Without live sports to talk about, fans across the country and the world are left to reminisce about the past. SNY has been replaying some of the most storied games and series victories in Mets history. Twitter is overrun with questions from sports writers and fans alike asking people to share their favorite and least favorite [insert player/game/moment/memory here]. Over at socially distanced AAHQ, things have been roughly the same during this time, as we’ve been recalling our favorite games, and many of us have decided to write about them. Linda Surovich talked about Beanie Baby Day on May 30, 1999, while David Capobianco shared his experience at Game 3 of the 2015 NLDS.
For me, there is nothing more special than live baseball. The crack of the bat. The smell of hot dogs. The roar of the crowd during a big strikeout or a long fly ball. The sound of Lazy Mary after the seventh inning stretch. Seeing Mr. Met strolling around the park. The immediate high after seeing a Mets win. Baseball season to me is as much about going to Citi Field, or traveling around the country to experience a game in a new park, as it is about just watching the Mets play on television and agonizing over statistics and results.
I went to my first game on May 29, 1999 (an 8-7 Mets loss against the Diamondbacks). Since then, I’ve attended a total of 453 Mets games at Shea Stadium, Citi Field, and various ballparks around the country (not to mention a bunch of games that did not involve the Mets). I’ve seen my fair share of good games (including five playoff wins) and bad games (2007 Game 162, Game 4 of the 2015 World Series, the 2016 Wild Card game), and plenty of wins and losses. Luckily, the good has mostly outweighed the bad. When thinking about the best game I ever witnessed, I had a few choices to consider.
David covered Game 3 of the 2015 NLDS, which is in my top five as well. David Wright’s final game was an emotional, tear-jerking experience. Wilmer Flores’ walk-off against the Nationals in 2015 holds a special place in my heart. I’ve seen two walk-off grand slams, two walk-off walks, and a walk-off error against the Yankees in 2004. I got to see the Mets win their lone World Series game in 2015 (which, under normal circumstances, would be number one) and I was there the last time the Mets celebrated on their home field when they clinched the National League East title in 2006.
But easily my most memorable game was the first sporting event held in New York after September 11th. Looking at it strictly from a baseball perspective, the Mets entered the game trailing the first-place Braves by 5.5 games after seeing their deficit reach 13.5 games in mid-August. The team was playing its best baseball of the season and had won 20 of its previous 25 dating back to August 18. It was an important game as the team looked to climb back into the postseason discussion.
But, as everybody knows, the implications of the game meant nothing compared to what was happening off the field. The game happened ten days after the worst terrorist attack the city of New York and the country had ever experienced. The entire city was still in mourning, and while MLB resumed its operations a few days prior to this game, this event marked the first sporting event held in New York following the attacks. If you read any list of most memorable games at Shea Stadium, this one routinely ranks near the very top, up there and sometimes ahead of World Series-deciding games.
My mom and I, along with a friend and his mom, got tickets that day. Looking back, I was too young and perhaps too naive to appreciate the impact of this game. I don’t remember thinking it was particularly strange or scary going to a baseball game so soon after such a horrific event. I was 12 at the time and had just started seventh grade. In school, we were thrown into a lot of serious and uncomfortable discussions that we never had to confront before in our lives. It was a terrifying time, so having a baseball game to go to made life feel a little bit more normal. In the end, my friend and his mom backed out due to fears over what might happen, so it was just me and my mom going. I was just happy to get back to the ballpark and root for the Mets.
Immediately upon arriving at Shea Stadium, things felt anything but normal. It may be difficult to believe given our current existence in a post-9/11 world, but this was the first time fans were subjected to such thorough scrutiny from security prior to baseball games, at least in my lifetime. It was was the first time every patron was searched like this, with metal detectors, wands, and more security personnel than we had ever seen, and would be something that would continue every day since.
Inside, Shea Stadium looked the same as it ever did, aside from the memorial ribbons painted onto the infield grass, but the atmosphere was much more tense than usual. Typically, a baseball game in a pennant race is met with a level of superficial tension, knowing that a loss could mean your favorite team is one game closer to the end of its season. This tension felt significantly different and more substantial. There was a constant fear of the uncertainty of what could happen at any moment. Shea, being built so close to LaGuardia Airport, falls victim to a lot of airplane noise, which only added to that tension. I remember people around me looking up to the sky any time an airplane flew overhead.
The pregame ceremony was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. The things I distinctly remember, above all else, are the 21-gun salute and the bagpipes playing America The Beautiful. Diana Ross sang God Bless America. Marc Anthony sang The Star Spangled Banner. There were tears all around us. People were somber, but also resolute in their desire to overcome what we had lived through, determined to make sure we proceeded with our lives and overcame this horrible tragedy. There were players donning caps honoring the heroes who sacrificed themselves and who continued to put their lives on the line. It remains one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen on a baseball field.
I wish I remembered more about the game itself, but, truth be told, a lot of it feels like a blur. The number one thing that stood out to me, and the thing I continue coming back to, is seeing the Braves and the Mets come together and embrace on the field before first pitch. Up to that age, sports to me was serious business. I hated the Braves, as all Mets fans did. There were a lot of players and a lot of teams I hated (and still hate). Those feelings were real and sincere. Seeing two long-time rivals in the heat of a pennant race hugging on the field was a reminder that, despite those intense feelings during the heat of a game or a season, in the end it’s all for fun, and the players and teams were united as one for a greater cause.
The game was itself was low-scoring and tense, like a regular baseball game is tense. Bruce Chen pitched his heart out, as did Jason Marquis for Atlanta. The Braves pulled ahead in the fourth, and the Mets immediately tied it up on a Tsuyoshi Shinjo sacrifice fly. Fans still felt hesitant throughout the game, but at the same time there was a palpable feeling that everyone was waiting for the right moment to really erupt and let loose.
In the eighth, John Franco put two runners on, as he was known to do in those days, and Armando Benitez let the inherited runner score, as he was known to do in those days. I don’t remember how I felt about the Mets trailing so late in the game, but I was probably upset at the thought of the team squandering a golden opportunity to climb closer in the standings.
In the bottom half of the inning, local product Steve Karsay took the mound for Atlanta. After a quick out, he walked Edgardo Alfonzo to bring up Mike Piazza. Everyone knows what happened next. In my head, the image of the home run is always accompanied by Howie Rose’s iconic call, to the point where I can’t disassociate the two or imagine what it was like experiencing this call without Howie’s voice in the background.
Lopez wants it away...and it’s hit deep to left center! Andruw Jones on the run. This one has a chance...HOME RUN! MIKE PIAZZA! And the Mets lead, 3-2!”
The home run was something magical. As the ball left the bat, you had that anxious anticipation as it kept carrying and the center fielder Jones kept chasing it. When it hit the camera pavilion and we knew it was gone, the eruption was deafening. 41,000+ fans waved American fans, hugged, cried, and cheered. It was the moment of release fans were waiting for. Truly for the first time in ten days, life began to feel a little bit more normal, and we had reason to feel joy again. It was only momentary, but it was magnificent. It didn’t do anything to erase the tremendous loss and suffering we had experienced, but, as cliche as it is to say this, it really began to feel like the healing process was happening in earnest.
Benitez and the Mets held on to win and we were all happy, cheering down the Shea ramps and chanting “U! S! A!” and “Let’s Go Mets!” as we had been doing all night in the ballpark. The Mets pulled to within 4.5 games, but that wasn’t why anyone seemed to be cheering. In the end the Mets fell short, as everybody knows, but because the moment is so disconnected from the season and the sport itself, that does nothing to take away from what made this home run so special.
Piazza’s home run has become one of the most iconic moments in New York sports history, and I’m beyond lucky that I was able to be there in person. It’s one of the things, like I alluded to earlier, that’s almost hard to recount because I’ve seen the clip so frequently that it’s hard to measure up my own experiences in person to the moment portrayed in replays and in people writing and talking about it.
Piazza’s home run is proof that, even though it’s just baseball, sports can truly help us heal in the worst of times. Right now, we are in the middle of a tragic moment that has brought with it a lot of suffering and a lot of uncertainty. One day, it will be safe to bring sports back, whether that happens in 2020 or in 2021. When sports do return, I imagine they will play a similar role in helping us get back to something resembling normal, and they will play a big part in our collective healing.