By RALPH D. RUSSO, Associated Press
NEW YORK -- The Mets were in Pittsburgh when terrorists attacked New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
Unable to use an airplane to return home, the team rode a bus back. As the players and coaches approached Manhattan from New Jersey, off in the distance a black cloud of smoke and ash still hung over the city.
"There was a sudden quietness on the bus. You could hear a pin drop," former Mets pitcher John Franco said Wednesday.
Ten days after planes were crashed into the twins towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, killing more than 3,000 people, Franco and the Mets played the first major sporting event in the city after the attacks.
In what turned out to be one of the most famous games in franchise history, the Mets – wearing hats used by the city's service agencies, such as the Fire and Police Departments – beat the Atlanta Braves 3-2 on Sept. 21, 2001, with Mike Piazza's two-run homer the decisive blow.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the attacks and honor the victims, the Mets again will wear the hats of first responders and service agencies for their Sept. 11 night game against the Chicago Cubs.
Franco, a Brooklyn native, will throw out a ceremonial first pitch to Piazza and former Mets manager Bobby Valentine and former players Todd Zeile and Robin Ventura will participate in a pregame ceremony.
Franco, Valentine, Zeile and Ventura took part in a conference call with reporters Wednesday, recalling some of their memories of 9-11 and the days that followed.
"I remember wondering what do we do with the group," Valentine said. "If we were going to just be a Band-Aid over this gapping wound or were we going to actually make a difference."
The Mets turned the Shea Stadium parking lot into a recovery and staging area after the attacks. Players and coaches helped unload and pack supplies that were going to those displaced by the destruction and rescue workers at Ground Zero.
"There was a sense of community that was different from any other city I've ever been in before or since," said Zeile, who played for 11 major league teams.
The players also donated a day's salary to the New York Police and Fire Widows and Children's Benefit Fund Foundation.
Valentine said there was much debate and mixed emotions about restarting the season and playing games again in New York after the attacks.
"Just coming to the ballpark that day, you weren't sure if it was the right thing to do," Franco said. "Soon as you pulled into the players lot you had the bomb squad out there with the dogs and the mirrors looking under the car."
Zeile said the first seven innings of the game were a blur.
"We were so worried about how are we supposed to play this game," he said.
Liza Minnelli sang "New York, New York" in the middle of the seventh inning and there were uniformed law enforcement and rescue personnel on the field, dancing and kicking Radio City Rockettes-style to the music.
"That for me was the uncorking for us," Zeile said. "That lifted the fans' spirits a little bit, gave pride to everybody in the stadium and sort of said it's OK to play this baseball game and try to win."
Not long after, Piazza homered off Steve Karsay, who grew up in Queens, and Shea Stadium rocked.
"Once Mike hit the home run, and when you look into the stands you see people jumping up and down, crying, laughing, hugging each other, and the USA chant going up," Franco said. "It sent chills up and down my spine that I'll never forget."
Zeile said the moment "almost felt defiant."
"It was this little piece of New York saying to the world symbolically we're going to be OK," Zeile said. "You can hit us but you can't keep us down."
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