Wearing hats symbolic gesture by Mets

The first hat, dark blue with NYFD on it, was sent to New York Mets first baseman Todd Zeile by the son and the widow of a rescue worker who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Zeile, the Mets' player representative at the time, wore the hat to a Mets workout the next day. And that's where it all began. Teammates started asking how they could get a hat, and before long, all kinds of rescue hats were being worn by the Mets. "What was significant to us,'' Zeile said, "is that these hats didn't come out of a box. They came off of someone's head.''

Zeile and his some of his teammates -- Robin Ventura, Mike Piazza, Al Leiter, John Franco -- along with manager Bobby Valentine made one of a half-dozen trips to ground zero soon after the devastation of 9/11. They visited the Ladder 10 Fire Department, which was located next to the Twin Towers. Zeile wore his NYFD hat. All of his teammates were wearing similar hats.

"I was a little nervous, there was a little trepidation, about being there, I kept wondering, 'Is this invasive? Do they care about us?''' Zeile said. Ventura wondered and worried the same. "The guy in charge told us, 'You're not going over there [a dangerous spot],' and I didn't know if we belonged there,'' he said. "He told us, 'If you hear a siren, you're supposed to run.' We were like a dog with his ears up, alert for everything. It blew you away.''

Added Valentine: "When we went down there the first time, you could still smell it. You could still feel it. You could see the filth on the faces of the workers. When they saw us, their faces lit up. You could see their teeth through their black masks. It was really inspiring.''

Said Zeile: "A few of the firefighters recognized us, and there was a great feeling of welcome. Then we gave them some of our hats. And then they presented us with their hats.''

The Mets wore the hats at workouts at Shea Stadium, and all over town, wherever they went.

"There were two moments I will always remember, one is just too sad to talk about, and the other was a trip we made to a hospital,'' Zeile said. "The guy we went to visit was in traction with a broken leg. We went into his room and placed a hat on his head, and he immediately started talking baseball. It was great. And then, like a switch went off, and he started talking about what happened that day. We later found out he was one of the two rescue workers that were trapped for a couple of days in the rubble. He was one of the guys that the Oliver Stone movie was made about. He talked about the sound it all made. He went from like being a little kid, talking about baseball, to a man weeping about what had happened. And with no shame at all. All of us in that room had tears falling down our faces.''

Six days after 9/11, Sept. 17, 2001, Major League Baseball resumed. The Mets headed for Pittsburgh. During batting practice before the game, all the Mets were wearing their rescue hats, as they had during the workouts at Shea Stadium. But they were told by MLB officials that because the hats were not licensed by MLB Properties, they could only be worn before the game, and for the first inning only, then they had to be replaced by the real Mets hats because, Zeile was told, 'hey, this is Major League Baseball.' But at that point, we decided, as a team, that that simply was not going to happen.''

Valentine said, "I was like, I told the players, 'We can't wear the hats … right.'''

Ten years later, Ventura said with a smile, "We're wearing the hats. If they [MLB] didn't want us to play the game, fine, but we're wearing the hats.''

Zeile was credited with the line that MLB officials "are going to have to pry these hats off our heads,'' but 10 years later, he said that that quote was actually "the voice of all our players. We were all in this together. It was so symbolic. It was so representative of New York. Major League Baseball knew they were fighting a losing battle. They saw the value in what we were doing. The considered it futile to fight us on it.''

Valentine said, "Those hats were as symbolic as anything that was happening at that time.''

The Mets wore the hats for that first game in Pittsburgh, and for the rest of the season. The Pirates fans loved it, and opposing players everywhere asked for stories about the hats.

"By the end, we were wearing about 15 different emergency service hats,'' Ventura said. "We had Ambulance Crew hats, and Canine Crew hats. It was amazing when we would wear a group's hat, how happy it made them. It was so cool to honor them that way. I will never forget that first night in Pittsburgh. It was so emotional, it was like we were still in New York. Mark Johnson got a hit in the ninth inning to put us ahead, we won and after the game, guys just broke down. It all overwhelmed you. Guys like Mark couldn't keep it in.''

After a week of wearing the hats in the games, every Met signed his hat, and each one was auctioned off -- tens of thousands of dollars were raised for various charities -- and replaced by more hats. Ventura said he keeps his original hat in a prominent place in his office.

"It still moves me every time I look at it,'' he said. "It always reminds me of a guy named Chris Quackenbush. I played golf in his group in a Mets tournament. A week or so later, Bobby brought him to a game with his young son [C.J.]. I'll never forget the look on his son's face when he looked at his dad that day, a look like, 'This is so great.' I always wanted my kid to look at me like that. Then to hear that Chris was in the tower went it went down … Bobby still talks about him. I think about him, and the look on his kid's face.''

Zeile said he keeps his original hat safely placed "in my baseball archive at home.'' He smiled and said, "I'm the Forrest Gump of baseball, I played for 11 teams, and a lot of interesting things happened around me in my career. But what is most memorable to me was playing in the 2000 World Series -- that was unbelievably special -- and what happened in and around 2001. It was all about the collective spirit of New York at work.''

And, for the Mets, it all started with a hat.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: