Wednesday September 21st, 2016

Fifteen years ago, the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves played the first baseball game in New York City after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Mike Piazza led the Mets to a 3–2 comeback victory with a home run off Steve Karsay in the eighth inning, making for one of the most memorable nights in New York sports history.

Everyone remembers Piazza's home run, but what was Sept. 21, 2001 like in the opposite dugout? For Braves slugger Chipper Jones, that night at Shea Stadium remains unforgettable. 

SI caught up with Jones, who retired in 2012, to discuss baseball after 9/11 and his role in the game's return to New York after the attacks. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Sports Illustrated: Where were you on the morning of 9/11?

Chipper Jones: I was at home in Atlanta. I woke up that morning and I walked downstairs and my nanny at the time was plastered in front of the television—three feet away from the big screen—and just you could see that something wasn’t right. I asked her what was wrong. She said that a bomb went off at the World Trade Center and they think it’s terrorists. She said they’re kind of unclear as to what happened and whether it was a plane that flew into the building or something. At that point, you’re just like “woah.” That’s life-changing and life-altering news for my generation. For my dad’s generation. Everyone remembers where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, but for my generation everyone was going to remember where they were on 9/11 and what they were doing. At that point, the whole world was plastered in front of their TV. When you watch both buildings go down, you’re just in a state of shock. It’s such a traumatic moment to say the least for the people who were involved—for those who were killed and their families. Baseball was the last thing on my mind at that point. The whole world stopped. For literally a week. We wanted to figure out why, how and a new course of action. All these things took precedence over a game for the most part.

We were all in limbo. Everyone was in limbo and scared. You always know at the end of the season that you’re going to have to go to New York in September if not October as well. When they finally decided to start playing games again, our first game was in Philadelphia. A lot of people forget that. We all remember that we played the first game back in New York but we actually played the night before in Philadelphia. Usually when we got done in one of those two spots, we bused. It’s a moment that I’ll never forget. I thought that the bus’ tires were going to flatten on the right side of the bus. Once we were able to see the lights of New York City, everyone was plastered to the right side of the bus. No one was on the left side. You were either standing in the aisle or leaning over to catch a glimpse. There was still that haze that fell over New York City with the flood lights. It was just one of those jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring moments.

SI VAULT (Sept 24, 2001): Four of a Kind

SI: Were you scared?

CJ: I think everybody who was wearing an Atlanta Braves uniform was scared to death. We wanted to be with our families but we would not allow our families to come to New York. What better way to have a secondary attack or wave, where you could take out as many people as possible than at a professional baseball game where you had 40 to 50,000 people in the stands. It just seemed like the prime target considering also the proximity to LaGuardia airport.

I’m so glad looking back now that we as the Atlanta Braves were chosen to be the team that was there. You didn’t realize it until you got into the city or into the ballpark that it was our duty to entertain the city of New York and take their minds off of things for three hours—to restore some sense of normalcy again. The sense of scaredness quickly went away once we walked down the tunnel at Shea Stadium. Once we got off the bus and walked out of the tunnel and took a minute to look at the faces of the police officers that were lining the tunnel. I’d never seen so many thousand-yard stares in my life. Everyone was walking around in a trance. If it was there in the city or at the Grand Hyatt by Grand Central Station where we stayed or at the ballpark. Once we came out for batting practice, everyone took it upon themselves to take a little time out to just interact with the fans. Normally, it’s a couple autographs here and there. There were a bunch of fans that came up to me and said, ‘You know what Larry, we love to hate you but tonight thanks for coming out here and playing.’ What do you say to that? [Laughs.] Fifteen years later, I still get chills talking about that night.

SI: As a team, were you given any special instructions about security measures for that night ahead?

CJ: Not really. We were forewarned when we got to the ballpark. I think a lot of people were thinking along the same lines as we were. We didn’t know if there were going to be secondary attacks or if something was in the works for a long time. Between the bomb-sniffing dogs and the hundreds of police officers that were assigned Shea Stadium that night, you felt pretty good. I remember during BP seeing people on the roof of Shea with long-range rifles. It was like the president was coming. There was a definite police presence from the moment you stepped on that property and it didn’t end until we left later that night.

SI: The game at Shea happened 10 days after the attacks. Was America or even New York ready for baseball?

CJ: I just think that I can remember hearing President Bush speak and saying that we were going to take care of this and restore our sense of normalcy to our life again. At that point, you start thinking, I’ve got a job to do.

I really didn’t want to play. I was not in the mood to play but ultimately I’m glad President Bush relayed that message. Once you’ve been off for a week to 10 days, you’re going to have to knock some rust off. I think we had a workout or two in before we went to Philly and then resumed the season.

My dad is a Marine and was very close to going to Vietnam, but he did not. Still, coming from that military type of background, I was very interested and tuned into everything that we were doing to make sure. When someone comes into our backyard and commits an act of terrorism like they did, I’m one of those guys that thinks to themselves, ‘I want payback.’ That was the most important thing to me. If I wasn’t playing, I was paying attention to what were were doing to make amends for all the people that perished at the World Trade Center.

SI VAULT (Sept. 24, 2001): A Break in the Action

SI: Do you remember talking to anyone from the Mets ahead of the game?

CJ: Everyone asks me about that night and that experience. The New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves didn’t like each other very much at that time. I don’t think it was spite or hate. I think it was just that the Mets were our closest pursuers. They were kind of tired of hearing about the Atlanta Braves. Normally, if you were going to play playoff baseball in the National League, you had to come through Atlanta. Our view was they were our closest pursuers and we’re trying to hold them off. For me, there were no villains on that side of the field, just two really evenly-matched clubs for years. Nothing but mad respect for Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura. I wasn’t best buddies with anyone. I have a few people that I played with that were on that team.

When both teams went into the middle of the field to embrace, I grabbed Rick White, a reliever that they used in the seventh and eighth inning, and then Bill Taylor, who was a guy who I played with in Triple A in 1993, and then Jay Payton, who I knew from his days at Georgia Tech. Those are the three that I remember. I’m sure there were other guys.

Everyone had tears in their eyes. When you talk about 50 or so grown men in the middle of a baseball field about to break down and cry, it’s a little bit of an uncomfortable situation. We’re baseball players and we’re guys that are filled with ego. When you get to something that’s so emotional for so many people, we were ready for someone to say “play ball” and do what we were most comfortable with on the planet. That’s what we kind of looked forward to.

Those fans who showed up that night, they just wanted to see some baseball. They didn’t hate the Atlanta Braves. They just wanted to see two good baseball teams and forget about their troubles for a few hours.

• SI VAULT (Sept. 24, 2001): The Boys on the Bus

SI: Was the embrace planned?

CJ: It was not planned, to be honest with you. That’s where you saw that it was about two baseball teams and America. Unity. Two baseball teams that didn’t like each other very much were able to put their differences aside, embrace and interact. I think it was a great show to the rest of the world and the rest of the country that there are a lot bigger things in the world than this game and we can all come together and unite to try and restore normalcy. It wasn’t about who was going to win or lose that game.

There was no way in hell we were going to win that game. I’ve had maybe 10, 15 or 20 instances in my career where I’ve had a premonition. I was playing leftfield that night. When Mike Piazza walked up, I knew he was going to hit a home run. I said to myself before the pitch, the roof is going to come off this place, if he hits a home run right here. Sure enough, he took Steve Karsay deep. I don’t think Andruw [Jones] or I ever took a step once the ball was hit. Usually when someone hits a home run against you, your heart drops. When he hit it that night, I was happy for the fans. They needed it.

I dare say, it would’ve been much much different if I hit that home run in the eighth. It just seemed like the baseball gods had everything in their hands that night. If the roles had been reversed and something happened in Atlanta and if the first game back in Atlanta was against the Mets, it probably would’ve been me. It just would’ve been right at that particular time.

Mike Piazza hitting that home run on that particular night at that particular stadium was absolutely perfect.

