How the Mets helped lift New York in the wake of 9/11

John Franco was in a Pittsburgh hotel room on Sept. 11, 2001, when he got the call.

A longtime reliever for the New York Mets, Franco was in town for a series against the Pirates, scheduled to begin that Tuesday. During the day he had a meeting scheduled with Donald Fehr, then the head of the MLB Players Association. When Franco picked up the phone, though, the voice on the other end of the line was Fehr’s, telling Franco he had to cancel the meeting and return to New York. 

A plane, Fehr explained, had just hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.

“I didn’t even turn the TV on at first because I just assumed it was a small plane,” Franco recalled during a recent phone interview with FOX Sports. “But once I turned it on and talked to my wife as we watched it unfold, I couldn’t believe it. My mouth was open, and I couldn’t fathom what was happening.”

Over the next two hours, Franco and his wife, Rose, watched the horrific scene play out. 

John Franco and Mike Piazza reconnect on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

The North Tower had been hit at 8:46 a.m., with American Airlines Flight 11 and its 76 passengers and 11 crew members on board striking the building between the 93rd and 99th floors, as thousands inside began their workday. Seventeen minutes later, at 9:03, United Flight 175 — carrying 51 passengers and nine crew members — struck the South Tower between the 77th and 85th floors.

At 9:37, five hijackers flew American Flight 77 into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing 53 passengers, six crew members and 125 people on the ground, and at 9:59, back in New York, the 1,362-foot South Tower collapsed.

Four minutes after the first skyscraper fell, United Flight 93 and its 33 passengers and seven crew members crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa., 75 miles from where Franco and the Mets were in Pittsburgh. Then at 10:28, the North Tower collapsed, too, the second-tallest building in the country crashing to the ground in an unthinkable cloud of dust and debris.

At the time, Franco couldn’t have known that the death toll in the attacks would eventually reach nearly 3,000, and there was no way of knowing how the events of that dreadful morning would change the United States forever. But it was evident this was a situation unlike anything Franco had experienced, and as he watched on, his mind raced with sadness and fear for his hometown.

A native New Yorker and the son of a NYC sanitation worker, Franco was raised in Brooklyn and went to college at St. John’s, in Queens. By 2001, the lefty was in his 12th season with the team he grew up rooting for, and while the situation no doubt devastated every player in the clubhouse, Franco found it hit particularly close to home.

“Being born and raised there, it felt like somebody just punched you right in the stomach,” Franco said as the 15th anniversary of the tragedy approached. “And unfortunately, we had some friends who were in the buildings, plus a couple firemen who I knew — one was my son’s Little League coach and one was a friend of mine’s brother, and my wife’s friend’s husband, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald — so it was heart-wrenching for us.”

Franco was also concerned about his children, who were at school in Brooklyn at the time, and wondered how they’d get back to the family’s Staten Island home. Fortunately, they were able to stay with Franco’s in-laws, also in Brooklyn. Still, Franco grieved for all those who couldn’t say the same about their own loved ones.

“The first thing that comes to your mind is all the innocent people that were just going to work, doing their daily thing,” Franco said. “You start thinking about the people you know who might have been in the building, all the police and firemen that I know, these men and women who are running in when everyone is running out.”

At the same time, the Mets were busy figuring out their own plan. Almost immediately after the attacks, Major League Baseball canceled the entire schedule of games for that night, and soon after, Commissioner Bud Selig did the same for the rest of the week.

There was still the matter of what the attacks meant for a possible trip back to New York, with air travel having grinded to a halt.

There was also the issue of the team’s safety, and that morning the team moved to a hotel outside Pittsburgh due to concerns that a federal building near their original hotel could be a target. The United 93 crash nearby further ratcheted up those fears. That afternoon, the team got the news it had been hoping for.

“We’re all stuck in this Ramada Inn, and none of us know what to do,” Franco said. “So all of us would meet down in the restaurant and watch what was going on on TV, not knowing whether we were going home or staying there. And then finally, word came in that we were going home.”

In lieu of a flight, the team had rented a bus to make the drive to New York. Normally a six-hour trip, this one took nine, an eerie silence washing over the bus throughout.

“As we drove along (Interstate) 95 on the Jersey side of the Hudson River and looked across at what should have been seen as the Manhattan skyline in the wee hours of the morning, we only saw a black cloud that encompassed the entire island,” former Mets manager Bobby Valentine said. “There wasn’t a building protruding from that cloud, and when the bus turned this one corner going toward the George Washington Bridge and we had our first glimpse of Manhattan, it was horrifying. It was as though it had disappeared.”

“Once we got to the bridge, the whole left side of the bus came to the right side, because all we could see was the lights and the smoke from Ground Zero,” Franco added. “And you could hear a pin drop on that bus — from the George Washington Bridge to Shea Stadium, there wasn’t one sound. Nobody said anything. Everybody just sat on that bus and kept quiet.”

Bobby Valentine saluted New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2001.

Eventually the bus arrived at Shea Stadium, which was being used as a staging area for volunteers and supplies.

“Everyone felt exactly the same way,” Valentine said of the team’s arrival. “Fear, I think, was the first emotion, and sadness, and then a couple days later I think that anger started coming out. But the bus ride was surreal. That’s the easiest way to put it. It was something I hope I never have to do again, but it’s a lasting memory. I’m on that road often when I’m in New Jersey, coming back, and I always look at Manhattan at the exact same point that I looked at it in 2001, and the image lives on.”

