20 years later: Ex-Braves reflect on first game in New York after 9/11

Bobby Amos stand with his arms in the air holding a flag before the start of a game between the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium in New York Friday, Sept. 21, 2001. This was the first MLB game in New York after the World Trade Center attack of Sept. 11. Amos, of Queens, N.Y., lost his cousin, firefighter Tommy McCann, in the Trade Center disaster. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

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Bobby Amos stand with his arms in the air holding a flag before the start of a game between the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium in New York Friday, Sept. 21, 2001. This was the first MLB game in New York after the World Trade Center attack of Sept. 11. Amos, of Queens, N.Y., lost his cousin, firefighter Tommy McCann, in the Trade Center disaster. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

For a few minutes, Brian Jordan’s eighth-inning hit gave the Braves a lead over the Mets in the first major sports event played in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But it would have been all wrong if that lead had held, the former Braves outfielder thought at the time and still believes 20 years later.

“No doubt about it, that was the only time in my career I didn’t mind losing a game,” Jordan said in a recent conversation with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Because it was just meant to be.”

The Mets won that emotional game, played 10 days after the World Trade Center towers fell, as their biggest star, Mike Piazza, famously hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning before a flag-waving crowd of 41,235 at Shea Stadium.

While acknowledging the relative triviality of a sporting event in the aftermath of 9/11, and despite competing hard that night, the Braves felt New Yorkers needed and deserved to win the game.

Major League Baseball had shut down for six days after the attacks, resuming Sept. 17 with both the Yankees and Mets on the road. The Braves played a four-game series in Philadelphia before going to New York. Then, on the night of Sept. 21, a Friday night, they did their small part to try to return a bit of normalcy -- or at least a few hours of distraction -- to New York.

“There were a lot of things going through your brain,” former Braves pitcher Tom Glavine told the AJC recently. “There was the emotional aspect of being the first game back in New York and being a part of trying to get our country back to normal. So much of the talk leading up to that was, ‘We’ve got to get back to normal. We can’t be afraid.’

“There was a ton of pride in being that first group back in New York and helping with that transition. But there was a ton of anxiety.”

The first thing the Braves noticed, as they approached Shea Stadium, was the exponentially increased security. It was both comforting and worrying, a symbol of a city and nation forever changed. Mark DeRosa, then a Braves infielder, remembers seeing “bomb-sniffing dogs and (police) snipers on towers.” Glavine remembers hearing “chatter” that “something else could happen.”

“Part of the obstacle of truly being able to get back to normal,” Glavine said, “was having events like that and going to stadiums with big crowds that were kind of vulnerable targets and having faith everything was going to be all right.”

The Mets' Rick White, wearing an NYPD cap, embraces the Braves'  Chipper Jones before the start of the Sept. 21, 2001, game at Shea Stadium, the first MLB game in New York after the World Trade Center attack of Sept. 11. The Mets wore caps honoring the police and fire departments for the game. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

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Pregame ceremonies paid tribute to victims of the 9/11 attacks, to their families and to first responders and rescue workers. NYPD’s bagpipe band played. Fans waved American flags and chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A!” Diana Ross performed “God Bless America.” Marc Anthony sang the national anthem. Then players from the opposing teams met in the middle of the field, many of them exchanging hugs and handshakes.

“We had no enemies on the field at that moment,” Jordan said. “To go out and embrace each other, it was the right thing to do.”

“Let’s face it, in those days, those were two teams that didn’t like each other,” Glavine said, “so for the two teams to come together the way we did was a big deal. I think the biggest thing was seeing (Braves manager Bobby Cox and Mets manager Bobby Valentine) hug each other. There was no love lost between those guys.”

Pete Van Wieren and Don Sutton, the late great Braves broadcasters, described the scene on TBS.

“What we hope can happen is that this little baseball game, which is really a very insignificant thing in the grand scheme of things, can help be a part of the healing process,” Van Wieren said.

“One step back,” Sutton said. “And in a show of solidarity that I think is now what we’re seeing almost everywhere around our country in every walk of life, the two teams meeting in the middle of the field – never seen that before.”

Amid what was happening on the field, Jordan’s attention turned to the seats behind home plate, where some loved ones of 9/11 victims had been invited to watch the game.