SI: Marc Anthony performed the national anthem that night. Were you much of a fan of his before that night?

CJ: Not really. [Laughs.] I’m from the South and I listen to country music. I’ve listened to a little rap here and there. I know he’s had some great songs and big hits but I didn’t know much about him. He was an appropriate choice if you talk about the melting pot of New York City with so many different races and ethnicities. For him to come out and do that, that was awesome and one of the best renditions that I’ve ever heard. Much props to him if I don’t know if I would’ve been able to get out a word with that much emotion at that field and that stadium. Under those circumstances, it had to have been really tough.

SI: How quiet was it in the stadium during the anthem?

CJ: You could hear a pin drop from the moment that we walked into the stadium. I could only speak from the Braves’ point of view but we were in shock. We were walking around like a bunch of zombies. We just couldn’t believe what had happened and that we were actually there. Looking at the fans in the stands, you could see the hurt etched on their faces and we felt so badly for them. I could remember at certain points during the game, I never heard the voice of the announcer at Shea Stadium echo before. Nobody was talking! People were there and in the seats. You could sense the movement but nobody was talking. It’s hard to put into words.

SI: When the national anthem starts, what’s going through your head?

CJ: That’s a time when I really fall back on my patriotic upbringing and pay every bit of tribute and respect to the flag. I don’t know that there’s ever been a moment at least in my life when being an American and being a patriot meant more to me. We take the national anthem for granted because we hear it every night. We didn’t have to be out on top of the dugout or out in front every night but the Braves do that now and it’s been ever since 9/11. The Braves line the top step and don’t leave until the servicemen are completely off the field and that started on 9/11. That’s really pretty special. Some other teams have adopted that and many props to them as well.

SI: There’s more than 50 guys in the middle of the field, how close were you to crying?

CJ: My lip was quivering. I can remember cutting my eyes to some of the guys from the Mets. Obviously that night was probably 10 times more emotional for them than it was for me. As you can tell by how long-winded I get about this subject, that it meant something to me, very much so. If you look over and see some of your peers hurting, it affects you. I think I had to look down at one point just to gather myself after seeing Mike Piazza with a tear down his cheek. If I’m in an emotional state and I see someone else crying, then the water works are coming from me as well. At that point, I bowed my head and tried to hold it together as much as I could.

My dad always said, “When you hear a 21 gun salute for the first time, it’ll be something that will stick with you every day of your life.” When they did it in left field, and I was playing left field, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. Every hair on the back of my neck stood up. The hairs on my arms stood up. When I ran out for the bottom of the first inning—usually I’m looking for the ball to toss with Andruw or the ball boy—but I look down and the shell casings are on the ground. I couldn’t believe it and I picked up as many as I could and stuffed them in the back of my pocket.

SI VAULT (Sept. 24, 2001): The view from Mike Piazza's balcony was changed forever

SI: Where are they now?

CJ: I still have one of those shell casings to this day. I picked up about five or six and I’ve given a few away over the years. I kept one of the shell casings in my travel bag throughout my playing career. I was actually stopped at airport security one day and they take me back into one those back rooms where they cavity search people. They pull out this cartridge and they ask me, “What are you doing with this?” I said, “Woah guys.” And I basically had to tell this same story. [Laughs.] I almost had them in tears by the time I finished telling the story. They gave it back to me and let me go. I’m glad I still have that little memento from that night because it’s something that would be etched in my brain but means more because of what my dad said about that spine-tingling moment.

SI: Of all your memories at Shea Stadium, where does this one stand for you?

CJ: That night was by far the most memorable moment. Most people think I’d mention some two-homer game or if I got a base hit in the top of the ninth to break the Mets’ heart. The first game after 9/11 is my most memorable game that I played in that stadium. There’s not much of a close second, although the Grand Slam single that [Robin] Ventura hit in the playoffs could also be up there. That place is really special to me, especially since I named my kid who is now 12, Shea.

The electricity that night was incredible, and it’s something that you can’t replicate.

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