Piazza, the Yankees and the healing power of sports 15 years later

(Note from The Wayniac: Although I try not to, there have been a few occasions that I have mixed politics and sports on this site. I try to keep it light hearted, but 9/11 is something very important to me. Understand that I am showing how sports helped heal, not implying that sports saved the day. That being said, let today be for what it is. There is no need to worry about what Colin Kaepernick is doing, the only thing you have to make sure you do is Never Forget.)

I was one of the lucky ones. I don’t have a first hand account of 9/11 because I was home, sick from work on the New Jersey side of the river. I was also lucky enough that I didn’t lose any of my friends who worked in the World Trade Centers, although some plummeted down stairs or jumped in the river to escape the fate that so many innocent Americans met that day.

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Sadly, it’s almost a cliche now. Americans say Never Forget, but it’s clear that 15 years later, many unfortunately have. For those of my friends and family that were in the city that fateful day, and even those like myself less than ten miles away, it can’t be forgotten.

I was asleep. Sick, in bed. My roommate was at work, a teacher at the High School I was substitute teaching at while I was in grad school working on my Masters in education. I lived in a duplex, and I heard the upstairs neighbor come trodding down the stairs. Suddenly, the pounding on the door, me waking up in a haze, staggering to the door, opening it up and saying, “WHAT?!”

“Dude. We’re under attack.”

It was about 9 AM. Still in a haze, thinking what was happening was a NyQuil induced nightmare, we turned on the TV. Before my neighbor and I could understand what happened, tragedy struck again. The second plane crashed.

We heard a woman on the street scream to someone, “What the hell is happening?” When we stepped outside, a few neighbors were in the street looking off into the distance of our skyline, our view of New York City, black smoke bellowing into the sky.

I remember a few other instances. Being on the phone with my dad — him telling me to stay close and not go into the City after any of my friends, because it was still the wee hours of the morning on the West Coast and more attacks could be coming — only to watch a building I had taken a picture of on Labor Day weekend crumble to the ground. I remember Big Lar, who was home sick as I was, setting up an email network and touching base with our friends as fast as we could, with so many phone lines down. I remember my roommate coming home to grab lunch, and when I asked him what was going on at the school, he simply replied, “It isn’t good,” and we sat in silence watching more events unfold.

The rest of the day was horrific, and the losses of so many are simply indescribable in words. Like I said, I was a lucky one. My inbox started filling up with “I’m ok,” emails, the phones began ringing again with people checking in. Unfortunately, for quite a few people I knew, their inboxes remained empty, their phones silent.

What a lot of people that are removed from 9/11 don’t realize — and I learned this years later when I moved to Atlanta — is that it wasn’t one day, it wasn’t a few days, it wasn’t a week. I know that sounds silly, but it’s true. I feel like a lot of people forgot what it was like to rebuild the City.

I lived on the New Jersey side of the river because I was in grad school and broke, but I spent all of my free time on the other side of the river. I worked there months before the attack. My friends lived there, Central Park was there, the Yankees were there.

The ensuing days were huge question marks. I remember my friend Shannon coming up maybe a week later and going into NYC to meet up with Greene. We always wanted to go to Madame Tussaud’s so we did. The streets were empty. For those unaware of the location of the world famous wax museum, it is located on 42nd Street on the outskirts of this little part of town known as Times Square. Go ahead. Take a walk there right now. I promise you, the streets won’t be empty.

The city that never sleeps was silent.  The streets, still dusty. I remember saying how eery the walk was. After we toured the wax statues, they had the 4D Panorama movie of the history of New York. Except there was a big warning. The short film showed the World Trade Center, it may be too early for some to see. We decided we weren’t ready and passed.

For days upon days, the smoke rose into the sky. You could see it far and wide, from the Hoboken Path trains, from the river front as you drove through Edgewater, even on 9W. Just because you were in New Jersey, just because you were in Connecticut, there was no escaping what was ongoing.

That’s why Mike Piazza’s home run was so big. Look, I watched the entire storybook career of Derek Jeter unfold, right up to his last walkoff at bat at Yankee Stadium. There are a lot of moments you watch in your life, wondering if you are watching a movie or reality unfold. You feel like you are watching something that couldn’t possibly happen if it weren’t scripted out with the magic of special effects behind it.

