You probably know that MLB doesn’t let the Mets wear first responder hats on September 11th each year, but that wasn’t going to stop me. I’m an American and a New Yorker, after all, and a fan of the team that did once wear those hats in play, even if once wasn’t nearly enough. So I bought an FDNY hat, dark blue with red lettering, from the Citi Field promenade store, then took the stairs down to my seat just as the pregame ceremony was starting.
Hundreds of police officers and firefighters in uniform were lining the warning track, and just as I got down to my level, the music started. A video, then a moment of silence; the camera panning past one uniform after another, then the national anthem, performed by the Cops & Kids Chorus. Then I blinked a few times and bought a pretzel and made my way back to my seat, and it was time to play baseball.
September 11th, 2001, was my first day of pre-k, but besides the sense that all the adults seemed distracted, I don’t remember anything. My friend heard that there was an emergency, and set up all the model ambulances and fire trucks around a block tower he’d built. It wasn’t until a long while later that I heard about what had happened, at least as far as I can remember. I certainly didn’t remember what happened ten days later, on September 21st, when baseball came back to Shea Stadium. Two and a half years after that, give or take, a new baseball season started and I was finally old enough to focus full-time on the Mets, and I started remembering game results. But that hadn’t happened yet.
For me, it’s hard to find anything that doesn’t have some sort of association with the Mets. But I think most of New York has at least some idea of how much the Mets figured into the days after 9/11. Supplies in the Shea parking lot, players and coaches loading trucks…and then, of course, the Mets returning, Liza Minelli singing, Mike Piazza homering, and everything being okay, if only for a second.
I’d never been to a September 11thgame before, so I don’t have any reference point, but this one was exquisitely done. The pregame ceremony left me grinning and blinking, remembering all that we’d been through and proud of what we’d done. It was the perfect place to be. Baseball in early September, stands full of police officers and firefighters, flag flying over the outfield, a large, cold glass of lemonade. It doesn’t get any more American, in the best way possible, than that. And what’s more, I was sure we were going to win. It was a New York event. It was ours for the taking. Mets baseball in New York on September 11th is little more than a celebration of how much our city overcame, and how far we’ve come since. We weren’t going to lose.
I was even more sure one batter in. Amed led off, and he smacked a ball down the left field line faster than anyone could see. Immediately, I thought of Jose Reyes’ leadoff double in the last game of David Wright’s career. There are moments when when baseball comes to life, when the story takes off on its own and you know it can’t possibly be derailed. That was one of them, and this was another. We weren’t going to lose.
With one out, McNeil was hit by a pitch. Then he and Amed executed the most fundamentally beautiful double-steal I’d ever seen. Now the entire crowd could feel it. This was one of those games. Things were going our way. Ramos hit a grounder to second that would have been an inning-ending double play but for the double steal; instead, it brought in a run. J.D. Davis singled; McNeil scored. Frazier drove a ball over that damned Wall of Flushing. After a mound visit, Nimmo, too, put the first pitch he saw into the bullpen.
Even when things got dicey, the outcome was never really in doubt. Steven Matz walked the first three hitters, he saw in the second, then induced a strikeout and a double play. Of course, I thought to myself. McNeil hit a ball 440 feet into the Coca Cola corner. Obviously. In the third, Frazier hit another one. Why not?
You know how we’re almost always waiting for that one day when things just go right? We’ll be down 5-2 in the eighth, say, and we’ll put two men on, and you’ll think to yourself, all we need is three hits in a row to tie this game right up…but you know those three hits aren’t coming, because it’s just not our day? Today, finally, was our day. We recovered from 9/11, which meant the Arizona Diamondbacks weren’t going to present much of a challenge. Hell, the stands were full of police, and even the Diamondbacks know that the New York City Police and Fire Departments, on September 11th, deserve to see a win.
Diamondback liners found gloves. Ground balls came just when we needed them. Each time he seemed lost, Matz found himself — and then Familia, Sewald, and Bashlor did too. Two home runs each from Frazier and McNeil, two hits each for Nimmo and J.D. Davis, six shutout innings with seven strikeouts for Matz. To the bottom of the eighth, still 9-0. Game in the bag, uncertain as the Mets bullpen may often be. But then something interesting happened.
Mickey Callaway was subbing out his regulars for defensive replacements, and Sewald needed a pinch-hitter. Up came Sam Haggerty. 25 years old, just up from Syracuse, somewhat familiar to Mets fans for the video of his call-up even if, in general, he’s a complete unknown. He had already pinch-run, but now he was coming up for his first career at-bat. And in the stands, fans were standing and cheering.
I said that it didn’t get any more American, in the best way possible, than a ballgame with the flag flying. I was wrong. This made it perfect. Cheering for the perfect coming-of-age story, the American Dream’s American Dream…as Sam Haggerty stepped up to the plate to finally achieve the goal he’s been working towards all his life, I don’t know that I’ve ever rooted harder. Sam Haggerty had to get a hit. He had to make the night perfect.
He didn’t. He took two balls, fouled off two tough pitches, then swung through strike three. No perfection for Sam Haggerty — at least, not yet. But then Sam Haggerty walked back to a major league dugout and a major league manager slapped him conciliatorily, a major league batting line now to his name. The chance to watch the moment a player finally takes the ultimate step, and takes a major league at-bat…it’s a special occasion, regardless of the outcome.
Soon after Haggerty struck out, Tyler Bashlor inched his way around some erratic fastballs and closed the deal. We won 9-0, and moved within 2.5 games of the second wildcard. Jeff McNeil and Todd Frazier had 20 home runs each on the season. J.D. Davis was batting .305. Steven Matz got his 10th win.
I just missed my subway train at the platform in Times Square, and stood waiting for the next one. It could have been any day and any game, besides my FDNY cap and the pride that was running through me. Proud American, proud New Yorker, proud Mets fan. We Americans…for all our faults, sometimes we can do beautiful things, and on nights like tonight, baseball is a great example. Dreams come true, stories play out, cities find solace — all on a baseball field. Sure, it will end eventually, but the things that matter will stick with us. All games end and all seasons fall apart, but the memories…well, you might say we’ll never forget.