New York retakes field of life

Fans honor heroes while cheering on triumphant Mets

Terrorism Strikes America

The Healing Process

September 22, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - Whether out of defiance of terrorism, or love of country, or to honor fallen heroes or to just plain root on the hometown team, the fans made it to Shea Stadium last night for a rousing, emotional return to the national pastime.

Last night's New York Mets-Atlanta Braves game was the first major sporting event in this city since the World Trade Center disaster, and though it was to be a symbolic return to a semblance of normalcy, the evening was anything but normal. It's not often that the emotional pinnacle of a baseball game comes before the first pitch.

Firefighters, police officers, emergency medical workers and others marched from centerfield at 7:15 p.m. to the loudest and longest ovation of the evening. Spontaneous roars of "U.S.A., U.S.A." erupted from the stands, and Mets manager Bobby Valentine led the crowd in chants of "Rudy, Rudy" for New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Singer Diana Ross moved fans and players with her rendition of "God Bless America," and pop singer Marc Anthony sang the national anthem.

And oh, there was a baseball game, the start delayed a bit because security checkpoints slowed arriving fans - all 41,235 of them. The Mets won in storybook fashion, 3-2, on star catcher Mike Piazza's two-run home run at the bottom of the eighth.

"I was just so happy that I was able to come through in that situation and give people something to cheer for," Piazza said, adding that the players couldn't help but think how great a win would be for the city. "That was definitely in the back of our minds. We definitely felt like we wanted to win tonight."

It was the fourth game for the Mets since all baseball games were postponed Sept. 11, and after winning all four, the team finds itself in a pennant race with the opposing Braves.

But, win or lose, the players, team officials and many in the crowd sensed the unique importance of simply playing this first New York home game.

"The president said it, and we're living it - and that is that we are fighting fear for - freedom," said Valentine, who knows President Bush from Valentine's days managing the Texas Rangers, when Bush was part-owner of the team. "What we are is part of the lives of many New Yorkers. ... I think enough has been taken away from the city."

The Mets made sure the reminders of the trade center tragedy were everywhere: On top of the dugouts, which now bear American flags and read "Welcome to New York City" on the visitor's side and "God Bless America" on the home side. On the field, where the bases have American flags, and red, white and blue ribbons are painted on the grass near the baselines.

On the scoreboard, where the twin towers in the New York skyline have sadly faded to black, now marked by a red-white-and-blue ribbon. Even on the Mets players, who wore hats honoring rescue organizations and who now have the fateful date "9-11-01" stitched on their uniform sleeves. The players, coaches and Valentine also donated their pay for yesterday's game to the disaster relief effort, a total of close to $450,000.

Throughout the game, the stadium sound system blared uplifting music between innings - "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and Lee Greenwood's "I'm Proud to be an American" playing as the faces of rescue workers and the trade center rubble glimmered on a giant television screen.

During the seventh-inning stretch, Liza Minnelli performed "New York, New York" with six New York police officers and firefighters dancing in step behind her. When she was finished, she walked over to Jay Payton of the Mets, who happened to be the next batter up, and gave him a hug and a smooch. She walked off the field to shouts of "U.S.A."

The fans came with their own reminders, wearing American flags on their shirts, on top of their heads, even - in the case of nine-year-old Jayson Stolz - painted on his face, at the urging of his father, Jay.

"We just felt like the only thing we could do was to come and show up, put our colors on and let them know that we're still here and nothing's going to keep us away," said Stolz, 39, a carpenter from Colonia, N.J. He said his son also came with a mission. "The first thing [Jayson] wanted to do was shake a cop's hand, a New York City police officer's hand."

Hiedi Barrack and her 75-year-old mother, Bernice, were among those who almost didn't come to the game because of fears for their safety.

"I thought about not coming, and I actually didn't make up my mind last night that I was going to come," said Hiedi Barrack, 42. The New Jersey residents came, they said, to show solidarity: "We all have to be together for a little while to honor the police and firemen and EMS that are at the World Trade Center."

Some of the families of missing rescue workers were also invited to the game. Their trek to Shea Stadium was less a patriotic pilgrimage than a tearful march of support for their loved ones.

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