September 21, 2001: Piazza homer leads Mets in New York City’s first baseball game after 9/11
New York City was still reeling from the devastation of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. With that experience still fresh in everyone’s memory, the New York Mets played the Atlanta Braves 10 days later, on September 21, 2001. Mike Piazza would later reflect that “[p]eople wanted to find refuge in baseball, in a crowd, in baseball. It has the tendency to ease your pain a little bit.”1
After the events of Tuesday, September 11, Commissioner Bud Selig canceled all games through the end of the week and announced that the season would resume on Saturday, September 17. To make up for the lost time, the entire season would be pushed back one full week.2 Once the season resumed, the Mets played three games against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Their game against the Atlanta Braves would be the first baseball game in New York after the attacks and no one was sure how to approach this game. Howie Rose, one of the Mets announcers, recalled what his bosses told him: “This is unlike any game we’ve ever done. Make sure you don’t get too excited about anything. Don’t emote. This is a night of healing, not of celebration.”3
The Mets and the Braves had fought each other competitively in the National League East for many years. But this night would be different. Both teams took the field before the game and honored all the first responders and others who had rallied to help the region recover from the shock of September 11. Braves manager Bobby Cox said of the opening ceremony, “[The Mets] weren’t the enemy after all, for about 10 minutes.”4
Coming into the game, the Mets had been playing well. They had been 13½ games out of first place on August 15. But they finally started to play well as a team right before September 11. By September 21, the Mets were just five games behind the Braves after sweeping all three games in Pittsburgh.
Jason Marquis was chosen to start the game for the Braves and Bruce Chen was given the start by Mets manager Bobby Valentine. Once the Mets took the field, the two teams settled down to play baseball and for that evening, spectators and those watching on television allowed baseball to help them to come together following 9/11’s catastrophic events.
The game was scoreless through the first three innings; the only hits were a double by the Mets’ Mike Piazza in the bottom of the second inning and a single by the Braves’ Rey Sanchez in the top of the third inning. The Braves took a 1-0 lead in the top of the fourth inning. After Julio Franco flied out to right field, Chipper Jones singled. He came home with an unearned run when Ken Caminiti doubled to right field and catcher Piazza couldn’t handle the throw to the plate by Edgardo Alfonzo.
The Mets tied the game in the bottom of the inning. After Alfonzo flied out to center field, Piazza hit his second double of the game. He moved to third on a single by Robin Ventura and scored on Tsuyoshi Shinjo’s sacrifice fly to right field. Todd Zeile followed with a double but Ventura was able to advance only to third base. Marquis got Jay Payton to ground out to end the threat,
The score remained tied until the eighth inning. Valentine brought in John Franco, who was born and grew up in New York City, to pitch the top of the inning. After getting the first two batters out, he walked Julio Franco. Cox sent Cory Aldridge in to run for Franco. Chipper Jones’s single moved Aldridge to second. That chased John Franco in favor of closer Armando Benitez for the Mets. The first batter Benitez faced, Brian Jordan, doubled into the gap in left-center and Aldridge scored to give the Braves a 2-1 lead.
Cox brought in Steve Karsay to face the Mets in the bottom of the eighth inning. The right-hander had grown up only a few miles from Shea Stadium in Queens.5Karsay got the first batter, Matt Lawton, to ground out to short. Then he walked Alfonso, and Desi Relaford pinch-ran. When Piazza came to bat, Rose told the TV audience, “Here’s the man the Mets want up in this spot, down a run, late in the game.”6Karsay threw a fastball for a strike and Piazza took the pitch without swinging. Then Karsay threw another fastball and Piazza clubbed this one to left-center. Andruw Jones chased the ball but in vain as it left the park.
As Piazza rounded the bases, the crowd of 41,235 cheered “USA, USA!”7 After the game Piazza said, “[I]t was almost like a blur to me, it was almost like a dream, sort of surreal. 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.”8Karsay got the next two batters, Ventura and Shinjo, out but the damage was done. The Mets left the inning with a 3-2 lead and New Yorkers had something to cheer about.
Benitez stayed on to pitch the ninth inning. After giving up a single to Javy Lopez, he struck out pinch-hitter B.J. Surhoff. The next batter, Keith Lockhart, grounded into a double play to end the game.
The Mets finished the season with an 82-80 record, which left them in third place in the National League East. But they played with heart during the final six weeks of the season. The Mets put together a 25-6 run during that time, which included winning five straight games once baseball resumed play after 9/11.9 But even more importantly, the Mets gave the region something to cheer about on the evening of September 21 and helped a city continue to heal as fans came together to cheer the home team.
This article was published in "Met-rospectives: A Collection of the Greatest Games in New York Mets History" (SABR, 2018), edited by Brian Wright and Bill Nowlin. To read more articles from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, I also used the Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball-Almanac.com, and Retrosheet.org websites for box score, player, team, and season pages, pitching and batting game logs, and other pertinent material.
2 Rob Neyer, “How Major League Baseball Responded to 9/11,” SB Nation.com, September 11, 2011.
3 Mike Vaccaro, “How Sept. 21, 2001, Unfurled at Shea – when Piazza made NY smile,” New York Post, July 16, 2016.
4 “Piazza’s Healing Home Run.”
5 Ken Rosenthal, “What I’ll Never Forget About Baseball’s Return to New York After 9/11,” Fox Sports.com, September 10, 2016.
6 “How Sept. 21, 2001, Unfurled at Shea.”
7 Steve Politi, “One Swing of the Bat Showed the Healing Power of Sports After 9/11,” CNN.com, September 9, 2011.
9 “What I’ll Never Forget.”