This game had meaning beyond the score
Steve Karsay is a New Yorker, born and raised. He grew up in Queens. He could see the Twin Towers from his boyhood bedroom. He went with friends to doubleheaders at Shea Stadium, buying tickets in the upper deck before sneaking down to the box seats. He still, at age 39, has a trace of the accent one acquires when LaGuardia Airport is part of the neighborhood.
He was not in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
At the time, Karsay was a relief pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. In fact, he was the setup man for then-closer John Smoltz, an important job on a team that awoke that morning with a 3 1/2 game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East. They were scheduled to play the Phillies that night in Atlanta.
So, Karsay rolled out of bed, grabbed some breakfast, flipped on the television, and . . .
“It was on every single station,” he says. “I still kind of had the sawdust in my eyes, looking at the TV. They were explaining it, but I couldn’t comprehend it. They were talking about planes going into the World Trade Center. Big, jumbo jets were getting flown into these buildings?”
Karsay remembers feeling a chill down his spine.
And he remembers thinking about John Reilly.
Reilly was Karsay’s catcher at Christ the King High School. Karsay went on to the first round of the 1990 amateur draft, where he was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays. Reilly pursued a career in law enforcement, becoming an officer for the Port Authority of New York.
The Port Authority Police had its headquarters at One World Trade Center.
Karsay immediately tried calling his friend. He wasn’t able to get through. The cellular networks were jammed. Desperate, he tried again. And again. And again.
“It was excruciating,” he says.
Frustrated and concerned, Karsay decided that he would call once every hour. Then he tried to reach Reilly’s family. Finally, he heard the news: Rather than work at the North Tower that morning, Reilly had to appear in a New Jersey courtroom for one of his cases. He was OK.
In the hours and days after the attacks, Reilly and Karsay returned to their respective workplaces. Reilly reported back to what used to be his office, in order to help with rescue and recovery efforts; One World Trade Center had turned into Ground Zero, the place where so many of his Port Authority co-workers perished. Karsay, meanwhile, attended workouts with his Braves teammates at Turner Field, while Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig contemplated when and how the sport would resume play.
Ultimately, Selig postponed the rest of that week’s games. The Braves resumed play the following Monday with a four-game series in Philadelphia, before riding a charter bus to New York that Thursday night. By then, the third-place Mets had climbed to within 5 1/2 games of the Braves. But this series mattered for a much more profound reason.
On Friday, Sept. 21, 2001, baseball would come back to New York.
For the Braves, even the bus ride to New York was difficult.
“I remember the overbearing sadness,” says Joe Simpson, a Braves broadcaster since 1992. “You could sense a heavy pall over the whole city. Not seeing the towers in the skyline, you realized it wasn’t a dream. You saw the spotlights for the people working at Ground Zero. It was such a horrible feeling, knowing it was real.”
Ten years later, Simpson still recalls what he didn’t hear in New York in the hours before that first game.
“The city was quiet,” he says. “Cabs weren’t honking. People weren’t in a hurry to get by you. There was a little more of a courteous demeanor about everybody.”
The civility could be explained in any number of ways. A common purpose. A keener sense of what really matters. Grief. Sorrow. Uncertainty. Fear. Sometimes, hindsight makes us forget that last one.
In those harrowing days, we didn’t know if another terrorist attack lurked in the immediate future. Were the stadiums safe? Had Selig really made the right decision? Should baseball be played in New York — or anywhere else, for that matter?
That night, Simpson looked toward LaGuardia from his seat in the Shea Stadium press box.
“You’re in the flight pattern,” Simpson says. “You’re watching every plane take off, making sure it didn’t turn around. There was uneasiness about it. You’re thinking, ‘There’s their weapon of choice.’ ”
Yet, Simpson knew it was absolutely necessary for baseball to be played. As much as the fans needed a diversion from their grief, America had to prove — to itself, to the terrorists — that our way of life wouldn’t be defeated. In that context, a ballgame sounded just right.
“That night, it looked like everybody had their jaw set a little,” Simpson recalls. “There was some anger there. Frankly, I hope there is still a lot of anger involved in what happened.”
And while he certainly didn’t admit to it at the time, Simpson was convinced of something else about that night’s game: No chance the Braves win.
The Mets were in Pittsburgh on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 — closer to where Flight 93 crashed in western Pennsylvania than the World Trade Center. But very quickly, the Mets came to represent more than Queens, or their fan base, or even New York. They were a reflection of the country. And they understood that.
Because of the suspension of air travel that followed the attacks, the Mets rode in buses back to New York on that Thursday — a seven-hour trip that surely felt longer under the circumstances. There wasn’t much talking.
“We came back at night,” says Vance Wilson, a backup catcher on the team. “South Manhattan was all lit up — there were still fires going on. The smell in the air was awful. At that point, they weren’t sure how many were dead or alive.”
As the bus pulled into Shea Stadium, the players saw evidence of the devastation: The ballpark, which had hosted the World Series less than 12 months before, had a staging area for rescue supplies in its parking lot.
The Mets returned to Shea one day later, to hold a meeting and work out. But some players spent more time handling flashlights and batteries than ground balls. A supply truck would come in, a Red Cross official would call out what was needed, and the stacking began.
“I was there until 3 in the morning,” says Wilson, who remembers manager Bobby Valentine and utility man Joe McEwing staying deep into the night, too. “I couldn’t leave. Even though you’re a major league baseball player, there’s something going on that’s much bigger than yourself.”
