SAN DIEGO -- The years have passed, but the images remain vivid, precise. There are indelible moments in a person's life, and 9/11 -- especially the aftermath -- always will hold a special place in Mike Piazza's heart and mind.

"I don't think this country has lost touch with pulling together in crises," Piazza said, reflecting on that time when he was the leader of the New York Mets and they played in a city ravaged by terror and heartbreak. "I saw a tremendous amount of love and outpouring and so forth during that time.

"It's unfortunate the only time you find out about this is through tragedy. There's a goodness in this country; I truly believe we're a good country. There's something inside our people. You try to reach out and help, any way you can. It was there throughout the whole country during 9/11, just as it was during World War II and other wars and crises.

"This is a generous country. It just doesn't get publicized as much as it should."

The Mets were in Pittsburgh when the Twin Towers were hit. Piazza recalls coming back to New York, trying with teammate Jay Payton to reach his Manhattan home and going through three checkpoints. He remembers the dazed looks on faces, the confusion and bewilderment everywhere.

"Everyone in the city was just stunned," Piazza said.

The Mets quickly went into action. They set up a staging area in the Shea Stadium parking lot, with an overflow of supplies and goods. Police and fire department officials pointed in directions for players such as Piazza to go lift sagging spirits with kind words, hugs and smiles.

A writer friend of Piazza's put him in touch with the young son of a North Jersey fireman who had perished in one of the towers. Piazza and the boy spent a day hanging out together. They made a connection. Piazza checks up on the boy, now a teenager, and is heartened to hear he's doing well.

"It wasn't anything contrived," Piazza said. "We didn't feel obligated to do these things. We did a lot of things behind the scenes, with no cameras around. We just wanted to do something. What were we going to do? Sit around watching the news and be depressed?"

The Mets took the lead, and Piazza was their leader.

"They were always active in the community," he said. "There were a lot of firefighters and policemen who took us to hospitals to talk to people, and to Ground Zero to talk to workers there. We had a mass at the stadium, and they'd have a roll call of the guys from that precinct who'd passed on. It was touching to experience all of that.

"The Mets would let any firefighter or policeman on the field during batting practice. They'd come down on the field and we'd talk. The club gave away tons of tickets.

"The owners of the club, Mr. [Fred] Wilpon and Mr. [Nelson] Doubleday, spoke to us in a team meeting. Both men were very connected to the city, and they were emotional. We were just trying to figure out logistically what we should do. It was a team effort. I can't take any more credit than anybody else."

Except, of course, for The Home Run. There has been none quite like it in the history of the baseball-mad city.

It was the first baseball game played in New York after 9/11. Shea Stadium. The mournful bagpipes at the outset. For once, more tears than cheers. Raw emotion everywhere, in every face.

"We were all drained," Piazza said. "We were all stretched from everything that had gone on. To come back and play baseball, we were all kind of perplexed. Where does this fit in? I mean, what are we doing here?

"It was surreal, really, the whole night."

The Mets were trailing in the eighth inning. Braves reliever Steve Karsay threw a pitch to Piazza, and the catcher put a classic Piazza swing on it. The ball took flight, landing beyond the wall in left-center, off the camera scaffolding. An epic game-winning blast.

A stadium that had been uncharacteristically somber suddenly erupted. The game was back. The city would come back, too.

"It is kind of an iconic moment," Piazza said, "to say there's a beginning to the healing process, to try to get back to living our lives.

"As much as everything is etched in memory, all those images, there's a sentiment to move on. Everyone wanted something to cheer about. I'm deeply flattered that people still remember that and put me in that context."

Oh, yes, they remember. Piazza's humanity was at the heart of the love-in that greeted him in early August when he came back for three days as a Padre. He launched two homers one night against the Mets' Pedro Martinez, for old times' sake. The cheering, roaring fans called him out of the visiting dugout for acknowledgement, for a tip of the cap.

It was the longest, loudest, most moving thank you in anyone's memory.