Shortly after returning to the city, Valentine jumped into action, doing what he could to help. 

“It had me experience fear at a level that I had never experienced,” Valentine said of 9/11. “It had me experience anger at a level I never experienced and it had me experience sadness, again, at a level that I never had before. And then there was the confusion of what to do. And everyone in New York and the surrounding area, and I think a lot of the country, had that same dilemma. Do we go down to the recruitment center and sign up? Do we lock ourselves in our house? Do we lend a helping hand to those in need?”

Initially, only Valentine went down to Ground Zero, riding in a police cruiser that had its backseat taken out to make more room for Visine and eye-cleaning supplies. When he returned, Valentine shared his experience with his players, who asked if they could help.

“Bobby was a great leader,” Franco said. “He had us out there, and even when we were done, he stood out there by himself helping everybody else, all the volunteers. It wasn’t something we were ordered to do, either. We wanted to do it, we wanted to help, and once a couple of us got the OK to go downtown, we went downtown — Bobby, John Stearns, myself, Al Leiter, Robin Ventura, Mike Piazza, Todd Zeile. We wanted to go down there just to thank the workers.”

One of the lasting memories from the scene for Valentine, Franco and the rest of the Mets was the exchange of baseball caps. The team had brought hats to give away to first-responders, but as they did, they found many of those heroes were offering their own in return. Those caps eventually became a symbol for the Mets, who went on to wear them on the field for the rest of the season.

“It was remarkable the way they were met,” Valentine recalled. “The workers there were working on fumes, going around the clock, and we know how desperate it was and how impossible it was, what they were trying to achieve.”

In the initial aftermath, however, the rest of the season was the last thing on anyone’s mind. And even when the team did return to the field, back in Pittsburgh on Sept. 17, there were questions about whether it was OK to focus on baseball again.

“There were all of these emotions about continuation of play and about the meaning of play,” Valentine said. “It was so horrific of an event and so different of an occurrence for everyone — except for those that were possibly old enough to experience Pearl Harbor — that it was hard for people to totally understand what the right thing was to do. 

“And sport, at the time, was looked at as something other than an important event,” he continued. “‘Oh, it’s just a baseball game,’ is something I heard for four or five days after it happened, and I heard it enough that I started to think, ‘Yeah, why is it even important for us to continue the season?’ But then the light came on in many heads and in many rooms that it was important to continue the season — not for the pennant race, but the human race.”

And perhaps no moment was more symbolic of the importance of sports in the city’s and the nation’s recovery than the Mets’ home game against the Atlanta Braves on Sept. 21, the first major sporting event in New York City since the attack.

“We stepped on the field with all those same emotions we’d had for the week prior,” Valentine said. “There was still debate as to whether or not we should be playing, and there was confusion as to whether we were going to go at the Atlanta Braves as though they were our enemy, if you will, because there was so much talk about who our enemy really was, at the time. 

“We had to do it in a different frame of mind, that we’re going to play as a representation of what is great about America,” Valentine continued. “And I think that’s the idea that ultimately rang true.”

With emotions running high, the Braves got on the board first, taking a 1-0 lead in the top of the fourth. New York tied the game at 1-1 in the bottom of the frame, but in the top of the eighth Atlanta retook the lead, going up 2-1 on a Brian Jordan double. 

With so many fans so eager for something to celebrate, the situation looked grim, but in the bottom of the eighth, New York responded once again, taking the lead on an iconic two-run Mike Piazza home run. Armando Benitez then shut the door in the top of the ninth to seal the emotional Mets victory.

“Before that everything was kind of quiet and somber, just normal crowd noise, but once he hit the home run, it lifted the whole stadium, all of New York,” Franco said. “Even now I have goosebumps talking about it. When you looked in the stands, fans were hugging each other and crying and chanting — ’USA! USA!’ — and even the Braves, I don’t remember who it was, but somebody said they were glad we won that one particular game.”

“I think the home run that Mike hit has been well-documented as the shot that was heard around the world,” Valentine added. “I was glad that I was a part of it, and I think the symbolism of everything we were talking about was exactly what was needed at the time.”

Overall, the Mets won eight of their first nine games after returning to the field after 9/11 and, though they missed the playoffs, New York had the second-best record in the National League over the season’s final three weeks. Across town, the Yankees won the American League East and returned to the World Series for the fifth time in six seasons, where they lost to Arizona in seven games.

In the 15 years since, the city and the country have largely returned to normal, and the teams that helped provide respite from the situation have changed as well.

Carol Gies and her son, Ronnie, embrace. Her husband was one of the NYC firefighters lost in 9/11.

The Mets and Braves bowed their heads during a moment of silent tribute.

The New York skyline at Shea Stadium took on a new look.

The first ball thrown on 9/21/2001 was a memorable event.

While the players and coaches who lifted so many spirits in the aftermath of the tragedy have moved on, they’re never far from the memories of that horrific time in our country’s history.

“I find it remarkable how current it is in my daily life,” said Valentine, now the athletic director at Sacred Heart University. “Sometimes 10 years ago, or even five years ago, can feel ancient, but 2001, starting on September 11, seems like just yesterday. 

“When the Commander in Chief stood on the rubble and said, ‘We will never forget,’ I kind of took that literally,” Valentine continued. “And for me personally — and for many of the people that I knew prior and that I’ve come in contact with since, who are still hurting, still healing, still putting their lives back together as best they can — I think it’s a very recent past.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.

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