Before the Sept. 21 game, Wilson noticed something different about the enormous Shea Stadium scoreboard: On top, in the rendering of the iconic New York skyline, the lights outlining the Twin Towers had been turned off. A ribbon covered the buildings instead.
Wilson looked into the grandstand, saw all the American flags and felt like he was playing for his country in the Olympics. During the national anthem, Wilson remembers looking at teammate John Franco. The closer from Brooklyn was crying.
“You had that knot in your throat,” Wilson says. “You didn’t know what to think.”
In retrospect, the task seems immense and frightening: This was the first major sporting event in New York following the deaths of almost 3,000 people in the Sept. 11 attacks. No one knew for certain what sort of atmosphere to expect. Would security concerns compel many fans to stay home? Were New Yorkers really in the mood to be entertained by a sporting event?
One way or the other, what happened inside Shea Stadium that night was going to be interpreted as a metaphor for American society at large. There was a lengthy pregame ceremony, with the Mets and Braves embracing one another on the field. Diana Ross sang “God Bless America.” Bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” — followed by triumphant songs to honor branches of the armed services.
And the man who started for the Mets was a 24-year-old left-hander from Panama.
“It was very emotional,” Bruce Chen says, a decade (and eight organizations) later. “I remember the president saying, ‘The best thing is to go back to normalcy.’ Baseball was a huge part of it. We were wearing different caps — I had the Fire Department of New York. People were crying when the national anthem was sung.
“You have to understand: When we were in New York, everyone was sad. Everyone was down. Somebody knew somebody. Or somebody had a relative or friend that something happened to. And to have the fans cheering — actually laughing and enjoying it, for those two or three hours — that was huge for us.”
Chen doesn’t remember feeling especially nervous before the first pitch. That sounds more surprising than it should.
“After everything that happened, pitching in a game seemed so small, you know?” Chen says. “I can’t imagine what people had to go through, day by day. Pitching was just something I could do to bring a sense of normalcy back in New York. All I wanted to do was go out there and make everyone in the city proud.”
While it’s often overlooked, he did. Chen allowed one unearned run in seven innings. But the Braves took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox summoned the Queens native from his bullpen.
Karsay was in the midst of perhaps the most dominant stretch of his career. At the time, he had allowed earned runs in only two of his previous 19 appearances. For the season, his ERA was 1.64.
But on this night, what did those numbers mean, anyway?
“I told myself, ‘If you get into this game, you’re going to have to push everything to the back of your mind and focus for 15 minutes on doing your job,’ ” Karsay recalls. “That’s what I tried to do. I got the call in the seventh inning that I had the eighth.
“You could just feel the tension in the ballpark. To be honest with you, the fans were waiting for something to happen where they could erupt and let some of that anger and anxiety out.”
The first out came with relative ease, and Karsay knew that he couldn’t let the next batter reach base. That would put the tying run on base for slugger Mike Piazza. So, Karsay approached Edgardo Alfonzo with consecutive fastballs that clipped the outside part of the plate. Or so he thought: Home-plate umpire Wally Bell called both of them balls. Alfonzo went on to walk. Karsay fumed.
It didn’t necessarily help Karsay’s mood that the first pitch to Piazza was a called strike, 97 mph on the outside corner. In his mind, it was the same pitch — in the same spot — that Bell had called a ball during the Alfonzo at-bat. The scouting report said to pitch Piazza away, in order to prevent him from pulling the ball down the left-field line. So, agitated yet composed, Karsay tried the outer half again.
This time, Piazza was ready.
“As soon as he hit it, I knew,” Karsay says. “It was like 50,000 people screamed at the same time.”
The ball touched the sky, ricocheted off the center-field camera well, and New Yorkers suddenly had reason to cry for all the right reasons. The Mets had taken a 3-2 lead. They were going to win, and everyone knew it.
In some small way, the city had its first small triumph since Sept. 11.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t think it was important that we win that particular game — until after Piazza hit that home run,” Wilson says. “At first, the fact that we were back seemed to be enough. But once Piazza hit that home run, it wasn’t just about playing. We had to win. We had to give them something to believe in.
“People were hugging and crying in the stands, and it was all because of what that moment meant to the city. That crowd braved what everybody’s fears were. It’s one thing to say something. It’s another thing to do it. Everyone on the news, from the president to the local people, said that we couldn’t let the terrorists chase us away. Well, that’s easy to say. But when it comes to crunch time, are you going to back that up?”
For that reason, Wilson says that Piazza’s game-winning homer was the greatest play he experienced during his eight seasons in the big leagues — more meaningful than Wilson’s own first major league hit, greater than the Magglio Ordonez home run that clinched the only World Series berth in Wilson’s career.
And as Piazza rounded the bases, Karsay allowed his concentration to break for a fleeting moment, as the perspective of the moment began to seep in. This wasn’t about the Braves and the Mets and the National League East title — which Atlanta went on to win, anyway. This was about John Reilly and the others who survived. It was also about those who did not.
Sometimes, Karsay is asked whether he grooved that pitch to Piazza. That amuses him. Of course he didn’t. He would never give up a home run on purpose — particularly in the middle of a pennant race. In fact, Karsay was so angry in the moment that he thinks Bell ejected him after the inning — although he never received paperwork or a fine from Major League Baseball.
Karsay isn’t glad that he gave up that home run. And yet . . .
“If there’s any game I had to give up a home run, any game I had to lose, then I would choose that home run in that game,” he says. “It definitely wasn’t intentional. It was just meant to be. That’s how I look at it. That’s going to be part of baseball, and part of how we remember Sept. 11, for years to come.
“And you know what? I’m good with that.”