Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remembering 9/11 and the Night at Shea Stadium That Brought Everyone Together

By Steve Phillips

The morning of September 11, 2001 started a bit overcast. I left home at my normal time but anticipated a very busy day at work because I had organizational telemeetings scheduled for the entire day. Every Mets minor league club had its own time window in which we were going to discuss each player in the organization and their progress over the minor league season. The big league club was on the road in Pittsburgh.

Normally I would listen to any number of radio stations on my drive into work. As I was approaching the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, which links the Bronx with Queens, I heard on a news station that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center. The speculation was that it was a small commuter plane. As I went over the bridge I could see the city skyline and smoke billowing off what I supposed was the first tower.

I called my wife to tell her what I heard and saw and asked her if she had seen anything on TV about it. She hadn't but was going to check after we got off the phone.

Then as I got close to Shea Stadium my wife called back and told me that a second plane had hit the other tower at the World Trade Center. She said that at that point the speculation was that it was a terrorist attack. A terrorist attack!

I remember getting goose bumps all over and feeling a deep pit in my stomach.

As I pulled into the stadium and got to the offices the word was just spreading as to what had happened. People were flipping on televisions and trying to find out what they could.

I called my wife back again and she said that she heard at some point they might shut down the bridges and suggested I get home before I got stranded. That fit with what I wanted so desperately to do. I just wanted to get home and get my kids out of school and home safely.

I canceled the telemeetings for the day and told everyone in the baseball department that they could leave to go home to their families. I hustled out of the stadium to my car and headed home, getting over the bridge before it was closed. I could see the smoke from the towers even more clearly now.

As I drove home for the next hour and a half, news followed that the Pentagon had been hit as well. Then the news that the towers collapsed. Oh my gosh ... the towers actually collapsed.

On my drive I had called our PR Director who was with the team in Pittsburgh. Obviously all of the players were concerned about their families. I understood that because all I wanted to do was to get home. We told everyone to sit tight and we would get word from MLB about what was going to happen. Obviously all air travel had stopped so we weren't going to be flying the team home from Pittsburgh.

The next couple of days were horrible, as many people we knew were touched in some way by the tragedy. Our town had lost five men. They had been fathers, sons, brothers and friends. They were Little League coaches and soccer coaches. They were real people that we all knew who were casualties of a war we didn't know was going on at the time. It was so, so sad. It still is.

It was also scary. We didn't know what else might happen. We figured that the people who had done this might strike again. We just wanted to hunker down and hide until someone said the coast was clear.

Games were initially canceled for one day, then three days and then later it was announced five days. The players ended up busing back from Pittsburgh and those who hadn't already reconnected with their families were able to do so. We scheduled workouts at Shea Stadium while we awaited word as to when the Commissioner thought play should resume. There were some who thought that maybe the season should go unfinished. I would have completely supported that.

We were at war!

We didn't know what else might happen. We figured that the people who had done this might strike again. We just wanted to hunker down and hide until someone said the coast was clear.
Shea Stadium became more than a place for ballgames. It became a staging area where supplies were collected for those working at Ground Zero on what was originally a rescue mission and then a recovery mission and then a cleanup mission. Firefighters and policemen from around the country traveled to New York to help. There were rows of cots set up in the tunnels of the stadium for crews to come back and rest between shifts.

Upon their return from Pittsburgh we gathered the players at Shea Stadium for a meeting to give them some sense of the plan. Our owners were there as well as my entire front office and all of the players. The owners talked about how we needed to all stick together in this scary time. The owners also committed to making a hefty donation on behalf of the organization to the families that lost policemen and firemen in the tragedy. Our players did the same, committing a day's pay each, totaling about $450,000.

I will never forget at that meeting a young rookie catcher, Vance Wilson, stood up in the meeting and said that he didn't want to hear any more whining about how this impacted the team or their travel. He said he heard some grumbling on the way back from Pittsburgh. He reminded everyone that people lost family members; none of us had anything to complain about. Pretty impressive for a rookie.

When we worked out at the stadium we invited the firemen to come out on the field to meet the players and take some swings. The players spent hours helping load vans and trucks with supplies to be delivered to the city. Some players went to Ground Zero to offer moral support to the workers there. It was somber. It was serious. It was sad.

It certainly put baseball in perspective. It put a lot of things in perspective. It pulled a team together, a city together and a country together.

Bud Selig decided the games would go on and play resumed on September 16. We went back to play a series in Pittsburgh. The Pirates' fans cheered for us. It was stunning, shocking, moving. It made me proud to be an American. Everywhere we went people cheered us because we were truly representing the name on the front of the uniform.


When they cheered for us they were cheering for our firemen and policemen who ran toward the World Trade Center while others ran for their lives. Our players wore the hats of the NYPD and the FDNY with pride and respect.

