun against the Braves at Shea Stadium flew on Friday. How do you measure the healing power of a swing?”

It came in the middle of a pennant race. My Braves, who were barely holding on to a division lead, had just lost. I couldn’t have cared less.

I’ll never forget that swing. I’ll never forget the sight of 41,000 people craning their necks to watch a ball leave center field and the unbridled noise and ecstasy that followed. Never has their been a greater example of peaceful protest and solidarity than when Mike Piazza and greater New York City answered a group of homicidal terrorists with a bat and a ball.

Yes, I remember the terror. I remember the feelings of helplessness. But I also remember how Americans held their chins up, determined to move forward. We found refuge in God. We found comfort in family. We found healing in friends. And we found normalcy on a baseball diamond one September night.

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