Javy Lopez set up on the outside corner of the plate, the first-base side, and Steve Karsay fired the 0-1 fastball that drifted a few fateful inches to the right. Mike Piazza had taken the first pitch he saw from Karsay in the bottom of the eighth inning. He had no intention of taking the second.
It was late Friday night, Sept. 21, 2001, and Shea Stadium had already established itself as the scene of a community revival. People say that sports cannot heal or unite in a time of tragedy, that they can only serve as a temporary sanctuary from the grief and pain. But if you were among the 41,235 fans in the building for the first major sporting event played in New York after the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, you understood this was not just a baseball game providing a distraction for a heartbroken city.
This was a symbol of strength and resilience for thousands of New Yorkers in dire need of one.
Long before Piazza sized up that second pitch from Karsay in the eighth, Shea had delivered one gripping drama after another. Diana Ross sang a version of "God Bless America" that was in the same emotional ballpark as Whitney Houston's national anthem at the Gulf War Super Bowl, and a Marine guard fired a 21-gun salute, bagpipers played and fans chanted "USA ... USA."
American flags were everywhere in Shea Stadium, and inside the lighted replica of the Manhattan skyline above the scoreboard, the darkened Twin Towers were graced by a red, white and blue ribbon. The Mets and Atlanta Braves, bitter rivals, hugged each other in the pregame, and the crowd would chant for a Yankees fan, Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Later on, during the seventh-inning stretch, Liza Minnelli blew the lid off the place with a rendition of "New York, New York" that included a kick line of cops and firefighters, and a punctuating hug and a kiss for Jay Payton, the Mets batter waiting on deck.
Bobby Valentine, the Mets manager, was having a hard time focusing on the base-to-base particulars of the game, and for good reason. He had lost a close friend in the attacks, and Valentine had led a procession of his players to the smoldering Ground Zero site, where they visited devastated ladder companies and comforted rescue workers and relatives of the victims. When Shea became a staging area for the recovery effort, the manager was seen loading supplies in the parking lot deep into the night.
Nearly everyone the Mets came across at Ground Zero told them to keep wearing those caps honoring the cops, firefighters, Port Authority police and emergency services personnel. When some tone-deaf suits in the MLB properties division pressed for the Mets to go back to wearing their official team caps, Todd Zeile said, "As far as we're concerned, they're going to have to tear the hats off of us."
The Mets donated their game checks -- some $450,000 in all -- to Rusty Staub's fund for the widows and children of fallen heroes, and did the city proud with their commitment to the cause. But something else was needed on the night of Sept. 21, 2001 -- a victory. This was a baseball game, after all, and the Mets had won 20 of 25 to finally get over .500 and stood 5 1/2 back of the first-place Braves, who had seized a 2-1 lead in the top of the eighth on Brian Jordan's double.
Karsay was an appropriate man to take the ball in the bottom of the inning; he grew up 10 minutes from Shea. He got Matt Lawton on a groundout before walking Edgardo Alfonzo, who was replaced by a pinch runner, Desi Relaford. Despite the fact he was working on his third consecutive season of at least 35 home runs, and that he'd led the Mets to the World Series the previous fall (a five-game loss to the dynastic Yankees), Piazza stepped to the plate as a most improbable representative of his adopted town.
Piazza arrived in New York in 1998 as an accidental tourist. In the field, in the dugout, around the batting cage, Piazza wore the look of a man heading to the proctologist's office. He didn't smile. Ever. Raised as a rich kid in the suburbs of Philadelphia, molded into a big box-office star as a Dodger in Hollywood, Piazza needed a little time and a lot of money ($91 million over seven years) to make the adjustment.
By the time he faced off against Karsay, Piazza was no less comfortable in the big city than the megastar next door, Derek Jeter. Piazza left New Jersey for a $2 million condo in Gramercy Park, right in the shadows of the Twin Towers. The same fans who initially jeered him had grown to adore him, and Piazza assumed the role of good company man, too, refusing to criticize Mets owners for failing to acquire Alex Rodriguez or Gary Sheffield after the World Series loss to the Yanks.
