By Kevin Canessa
Sept. 21, 2001, was my 27th birthday. Following the terror attacks just 10 days earlier, it really hit me how insignificant my birthday would be. I didn’t want it to be my birthday. I didn’t want to celebrate. Because truth was, there was nothing worth celebrating.
That day, a week-and-a-half after the worst terror attack on our nation, things were still very raw. And yet, that was the day sports was going to return to New York City following the attacks.
There was a pre-season NHL game at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 17, where only a few thousand people showed up to see the Devils and Rangers. But that didn’t count in the standings, though it was beyond amazing to see the Devils and Rangers alternatively line up on the blue lines for the National Anthem.
But it was Sept. 21, 2001, when the New York Mets hosted the Atlanta Braves, that sports was to return, officially, to the Big Apple. Imagine that matchup, too — two teams that hated each other beyond words. There was Chipper Jones. There was the memory of John Rocker from just a few season prior when he went on a rampage, calling New Yorkers every conceivable derogatory name. There was the ever-rocking and annoying Leo Mazzone, the Braves’ pitching coach. I could go on forever here.
But this was the quirky matchup that was scheduled months in advance before anyone knew it would have such amazing significance. Baseball was coming back to New York. Sports were coming back to New York. It was the Mets and the Braves.
It just so happens I had tickets for that Friday night game. My colleague at St. Anthony’s, Fran Kochanski, and I, took kids to a Mets game every September. Kochanski ordered the tickets month in advance. Nonetheless, we had the ducats, and a few days before the game, it all became a matter of whether we should actually take the eight or so kids to the game.
After some debate, the principal at the time, Sister Felicia, decided that not only could we go — we should go. Sister, Kochanski and I all concurred that getting out, doing something that should take the attacks off our minds, would be the best thing to do.
The parents of the kids slated to go with us agreed — with one exception. The mom of one of the kids was still so frightened by what had happened that she didn’t want her son going to Shea, to New York — or for that matter, anywhere near what happened 10 days earlier.
So, after school that day, Kochanski, eight kids and I took a ferry boat from downtown Jersey City to Manhattan. I don’t think the PATH trains were back up and running that day … or maybe they were … but we took the ferry boat nonetheless.
On the way there, the horrible odor emanating from Ground Zero was still absurdly strong. Even though New York City was likely the safest place on the planet that night, I still had moments of fear. Any loud sound spooked me. Remarkably, the kids were the most poised that night.
When we finally arrived at Shea after what seemed like an eternal ride on the 7 Train, we took the short walk from Willets Point to the gate behind home plate. Our seats were in the Upper Deck — the red seats — directly behind home plate in Section No. 1. We always liked sitting there because the line of sight was perfect and the seats were still very cheap — $8 apiece.
Before we were able to enter Big Shea, the security was like nothing I’d ever experienced before … and I was happy about that. It took nearly an hour to get inside because every single bag was inspected, every woman’s purse emptied, every camera scanned and tested for explosives, every pocket was emptied.
We were early, fortunately, so we were still in time for one of the most emotional pre-game ceremonies one could ever imagine. Whether it was the bagpipers, or the NYPD Color Guard presenting the flags, or Marc Anthony singing “The Star Spangled Banner,” every second of it was beyond emotional. Dry eyes were very, very hard to find.
As for the game, I am not sure whether it even mattered in the first seven innings. The Mets hadn’t had a lead in the game. But then there were renditions of “God Bless America” from Diana Ross and “New York, New York,” sung by Liza Minnelli.
I get chills thinking of those two performances to this very day.
Enter the bottom of the 8th inning. What happens if the Mets take the lead in the 8th or 9th? Do we celebrate? Do we stay in our seats and cheer?
Well, Mike Piazza did the unthinkable. He hit one of the most powerful homeruns he ever hit. The place erupted. Shea Stadium shook, so much so it felt like it could collapse. Everyone cheered. Everyone jumped. Strangers hugged and high-fived each other. Grown men were crying.
I’d been to Shea Stadium for Games 6 and 7 of the 1986 World Series, but nothing, ever, came close to the feelings and emotions that came with Piazza’s homer that night.
Because for a moment, the 42,000+ who showed up at Shea that night — and the countless others watching at home — had a chance to forget about all that had happened over the previous 10 days. We all had a chance to forget that just a few miles away, in Lower Manhattan, there was still unthinkable carnage, still countless people dead and missing.
At that moment, we knew we were going to be OK in the long run, because we were all united, elated. Sure, it wore off quickly, but for a few hours, Mike Piazza gave many people something to celebrate.
We were all New Yorkers then, even if we did live on the other side of the Hudson. The pain melted away for a night. And as difficult as life was at that time otherwise, we knew for sure, it would only get better. And as more time passed, it did.
Still, there was nothing like that crisp final-night-of-the-summer in mid-September 2001. In the midst of the most awful time in our nation’s history, we could celebrate. And that memory, on that birthday that was supposed to really stink, turned out to be the most memorable birthday, a birthday of a lifetime.
Man is it amazing what sports can do at times.