On August 4, 1998, the Mets were battling the Padres for the NL Wild Card. With the game tied in the bottom of the 9th inning, the Mets were on the verge of ending their season with a tie. But at this point in the game, the Padres had not touched the ball since the top of the fifth inning. Yet, then happening, the Mets’ Mike Piazza hit a game-tying home run into the left field stands. The game ended, and the Mets had their wild card, and Mike Piazza’s 18th home run of the season was the only thing that had the Padres on the field.
In the summer of 1993, the New York Mets lost one of their best players. Piazza left to sign a free agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Piazza would go on to have an unbelievable career, winning two World Series and finishing with a .317 batting average and a .934 fielding percentage. Piazza hit a home run in his first at bat in the big leagues, a blast that would be important in a way that no one could have imagined.
What’s the most famous home run hit in baseball history? How about the most famous home run hit in any sport? That would be the 615th homer that Mike Piazza blasted out of the right field bleachers at Shea Stadium on May 21, 1999. That magical day, the then 21-year-old Mets catcher launched a two-run shot that sent the then-Los Angeles Dodgers to their first World Series in 24 years. The ball ricocheted off the catcher’s mitt, and Piazza’s giddy teammates chased after him to greet him in the outfield grass.
RONNIE GIES HAD BEEN MIA FOR NEARLY TEN DAYS WHEN HIS WIFE, CAROL, RECEIVED TWO SURPRISING INVITES FOR SEPTEMBER 21, 2001. One option was to travel to the World Trade Center with other bereaved wives and loved ones of firemen thought to have perished in the Twin Towers’ fall. The second invitation was to that night’s Braves-Mets game, the first regular-season professional sports event in New York City since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Gies (pronounced Geese) and her three sons, aged 13, 16, and 18, could hardly leave their living room at the time, so she wasn’t sure about bringing everyone to a baseball game. Were they prepared to go to Shea Stadium and bounce up and down for three hours, as much as they loved the Mets?
She did, however, express a strong desire to visit Ground Zero. Ronnie had been the love of her life for the last 22 years, and she was hoping he was still alive. She reasoned that he could be unconscious at a hospital. Perhaps he was trapped under the debris and awaiting help. Maybe.
That morning, she went with her brother, Bob. The party walked carefully and quietly through the South Tower’s ruins. Carol made it a few steps before stopping and turning back as the rest of the group rounded the curve to go to the North Tower. She claims to have felt Ronnie in her heart, brain, and hands while standing in one place.
Ronnie and Carol exchanged handshakes. Whether they were happy, angry, or sad, at the beach, the shopping, or at their Long Island home, their hands just kind of called to each other from the day they met in 1988 until the morning of Sept. 11, their hands just sort of beckoned to each other. “We were that couple,” she frequently recalls, rolling her eyes in fake disgust, recalling how others reacted to her and Ronnie’s magnetic attraction.
Forward Sept. 21, 2001, Greg Maddux recalls the emotions as “good to pay your respects and start going on again.” “At long last, something wonderful occurred — there was a baseball game that people could attend, and things were about to become better.” Iacono/SI/Icon SMI ohn Iacono/SI/Icon SMI
They held hands without really holding hands at times. Ronnie was a member of New York City’s special operations firefighting unit, and he would kiss her goodbye and hold her hand briefly in the kitchen before leaving for work. Then he’d exit via the back door, and they’d have another conversation. He’d rise up and return her gaze, and they’d both raise their hands. It was a half-wave, half-long-distance hand-hold in the air. “Anyone who saw it undoubtedly thought it was extremely ridiculous,” she adds.
She said she felt a tug as she stood where the South Tower formerly stood. Bob returned to his sister after seeing she had stopped. She pointed down and said, “Ronnie’s down there someplace, right here.” “And he’s not returning. Bob, I’m a widow.”
She had a spackle bucket full of steel and granite pieces when she left the World Trade Center site that morning. She was certain it was the only thing she’d remember about Ronnie from the incident. She had also felt a sense of relief: “I simply knew it at that instant that he had died and that he had not tortured.”