It was the first sporting event in New York City since the attacks. Mets fan or not, if you lived in the area, you were likely watching it. It wasn’t the Mets versus the Braves. It was America’s Pastime returning to where it started.

It was the city that it happened in, it was the timing that it occurred. When the ball left Piazza’s bat, there was no question. It was a shot heard around the Tri-State area. It was a sign that no matter what, New York wasn’t going to lose.

Later that fall, the Yankees made their run deep into the postseason. It was a crazy time. The New York Yankees are a two way team. If you are a Yankees fan, you bleed pinstripes, if you aren’t you hate them. For every Yankees fan in the world, there are easily three Yankees haters.

But it wasn’t like that in October — and then November — of 2001. It wasn’t the New York Yankees, it was New York rising from the ashes and the guys in pinstripes playing their little part in trying to help ease the pain. Suddenly people found themselves not only watching the Yankees, but rooting for them.

“Well, my uncle lives up there and has gone through a lot, he needs this,” some would say.

“A bunch of my friends in college were New Yorkers and loved these guys, they could sure use something to smile about,” others would say.

“How much of a f@#% you would it be if New Yorkers rallied and rose up and won this whole thing to shove it in their faces,” still even more would say.

Bars and streets were filled with “LET’S GO YANKEES” and seemingly every time a mere seconds later, “USA! USA! USA!” resonated through the streets. For three nights, they were rewarded with some of the most memorable games in the Yankees late 90s run.

It started when the Commander in Chief walked right past the improvised mound most celebrities throw the ceremonial first pitch from. He gave the thumbs up to New York and pitched a perfect strike.

Over the next three nights, the Bombers took care of the rest.

It was often followed by “USA, USA, USA!” It was like that everywhere you went. And it wasn’t just sports. I remember being in a bar with my normal group of guys when Dubya gave a speech a few days after the attacks. Everyone grew quiet. Everyone was zoned in, hanging on his every word.

I will not forget the wound to our country and those who inflicted it. I will not yield, I will not rest, I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.

The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.

Fellow citizens, we’ll meet violence with patient justice, assured of the rightness of our cause and confident of the victories to come (Washington Post 9/20/11).

The place absolutely erupted. “USA, USA, USA!” You shook hands with strangers, you high fived any hand you could find. But they weren’t strangers. They were the same person as you, lucky and grateful to be alive in the heart of the greatest city on earth.

Look, I’m not looking to belittle 9/11 by talking sports, but the Mets, Giants, Yankees and even the Jets were a big part of the healing process for a lot of people, me being one of them. I remember the first game I went back to at the old Yankees Stadium with Greene, and there were snipers across every corner of the roof, you felt a little on edge. But once Clemens threw that first pitch, all kind of seemed right in the world again.

15 years has passed. I don’t live up north anymore. Most of my friends have families now and have moved out to the ‘burbs and live in West Chester or New Jersey. Some have moved wide and far to every corner of the country. My brother, my last tie to the heart of the city, is even moving in a few months. I’ll literally have no ties, no couch to rest my head on after a long day of purposely getting lost in Central Park and seeing what you could uncover.

But I will always consider it home up there. And I will always remember how Mike Piazza’s shot made you remember it was ok to be happy again, and that things were going to be ok.

Maybe another one of those iconic shots is what America needs now.

3 thoughts on “Piazza, the Yankees and the healing power of sports 15 years later”

  1. Wayne,
    I am probably a little biased but this is, by far, your best piece ever. You have brought tears to my eyes and I’m proud to call you a friend, a brother. So proud of you dude. Love ya.
    Dunton

  2. Well done and very eloquently said. I couldn’t agree more with the statement. I was down in UD that day just starting my 5th year, but just as easily could’ve been back home if I was just a bit smarter to finish school in 4 years. I had friends there that day as well and while all were accounted for, there were others that my family knew or had friends that knew that weren’t as fortunate. I will always remember. And while sports in general don’t heal, Piazza’s home run still gives me chills every time I watch it.

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