“My heart went to this one family – a mom (Carol Gies) and three boys that were sort of in the front row,” Jordan said. “I went over and hugged them. She lost her husband (a firefighter), and they lost their dad. I could see the emotions in their faces. I just wanted to go over there and embrace them. I knew them from no one out there.

“Just being there, it was not all about baseball. It was about coming together.”

Braves outfielder Brian Jordan hugs Carol Gies, who lost her firefighter husband in the World Trade Center attack, before game against the N.Y. Mets - the first sporting event since the tragedy - Friday, Sept. 21, 2001, at Shea Stadium in New York. (Phil Skinner/AJC)

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Fittingly, 23-year-old Jason Marquis, who grew up in the New York City borough of Staten Island, was the Braves’ starting pitcher that night.

The score was tied 1-1 when Liza Minnelli performed “New York, New York” during the seventh-inning stretch. With two outs in the top of the eighth, Jordan’s double drove home a run to give the Braves a 2-1 lead. In the bottom of the inning, a more-appropriate script played out: Piazza hit a two-run homer to left-center field off Braves reliever Steve Karsay, who grew up in Queens, to put the Mets ahead 3-2.

“I’m just so happy I gave the people something to cheer,” Piazza said later.

The Mets’ 3-2 lead held up as the final score.

“It’s probably one of the only games in the big leagues that I was a part of the losing team and really didn’t care,” Glavine said. “It was almost like a Hollywood script. ... You never like to lose. But when you digest it, if you ever felt like a city and a team needed a win more than you did, that was the night. And for that reason, not many of us really cared that we lost that game.

“To have baseball back in New York and to be a part of the team that was doing it, it was a great honor and something that I will never forget being a part of.”

Glavine started the third game of the series two days later, the Braves’ only win that weekend.

Braves catcher catcher Javy Lopez (right) steps aside as New York Mets' Mike Piazza is greeted by teammate Robin Ventura after Piazza's two-run home run in the eighth inning against the Braves at Shea Stadium in New York, Friday, Sept. 21, 2001. The Mets beat the Braves, 3-2. (Jeff Zelevansky/AP)

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DeRosa, who is now a commentator for MLB Network, has been thinking a lot recently about the first game back in New York after 9/11. He grew up in Carlstadt, N.J., “on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel with the Twin Towers as the backdrop to my Wiffle ball games and my Nerf football games in the street.” He got together this summer with five other New York-area natives on the 2001 Braves and Mets teams – Marquis, Karsay, Dave Martinez, John Franco and Al Leiter – to reminisce about the Sept. 21, 2001, game for an MLB Network special, “Remembering the Game for New York,” that debuted Thursday and will re-air twice Saturday.

“I was wearing a Braves uniform, but I was really representing New York at that given time,” Marquis told his long-time close friend DeRosa. “I think the game represented a combination of celebration and grief, sort of like understanding we did lose a lot, but now we’re sort of on the way to recovery. ... It definitely was the most meaningful game I played in.”

Marquis pitched well that night, allowing one run in six innings. DeRosa got into the historic game as a pinch-runner with his parents in the Shea Stadium stands.

“I remember people not knowing how to act,” DeRosa told the AJC this week. “Like, should we be playing? No one had the right answers going in. Obviously, we wanted to get back on the field.

“But I feel like when we got there we just wanted to honor the people, give them a chance to take their mind off it for a minute. We drove into New York from Philly on buses. I can remember sitting next to (outfielder) B.J. Surhoff. We were on the Turnpike in New Jersey, and everyone moved to the right side because you’ve got the whole skyline and you just saw the smoldering of where the towers were. It was a feeling of not knowing how to act, not believing that could actually happen.”

On the Saturday morning after Piazza’s famous home run, a group of 17 Braves players, coaches and staff members went from the team’s hotel to Ground Zero, the site of the fallen towers.

“No question about it, I was shaken,” Jordan said. “It was one of those humbling, humbling, scared feelings. It was scary to see how vulnerable the United States was.”

American flags fly from the stands at Shea Stadium for the Braves-Mets game Friday, Sept. 21, 2001. (Phil Skinner/AJC).

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