COMMENTARY — Remembering how sports united a region & nation

I wrote about this a few years ago, but it’s worth telling the story again, especially for those who may not have read it the first time. 

Sept. 21, 2001, was my 27th birthday. I really had no desire to celebrate it, just 10 days out from the worst day of my life and the life of so many Americans. But as fate would have it, I did celebrate that Friday night. And it’s memory as vivid today as it was 21 years ago.

My friend and colleague, Francis Kochanski, and I would go to Shea Stadium every September with a group of seniors at St. Anthony High School. They came from one of his classes, did the students, and I tagged along to make sure there was enough supervision. (From what I remember, it was for every six students, one chaperone was needed — and 10 kids were supposed to go.)

Kochanski picked the game date in June 2001 — Sept. 21, 2001 — Atlanta Braves @ New York Mets. He never dreamed, when he picked it, that it would be the very first regular season sporting event in the City after the attacks. But it was and we had a great dilemma — do we go? Should we go? Are we out of our minds if we go? 

The principal, Sister Felicia, was pretty clear when we asked her. 

It was a “You have to go.” And while there were a handful of parents who wouldn’t let their kids go the game, (no one really had the proper answer then) Kochanski and I went with a group of high school seniors. None of us knew how to act, to react, to feel.

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But go, we did. And upon pulling up at the Willets Point/Shea Stadium No. 7 train station, we immediately knew how different this was going to be. Military and NYPD officers were stationed seemingly everywhere — and each one was equipped with visible weapons. For a while, it was if we had just entered a war zone. But it gave us a tremendous sense of safety.

It took about 40 minutes to get into Shea. The lines were enormous and the security was as intense as it ever was. And that was just fine. No one looking for trouble of any kind was getting in. Not a chance. When we got to our Upper Deck seats in Section 1, behind the plate, we saw sharp-shooters stationed across the tiny roof Shea had in the upper realms, high enough, it seemed, they could touch planes landing at nearby LaGuardia.

The night began with bagpipes — and I don’t know about you, but when emotions are high, and bagpipes are played, my sentimental Irish side come right out. I cried. I didn’t care what anyone thought. The forthcoming ceremonies were incredible. Marc Anthony sang the National Anthem. The game started. We didn’t know what to do, though. Do we cheer? Do we boo Chipper Jones after he just hugged every single Met player before the game? 

It remained that way until we loosened up a bit when Liza Minnelli sang “New York, New York.” But that even lasted but for a few moments. That was, however, until the bottom of the 8th inning, the Mets trailing, 2-1. With one runner on, Mike Piazza came to the plate. 

He hit a massive homer to center and the place erupted and shook. It shook more than I remember from Game 6 on the 1986 World Series, another game I was blessed to go to. We hugged. We jumped. We screamed. We cried. Because for the first time in 10 days and 12 hours, we had a reason to. Even though the next morning, it would be back to reality that thousands were dead and the smoke still rose from Ground Zero, Piazza made it go away for a few hours. Yet at that moment, somehow, we knew despite it all, we were going to be OK — eventually. And most eventually were. 

But wow. Sports has a funny way of showing its importance in the darkest of days. And could we ever use that spirit these days, couldn’t we?

 

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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.