Monday September 12th, 2011

NEW YORK -- An American flag covered most of the outfield.

Bagpipers lined the infield from first base to third.

New York first responders marched down the foul lines.

Boys and girls from Tuesday's Children, a nonprofit group that aids families of 9/11 victims, held hands with the Mets and Cubs as they walked onto the field.

Marc Antony, as he did 10 years prior before the first game in New York after the Sept. 11 attacks, sang a stirring national anthem.

The Citi Field lights dimmed, battery-powered candles distributed to fans were turned on, a moment of silence was observed and John Franco threw a ceremonial first-pitch strike to Mike Piazza, a pitcher-catcher battery straight from the Mets team that helped restore a sense of normalcy to New York back in 2001.

"It was a pretty emotional event for me," Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey said of the pregame remembrance ceremony. "Holding the hand of a child who had lost a father in the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Standing next to a girl who had to grow up without a dad. And the bagpipes. I challenge you not to weep."

Later in the evening Dickey presented an American flag from the Mets to a soldier back from serving in the Middle East. The soldier, in return, handed Dickey an American flag patch that he wore while on duty in Afghanistan, which the pitcher hopes to brainstorm something "significant" to do with the touching gift.

Earlier Sunday all 2,983 names of the deceased were read aloud at a Ground Zero memorial service attended by Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. For the number of 9/11 dead in New York, 2,753 empty chairs stood in forlorn rows in Midtown's Bryant Park, all facing south toward the World Trade Center. Later, two beams of light shot into the lower Manhattan sky to mimic the presence of the fallen twin towers.

And 33,502 filled Citi Field for a baseball game, including several thousand complimentary tickets the Mets gave away to first responders and their families. The evening's lone blemish -- other than the home team losing, as the Cubs prevailed 10-6 in 11 innings -- was a Major League Baseball edict that the Mets had to wear their official team caps which, though adorned with a small American flag patch, weren't as impactful as the FDNY and NYPD caps the players wore during batting practice and that the 2001 Mets wore for the rest of the season after the attacks.

"They certainly did a great job," New York manager Terry Collins said. " . . . Mike Piazza was standing next to me and said, 'Boy, isn't this beautiful?' He was absolutely right."

The elaborate ceremony prior to the evening's nationally televised game was everything it should have been, yet it represented only a small part of the Mets' 9/11 story.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks in 2001, the Mets turned the Shea Stadium parking lot into a makeshift storage space for relief supplies with players -- under the organization of then-manager Bobby Valentine -- working tireless hours loading and unloading, offering their manual labor for the common good

And when pro sports reached out to the New York metropolitan area back in 2001, it did so in the form of Mets baseball 10 days after the attacks. Following an emotional on-field tribute to hundreds of New York's Finest and Bravest -- the first responders taking a brief respite from the around-the-clock recovery work at Ground Zero and the steady number of wakes and funerals for their friends -- Piazza crushed a two-run homer in the eighth inning for the storybook victory.

But the Mets' giving didn't stop there. The organization built a relationship with the men and women who serve this city on a daily basis.

"It's a wonderful connection," chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon said. "We live in the city. We operate in the city."

To honor the FDNY and the sacrifices they make, the Mets have made regular visits to firehalls ever since 9/11. Two days prior to this year's 10th anniversary remembrance, Piazza, Franco and current Mets third baseman David Wright visited the Ladder 3 firehouse a block south of Union Square. Later that afternoon, several other current and former Mets players and -- including pitchers Dillon Gee and Bobby Parnell, whose fathers are firefighters -- visited a different firehall in Maspeth, Queens.

Wright has visited a firehouse in September every year since becoming a major-leaguer in 2004. He fondly remembers lunching together, playing cards together and asking each other questions.

"They love to talk about baseball," Wright said. "I want to talk about firefighting. It's kind of back and forth."

There's commonality between ballplayers and firefighters -- the former are sports heores; the latter are real-life heroes -- just as fire halls and clubhouses are each home to a supportive fraternity, only the stakes are much higher when the firemen are asked to perform.

As a result, "there's more camaraderie in the fire department than on any [sports] team I've been on," Ladder 3 firefighter Eugene Brennan said.

Brennan would know better than most. A former walk-on member of the UNLV basketball team, he played at the highest level of college hoops before, a few years later, heeding the call for public service. He joined Ladder 3, a fire company that Captain Patty Brown commanded to a sterling reputation within the FDNY ranks.

So highly regarded was the unit that firefighter Michael Stapleton had his papers in to transfer from his Staten Island firehouse to Ladder 3 and waited two years before the switch was finally processed.

"Captain Patty Brown was a legend on this job," Stapleton said. "I just knew it was a great firehouse -- a bunch of senior guys and a good place to learn."

The timing of Stapleton's eventual transfer was one week after the 9/11 attacks decimated Ladder 3, which lost 12 of its Bravest that day. Large banners and etched portraits are now prominently displayed on the right wall just inside the firehouse door, honoring the fallen: Brown, Battalion Chief John Williamson, Lt. Kevin Donnelly and firefighters Kevin Donnelly, John McAvoy, Joe Maloney, Mike Carroll, Tim McSweeney, Jeff Giordano, Steve Olson, Gerard Dewan, Jay Ogren and James Coyle.

"I still miss these guys," said firefighter Steven Gonzalez, who was a firefighter for 20 years, including 12 at Ladder 3 before retiring in 2008. "These guys were the heart and soul of this truck. They'll never be forgotten, that's one thing for sure. If it had been a different day, it would have been 12 different guys up on that wall.

"It still chokes me up, standing here looking at their faces."

As soon as Piazza entered the firehouse Friday morning, Gonzalez approached, toting a baseball. This wasn't a case of hero worship, so much as it was the firefighters' commitment to taking care of their own. Ladder 3 has done its best to take care of the widows and children left behind by their fallen friends.

One of the children is a boy named Brendan Carroll, who was seven when his father, Mike, died on 9/11. Mike Carroll was an accomplished amateur athlete whose favorite player was Piazza. Among Piazza's service to New York after 9/11 -- visits to workers at Ground Zero, to firehouses and hospitals -- was to hang out with Brendan for a day, taking him to lunch, the batting cage and even to his apartment to play video games (an adventure later documented in an SI story). Now Gonzalez wanted to give Brendan Carroll, now 17, an autographed ball from Piazza, a favor the player was all too happy to honor.

"We hold sports players in high esteem, but as far as defining what a true hero is, especially for myself, all you have to do is look on that wall," Piazza said.

That wall wasn't the only reminder. Across from it sat a stone engraved with a poem:

No farewell words were spoken, no time to say goodbye, you were gone before we knew it, and only God knows why.

It's a stark reminder of the job's reality. A call comes in, and out the firefighters go.

"Whether it's a fire across the street or the collapse of a building on 9/11, it's what firemen do," Gonzalez said.

After an hour visiting with the Mets, reality returned in the sound of the fire bell. The men of Ladder 3 rushed to don their gear and climb into the fire engine, as Franco called after them, "Boys, be safe out there."

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