Each of the prior 18 Septembers, the Mets sent high-profile representatives to firehouses in downtown Manhattan, a tribute to those who gave their lives on September 11, 2001 as well as a continuation of the Mets’ superb efforts at the outset of the terrorist attack. It felt as organic to the organization as Banner Day once did.
Like everything else, though, this tradition took a hit thanks to the novel coronavirus. So on Tuesday morning, the Mets pivoted and did something that respected both that day’s heroes and COVID-19: Four 2001 Mets – John Franco, Al Leiter, Robin Ventura and Todd Zeile – jumped on a Zoom call with four Fire Department of New York members (as well as the wife of a fifth) who were on site that day.
“I would like to express my thanks to all of you for what you did the days after 9/11 and what you continue to do for our FDNY families,” said Carl Graziano, one of the firefighters on the call. “…When we saw any one of you guys, …we knew you had our back. You took away the feelings and you gave us the extra (motivation) to continue to work at rescue and recover.”
The ‘01 Mets were in Pittsburgh on the day of the attacks and, as Major League Baseball hit the pause button, returned home the next day and went right to work. A large group quickly visited Ground Zero, where, as Ventura put it, “You felt like you were intruding on something.” The positive reactions from the workers convinced them otherwise. Multiple visits to firehouses followed, and Shea Stadium turned into a staging area for relief workers.
“It was very simple for you to go and help, even if you went there to lug some bottles of water and said hello to people working there,” said Leiter, who explained that as a starting pitcher, his schedule on days between starts afforded him particular luxury to spend a half-hour before a game with the relief workers.
We remember and cherish those Mets’ passion for helping in large part because it appeared to come so naturally for them. Fred Wilpon’s dedication to community service long preceded 9/11, and his family’s ongoing commitment to the cause should be appreciated as he works to sell the team to Steve Cohen. Manager Bobby Valentine, a Connecticut guy, dove head-first into everything he did, and with Brooklyn native Franco (the team captain) and New Jersey native Leiter fronting the player leadership, there was no way these guys wouldn’t do everything they could.
“There wasn’t a guy who said no to anything that we needed to do regarding the 9/11 stuff,” Franco said.
It couldn’t have been a coincidence that the club excelled on the field as well. The legendary “9/21 game,” featuring Mike Piazza’s game-winning homer, marked the Mets’ fourth straight win out of the break – they owned a 71-73 record when the attacks occurred – and they won eight of nine, mounting an improbable playoff run, before hitting a wall.
Firefighter Bill Spade explained how he was the only one of 12 members from his company, Rescue 5, to survive 9/11. Having baseball back, with stories like the Mets’ surge, “it did take our minds off of [it], relieve some of the pressure,” Spade said.
Spade paid tribute to current Met Pete Alonso, who made news last year by arranging for he and his teammates to wear special cleats commemorating 9/11 after MLB forbade them from wearing specific caps.
“Firehouses are a bunch of guys just like a dugout, the locker room. Same thing,” Spade said. “And it means a lot to us to wear the FDNY, Port Authority, NYPD hats [during batting practice].”
(And yes, MLB should for sure let the Mets, or anyone else, wear whatever darn caps they want during games on 9/11).
Zeile played for 11 teams during his 16-year career, including the Mets twice, and he said, “The time between 9/11 and the end of that season was the most impactful, memorable, important time of my career.” Ventura, also a 16-year veteran (with four teams), agreed, “When you look back at your career, you think there’s times in there that affect you the most. That period of time definitely affected me the most.”
David Wright picked up the baton from the ‘01 Mets when it came to visiting firehouses, and Steven Matz followed Wright’s lead. Jay Horwitz, now the team’s vice president of alumni public relations after an epic run as the team’s vice president of media relations, remains the heart and soul of all Mets-related 9/11 matters, including the team’s involvement in Tuesday’s Children.
And you sure hope that Cohen, should he wind up with the team, keeps going with this. It keeps those ‘01 Mets engaged and involved in what they started.
“We’re all wearing glasses now,” Franco said, accurately, of he and his teammates, “but we all still have that closeness. We’ll have that bond of a team that not only did a great job on the field but we did an extraordinary job off the field.”
Thanks as well to the other firefighters who appeared on the call: Jose Cruz and Robert Ostrofsky as well as Wally Blum, who couldn’t attend but was represented by his wife Janine Blum.
This week’s Pop Quiz question came from Joseph Piro of Jersey City: The 1994 baseball film “Angels in the Outfield” features a pair of actors who went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor. Name the two men.
Joel Goldberg, who hosts the pre- and post-game shows for Royals’ telecasts, recently appeared as a guest on my friend Lou Diamond’s podcast, “Thrive Loud.” Worth a listen, for sure.
Your Pop Quiz answer is Adrien Brody and Matthew McCounaghey. If you have a tidbit that connects baseball with popular culture, please send it to me at [email protected]