09/07/11 10:00 AM ET
Mets' memories of 9/11 remain vivid
By Marty Noble / MLB.com
The ripples persist even now, nearly 10 years after the day that changed everything. The 9/11 smoke lingered for too many days. The invisible smoke still looms; it irritates our eyes and makes them tear.
Each of us has widescreen images of the attacks on our ways of life and of the immediate and horrifying aftermath. By now, we have shared them dozens of times. And each of us has singular and personal remembrances that have lasted this long and not been replayed for others too often. We hold some of those closer.
Time has helped; some of the images have lost impact or morphed into memories we might now appreciate because they reaffirm something compelling, heartwarming, courageous or profoundly human. Some of them almost are treasured, like a bracelet found in the rubble of Ground Zero and returned to a loved one. It is quite human to cherish an item lost in a horrid and deadly event.
The final 9/11 story won't be written for decades. A few stories from the immediate aftermath of the attacks, stories involving men who played for the Mets in 2001 follow. The men hold them close.
The team was in Pittsburgh that morning; Al Leiter, who was to start against the Pirates that night, wasn't. He had been home in Manhattan with his family on Sept. 10, an off-day. He was to fly out of LaGuardia to Pittsburgh. He didn't get as far as the jetway.
The Northeast had been shut down. Cancelled flights were an issue, but hardly the issue. Leiter had dropped his first grade daughter Lindsay at school and headed to the airport. The first reports -- sketchy and unspeakable -- of breach of security and of fire and smoke in lower Manhattan reached his gate. "We didn't hear a thing about the Pentagon or the plane that went down in Pennsylvania," Leiter says. "I'm still thinking, 'I've got a game to pitch tonight in Pittsburgh.' I'm on the phone with Jay [Horwitz, one of the club's travel directors]. I'm thinking I can fly out of Philadelphia. I had no idea."
In Pittsburgh, always earnest Joe McEwing awakes in the team hotel. He hasn't met the 9/11 world yet. He is introduced to it when he opens the curtains. A federal building is across the street. Soldiers armed with M16's are standing at the ready, weapons in their hands. They sent a message to the Mets utilityman: "Attention." They had his. "Something's changed," McEwing told himself. The television remote didn't leave his hands for hours.
Leiter learns more at LaGuardia and reasons his next start won't be that night. Thousands are fleeing Manhattan. He needs to go against the traffic, but not at first. The arteries familiar to him for the relatively short commute to 84th Street are closed. The city implements frozen zones when Presidents visit. It had at least five that day -- Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx. Frozen with fear.
Leiter would travel north, but not before he saw the Manhattan skyline blurred by smoke. He would spend time at the home of Michael Kay, the Yankees announcer he had come to know as a rookie 12 years earlier when Kay still was a newspaper man. Getting to 84th Street would be a challenge for later in the day.
In Pittsburgh, Robin Ventura awakes to the news and his thoughts bounce off the walls of his room. He calls his family. He learns the team will change hotels. Someone has determined a federal building in Pittsburgh could be a target. The players' first reaction is to scoff at the notion. "It's Pittsburgh, for God's sake."
But news of United Flight 93 arrives. Maps aren't necessary. Shanksville, Pa., Flight 93's final resting place, is not a suburb of Pittsburgh, but they are not that far apart. Turns out merely 64 miles separate the crash of the courageous resistance and downtown. The hotel change is willingly accepted.
Before the team moves, Mike Piazza walks through the hotel lobby. The distant look intended to put off strangers has been replaced by a stare familiar to some teammates. He's lost in thought. He stops and talks. Piazza has a strong sense of history and the military. "But this," he says, "isn't a military strike." He seethes and he compares 9/11 -- not yet identified as that -- with Pearl Harbor. "But in Pearl Harbor," he says, "they attacked a military installation."
Piazza's more profound response would come 10 nights later.
Before the hotel move, word spreads among the players that manager Bobby Valentine has lost a friend in the collapse of one of the towers. Some players recall meeting the friend. His name: Chris Quackenbush. Ventura recalls playing golf with him and Valentine. Leiter identifies him as the person who made arrangements for the Mets to visit the White House earlier that year.
Ventura's thoughts take him to an afternoon earlier in the summer when Quackenbush and his young son, C.J., were on the field, in front of the Mets' dugout at Shea Stadium. They were guests of the manager.
"I saw that kid -- he might have been 8 or 9 at the time -- look up at his father," Ventura recalls. "You could see all the love he had for him. That look said that was the best day of his life, standing there, talking to players and everything. "And I said to myself, 'That's the way I want my kids to look at me.'
"Every time 9/11 is brought up, I think of his son and that look. His father was on the 104th floor, I'm pretty sure. How terrible and gut-wrenching that whole thing had to be for him, losing his dad that way."
Later in the day, Leiter leaves Kay's home and makes his way to Grand Central Station. Cabs are nowhere. A 42-block walk awaits him, more time for images to form and become indelible in his memory.
"The city was empty," he says, "and scary quiet. We were too far north to smell the smoke. I think they said the smoke was blowing east or west, to New Jersey or Long Island. It wasn't smoky or foggy. It was hazy -- probably had something to do with all the smoke -- and that made it uncomfortable. And the sirens! It was quiet, but you hear sirens. When I remember when I left LaGuardia and looked toward the city, it was crystal clear. It was a beautiful day."
Days later, McEwing recalls how perfect the day looked when he finally consulted his hotel television. "How can such a beautiful day bring so much sadness?" is his rhetorical question. In 10 years, he hasn't found the answer.
Todd Zeile had two homes while he played for the Mets, one in The Village, the other in Greenwich. He had the best of both worlds. Zeile, as much as any Met this side of Rusty Staub, embraced the city and all it offered. And he has a movie-maker's eye.
In the days after the attacks, he, Leiter, Piazza, Ventura and John Franco spent time at Ground Zero and visited hospitals and families gathered at the Javitz Center. He recalls in particular his one-man visit with the father of rescue workers.
"There was this guy, very Irish, in his 60s and proud to talk to you. Crusty and pretty stoic," Zeile says. "He had been a firefighter. He had two sons, both rescue workers, one NYPD, the other NYFD. One of them was off duty when the towers were hit. But his brother was working and he radioed him. 'I'm going in. I'll meet you there.'
"They went in, and they were in there when it all collapsed. Both of them gone. He's telling me the story, and I couldn't say, 'Oh my God!' enough times. But this crusty guy never gave me the impression he wanted me to feel sorry for what happened. He had a sense of pride about all of it, like he was saying, 'This is what we do in our family.'"
Steve Traschel's first season with the Mets was 2001. It hadn't been particularly rewarding for him. His image of attacks isn't one he embraces. But it stayed with him and reminds him of the losses. It wasn't a body count. In a way, it was worse -- a car count.
Trachsel kept a home in Stamford, Valentine's town, in 2001. He drove to work. But in the days after 9/11 when he and his teammates visited Manhattan, he took the train. A stop was two blocks from his home. "The image is the police, a few days after the attack, walking through the 'park and ride' trying to determine which cars had been there for four or five days," Trachsel says. The image still gets him.
"It made me sick when I realized they were trying to figure out which cars might have belonged to people killed in the attacks. It had three levels, so I can't say for sure. But they must have marked the tires of at least a hundred cars. And that was just one stop."
Expensive cars in Greenwich. Good chance the drivers were parents and that the back seats at some point had been filled with children who became cheated that morning. "It's a tough way to think about it," Trachsel says.
And then there is Turk Wendell, the free spirit who became a former Met 46 days before Manhattan became a war zone. He was in Atlanta with the Phillies that morning. He knows how he didn't feel. "It wasn't goosebumps," Wendell says. "But there was a feeling I had. Never had it before or since."
Wendell's perspective often was different from that of his colleagues. What he has taken from 9 /11 is mostly second-hand, but nonetheless legitimate.
"I think that whole [episode] changed the mentality of New Yorkers," he says. "Maybe it's gone back now after 10 years. But I got the feeling that folks started looking each other in the eye, you know, to see if they needed something. That's just the feeling I got when I was back there. A lot changed. Maybe some of it for the good."
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.