On Friday, September 21, we came home and were scheduled to play the first game back in New York since the attack on the World Trade Center. The entire time the team had been away the preparations were being made for its return to Shea. I went to meetings with the NYPD, FBI and FDNY and our stadium operations staff. I would listen to all of the precautions that were being put in place: metal detectors, police presence, snipers, radiation detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs. You name it and it was discussed and likely implemented.

Honestly, it scared the crap out of me.

Was playing a baseball game under these conditions really worth it?

I mean, we had to instruct the players and their families what to do if there was an attack. We had an evacuation plan for family members that would bring them through the bowels of the stadium and connect them with their husbands and fathers in the player parking lot for a quick getaway if necessary.

Just as there were preparations being made for the safety and security of the fans, so, too, were preparations being made for the "event" that the game would be. It needed to be respectful, spiritual, patriotic and New Yorkish.

I spent most of the day of September 21 in my office confirming the final safety and security plans as well as trying to focus on some baseball stuff. It was hard to focus. I was scared. There was a story that had circulated that a man had been found sitting in his car with maps of the area around Shea Stadium and LaGuardia Airport. He supposedly had certain things highlighted that worried the authorities. I didn't know what to make of that.

In the late afternoon I had to get out of my office so I went up to my box from which I would watch the game. I was sad and wanted to be alone. I looked down on the field and there was a gospel group getting set up to rehearse with Diana Ross. They were to sing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch. I sat there as they prepared wondering what the night would bring. I didn't know whether the stadium would be a target for the terrorists so soon after the 9/11 attacks. I wondered how many people would show up for the game. I wondered if life would feel this scary forever.

Then they started to sing. Diana Ross and these kids started to sing "God Bless America." I watched as Ms. Ross sang with passion and truth. She went from person to person and touched each singer's face with a gentle touch, letting them know they were safe. She looked in each of their eyes and made it clear that they were all going to be OK.

I sat there in my box where I had screamed at my players and manager on many occasions. This was the place where I had pounded the tabletop at ridiculous calls by umpires. This is the box in which I had slapped high fives just a year prior on our way to a World Series. And now I was sitting and crying. I was crying for all those who had died and for how much life had changed in just a few days. It was one of the most spiritual moments I have ever experienced.

When they were done singing I felt better. I just felt like everything was going to get better. Somehow, someway, someday.

The game started with a bagpipe performance that truly touched my soul. It spoke to the anguish and grief of the recent events and brought tears to most eyes. Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York and a huge Yankee fan, was in attendance and was cheered wildly by everyone to honor his leadership during the adversity that hit New York.

Our arch-nemesis, the Atlanta Braves, were the opponent. Before the first pitch both teams shook hands and hugged, acknowledging the obvious: that the rivalry really didn't mean nearly as much on September 21, 2001 as it had just 11 days earlier.

Marc Anthony sang the National Anthem. He sang it with passion and sincerity. The fans sang along like I had never heard before. Chants of "USA! USA! USA!" followed. I got goose bumps.

The game itself was a good one. The Braves started Jason Marquis, a New Yorker. He threw six innings and only gave up a run. Bruce Chen started for us. He matched Marquis, allowing only one run over six innings. An emotional John Franco, a New Yorker as well, gave up a run in the seventh that gave the Braves a 2-1 lead after seven innings.

The seventh-inning stretch included the performance of "God Bless America" that I saw before the game. The fans appreciated it as much as I did. Then Liza Minnelli came out and sang "New York, New York." She was arm and arm with policemen and firemen while doing a cabaret kick during the song. It was a powerful and dramatic performance.

After we made our third out in the seventh inning, still trailing 2-1, I remember saying a prayer asking God for help. I was never one to pray for victories because I always felt like God had more important prayers to answer.

But this just felt different.

There were 41,000 people that had the courage to show up and support the Mets, New York and America. It just seemed that the scriptwriters should have us win the game. I really didn't think the Braves would mind if we won. I even mentioned that to God.

Well in the bottom of the eighth inning, after an Edgardo Alfonzo base on balls, Mike Piazza came to the plate. Piazza was beloved by Mets fans. He was a clutch player who loved the big moment.

I can still slow down the image in my mind. As Braves reliever Steve Karsay -- born in Flushing, Queens -- released the ball and it came to the plate Piazza started to uncoil his swing. My prayers and the prayers of 41,000 Mets fans and 8.4 million New Yorkers were answered as the ball sailed out of the park. I can still see Piazza rounding the bases. I can see him acknowledging the fans.

I cried yet again.

We won! Yes, we won the game, but it was more than that. We won because we overcame adversity. We stood up to our fears and anxieties. New Yorkers showed up and said, "Bring it on!" I was proud to be a Met that day. I was prouder to be a New Yorker and I was proudest to be an American.

We will never forget September 11, 2001.

I will never forget September 21, 2001, either, because that is the day I knew we were going to be all right.

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