'First game back' a lasting memory for Chipper
NEW YORK -- The 10th anniversary of the attacks we now identify euphemistically as "9/11" is to be observed at Citi Field on Sunday. A ballpark that didn't exist when The Unfathomable occurred will serve as a staging area for some of the city's ceremonies that day, nearly 10 years after Citi's predecessor served as a different sort of staging area in the first days of the recovery.
Shea Stadium isn't available to participate Sunday. The Braves could have been here, but they'll be in St. Louis, and the Cubs will be here.
Nine-eleven had nothing to do with baseball; the baseball played on 9-21 had everything to do with the first weeks of recovery in the city that was hit hardest. For one unforgettable, unsettling, moving and ultimately uplifting evening, the American game did what few other American institutions could have done. Specifically, that night gave us Braves vs. Mets, a game that made us remember, made us forget, made us tear up, break down and carry on, stand, sing, smile, unite and cheer. Nine-twenty-one allowed one of the targeted cities and its satellites to step toward normalcy -- even as it had been redefined 10 days earlier.
And the Braves had nearly as much to do with the catharsis as the Mets did.
At a time when they could throw their gloves on the field and beat the Mets, the Braves came to town, lost and didn't mind doing so. The Mets had to play some team when baseball returned to New York. The Braves were the ones the schedule makers had in New York on Sept. 21, 2001. So they ought to be here Sunday if only for the sake of symmetry.
Goodness knows better reasons exist. The game this city now knows as "the first game back" turned out to be a defibrillator for some significant segment of the locale; it helped restore the proper rhythm to our lives. And the Braves were one of the paddles. They weren't merely a set of uniformed extras from some movie lot. They were involved, they felt it, they cried, too. "It wasn't our city," Chipper Jones said. "But it was our country."
Jones is the only man who wore a Braves uniform that Friday night in 2001 who still has one to wear. That its color scheme in red, white and blue and that the A team was known as "America's Team" in the heyday of Turner's TBS superstation seems quite apropos if you think about it now and consider what Jones has to say these days about those disturbing days.
He was at Citi two Fridays ago for the series Hurricane Irene reduced to nine innings. Before the game, Jones spoke thoughtfully and with eloquence, passion and a strong sense of patriotism as he told of his 9-21-01 experience, how they affected him and how his outlook changed during the course of that compelling evening.
"I didn't want to be here. I wouldn't let my family come," he said, seated at his locker at Citi. "They wanted to be with me. I wouldn't let them." Jones made mention of the proximity of LaGuardia Airport, and the possibility unnerved him all over again. "The planes," he said. "Every time you heard a takeoff, you wondered. I was leery of a second set of attacks."
What could be a more distractive thought of "What if?"
But by evening's end, after the bagpipes had tolled and the flags had flown, after moments of silence and a moment of baseball grandeur had passed, after Liza had sung and Piazza had swung ... after four hours had passed without incident, Jones had changed his view. "So much had happened, so many emotional things, you had to be changed even if it was just for one night. But it's been longer than that."
Jones, of course, was not a warmly welcomed figure at Shea before or after September 2001. He named a son after the ballpark because he hit so well there. Shea patrons thought he was rubbing it in, and perhaps that was some of his motivation. They jeered his introduction, teased him endlessly; they called him Larry in that sing-song way Fenway had serenaded Strawberry 15 years earlier.
Not that night, though. "It wasn't the same hatred," Chipper said. "They gave me a night off."
Had they known his feelings about that night, about the 10 days that preceded it, about the attacks, they might have received him more cordially. "I understand," Larry Jones says now. He always understood. Jones is much more than baseball bright.
Would they have reacted differently since that night if they knew how Jones characterized that game? "The only game I'm glad we lost in 18 years."
The Braves played in Philadelphia the night of Sept. 20 and bused to New York on the New Jersey Turnpike afterwards. At one point, late in the trip, all they could see was the smoky skyline across the Hudson. "It was the quietest bus ride ever until we got close," Jones said. "Then everyone on the right side of the bus had their noses plastered against the windows. Everyone on the left side was standing in the aisle."
What they saw was ruin, a component unfamiliar on that scale in the Big City. The scene smoldered, so did the passengers. Any four-letter word was excusable as the bus sped north and past the horrid image. The one that was most appropriate was "Amen."
Pat Tillman hadn't left the NFL yet. His death would come in 2004. Jones referenced him nonetheless as he spoke last month. "I think the attitude on the bus that night was 'Let's enlist and kick some ass,'" he said.
The Mets had played three games in Pittsburgh before the Sept. 21 engagement; they'd won all three and 17 of the previous 22. They'd moved from 13 1/2 games behind the Braves on Aug. 17 to 5 1/2 behind on Sept. 20. The sweep of the Pirates had fueled uncommon aspirations; they were going to catch the Braves, they were going to do it for the city. They had visions of sweeping the Braves at Shea and putting the deficit at 2 1/2 games with 12 to play. They had visions of playing the Yankees in the World Series for the second straight year. What happened on the night of Sept. 21 did nothing to discourage them.
The Braves' MO when they played the Mets in those days was to take a lead, deal with some late resistance and routinely, it seemed, prevail. The "first game back" was a variation on that theme. The Braves scored once in the fourth inning, as did the Mets. They scored their second run in the eighth and waited for the Mets to roll over. Steve Karsay, the kid from Flushing -- of all places -- was summoned to pitch the Mets' eighth.
Jones wasn't rooting for the Mets, not until Piazza batted with a runner on base; even then, he wasn't rooting so much as he was reconciling what he expected to happen. He was putting people before a pennant. "I thought to myself, 'He's going to hit one out to win it and maybe that will get people's mind off what happened and create some sense of normalcy.' I said 'OK' to myself.
"I was playing left. I had a good angle on it; no doubt when Mike swung. He hit it a ton. Andruw [Jones] was in center. He took a couple of steps. But that was going to Brooklyn or whatever's out there."
We recall Steve Garvey subtly clapping his hand in his glove as Reggie took his victory lap after the third home run in the 1977 World Series. The 9-21 scenario was similar. "I had chills," Jones said. "I enjoyed seeing New York get so enthusiastic. I felt good for them. I was too far away to say anything to Mike when he came around. I don't know what I would have said, maybe, 'Way to go, big man.' It was a roller-coaster night. But it ended and every thing was going up. Down deep, I'm pretty sure none of us were too upset with the way that game ended."
Jones wasn't jealous of Piazza, but rather appreciative of how the Mets' slugger had responded to the challenge and left such a mark. Some folks say the 9-21 game is the most memorable in Shea's 45 years. "How special that must have been for Mike, lifting his team and his city, maybe the whole country," Jones said. "Special players do special things.
"You wish there was no need for something dramatic like that. But in a way, I'm glad I saw it. They're definitely the most vivid memories I have. ... I didn't think we should play, and I didn't want to play here. Now, if I get a chance sometime, to come back on the anniversary, I'd like to."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.