So in every way, he was the right man for the moment, the right Met to get that 96-mph Karsay fastball on the 0-1 count. Piazza had choked back tears during the pregame ceremony, and he later admitted fighting to contain his emotions during this at-bat.
He'd already doubled and scored in the fourth to make up for an error that allowed Chipper Jones to score, but the fans were appealing for more in this eighth-inning encounter, a lot more. And just as the pitch crossed into his hitting zone, Piazza unlocked his hands and extended his powerful arms toward the ball and created that singular sound of his on contact.
"A bellowing sound," Valentine recalled the other day. "Mike's sound. When I saw and heard the ball hit the bat, I looked down the dugout and it seemed as though everyone had the exact same look on their faces. Their mouths had opened, their hands were ready to go up, and it was almost suspended, almost in slow motion for me, like bubbles waiting to come out of the Champagne bottle."
"For Mike [Piazza] to do what he did when his team needed him, his city needed him, and baseball and the country needed him ... I mean, I don't want to make it bigger than a game. But it was bigger than a game." Former Mets manager Bobby Valentine
On contact, Karsay didn't turn to follow the flight of the ball; he yanked his head toward the Mets' dugout. He knew. Everyone knew. Piazza's shot took a high, majestic path toward the left-center wall as the crowd exploded, as some Mets jumped over the dugout rail.
"Just the fact that we played the game was a minor miracle," Valentine said, "because many people didn't think New York should be having a baseball game. Many felt the mourning was so real and present that sports should take the rest of the season off.
"And Mike was front and center. He was right downtown and couldn't get back to his apartment, and he was confused and angry. I don't know if he had any fear, but a lot of families associated with the Mets were still dealing with their fears. For Mike to do what he did when his team needed him, his city needed him, and baseball and the country needed him ... I mean, I don't want to make it bigger than a game. But it was bigger than a game."
The ball landed in a camera stand 420 feet from the plate, and the Mets held a 3-2 lead. Piazza's teammates mobbed him on his return to the dugout, and the standing, stomping fans waved the small American flags they were given on the way in. "I'm so happy I was able to come through in that situation," Piazza said that night, "and give people something to cheer about."
The crowd demanded a curtain call from Piazza, who emerged from the dugout to lift his helmet and blow a kiss to the fans. After Mets closer Armando Benitez ended the game on a double-play ball, fans sang along to a Ray Charles' recording of "America the Beautiful."
Zeile said the victory was more important than any that could be earned in a World Series, and Robin Ventura said he'd never heard Shea as loud as it was after Piazza's homer. "I felt like we were spectators tonight as everyone saluted fallen brothers and sisters," Piazza said. "I'm very sad for the loss of life but felt good we gave them something to cheer about."
Piazza would add that the comeback victory "told the rest of the world what New York is about."
The game featured a number of prominent figures who grew up in the greater New York metropolitan area -- Karsay of Queens (who was later ejected after charging plate ump Wally Bell over the ball four call on Alfonzo), John Franco of Brooklyn, Al Leiter of New Jersey, Jason Marquis of Staten Island, and Valentine of Connecticut -- and yet Piazza was the one who spoke for the city.
"The whole night's still a blur to me," Valentine said more than 14 years later, "except the one clear moment of that ball going over the fence, and the roar of the crowd, and the change of emotions of everyone around me. It was the most incredible moment I've ever experienced. Mike stepped forward and did exactly what the script told him to do, and there's never been a win that's felt as good as that one."
Wednesday evening, Mike Piazza, once the 1,390th pick in the 1988 draft, is projected to win induction into the Hall of Fame on the strength of his 427 home runs -- a record 396 of them as a catcher. There will be superior players in Cooperstown, players who won the World Series titles Piazza didn't win, and players who didn't have to face the scrutiny of performance-enhancing drug suspicion Piazza had to face.
But there won't be any players in the Hall with a more profound signature moment than the night of Sept. 21, 2001, when Mike Piazza proved how much a simple ballgame can mean to people who need far more than a distraction.