Her brother inquired about the Mets game on the way home. Gies pondered the following question: Was the city — or the nation, for that matter — prepared for a sports event only a few miles from the country’s deadliest terrorist attack?
She wasn’t the only one who wondered.
Mike Piazza’s eighth-inning home run capped an emotional night in New York City, which saw baseball return for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001. ESPN’s Kyle Dorosz
Mike Piazza spent the whole trip to Shea Stadium thinking it was too soon. From September 17 to 19, the Mets swept three games in Pittsburgh, and Piazza battled mightily. On the field, he slugged two home runs and drove in four runs against the Pirates. But he was empty on the inside. He’d come to like New York, as well as being a New Yorker and a Met. He wasn’t sure how he or his teammates could play with the devastation only a few miles away. It didn’t sit well with me.
Piazza was afraid he wouldn’t be able to operate that night since the Mets had come to within 4.5 games of the Braves and there were genuine pennant implications in the game. He explains, “We simply didn’t know whether we should be there.” “To perform with intensity as a professional athlete, you must summon up a certain amount of emotion. All of our emotions were depleted at that moment.”
The Braves shared this sentiment. Greg Maddux went out and sat in the opposing team bullpen before the game that night. On days when he didn’t pitch, he did it sometimes, but on Sept. 21, he wanted to speak with Mets security, police, firemen, and other first responders in the area of the bullpen.
He wavered on the significance of the game that night as he sat in his uniform two hours before a baseball game. He listened to them lament the loss of loved ones and colleagues, but he was struck by the distinct degree of anguish in their voices as they discussed the uncertainties. For many, there was a lack of finality. Maddux explains, “They simply wanted to know.” “They needed to know for sure what had happened to the individuals they cared about, even if the news was bad.”
But something else he heard in the bullpen eventually persuaded Maddux: the players may have been debating whether or not to play, but those New Yorkers, the ones with a hole in their hearts, needed the game. “What occurred was such a disaster. All the lives that have been taken, “Maddux explains. “It was good to pay your respects and get back on track. Something positive had finally happened: there was a baseball game to attend, and things were about to improve.”
Carol Gies and her boys were photographed in the stands at Shea Stadium, and their photos became iconic pictures of the traumatic night. Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
As the game approached, spectators started to pour in, despite unprecedented levels of security for a sports event in the United States. The majority of the 41,000 spectators had arrived by 6 p.m., and fans and players could hear the NYPD’s bagpipe band, the Pipes & Drums of the Emerald Society, warming up from outside the stadium’s gates. Players started to go around the field, most of them wearing caps from the NYPD or FDNY, which had been placed in both clubhouses. They embraced and shook hands, which was an unusual sight for two teams that had previously had a tense rivalry. In the ether, there was a strange combination of energy and sorrow that no one had ever experienced before.
A supporter shouted at Maddux as he approached the dugout about 6:30 p.m. In New York, he’d learned to simply keep strolling past admirers, like he couldn’t hear them. On this particular night, though, he chose to establish eye contact. “It’s great to have you back,” the man said. “But you’re still a jerk,” Maddux said, smiling as he retrieved a ball from the dugout and returned to hand it over to the man.
Carol Gies and her children came about a half-hour before the game and took seats just behind home plate, between the Braves dugout and the media area. She sat in an area reserved for those whose loved ones were believed lost on 9/11, wearing one of Ronnie’s blue work shirts. Photographers immediately spotted her and her children, and she spent the remainder of the night attempting to avoid the incessant clicks and flashes of cameras. She felt like she was in a zoo. “It’s just camera after camera after camera,” she adds.
Braves outfielder Brian Jordan eventually walked up and hugged her and the youngsters before pointing a finger at the cameras. He responded, “Leave them alone.” They didn’t listen, and Gies is grateful for that. The pictures of her with the guys would become the night’s defining emblems.
The gates in left center field opened about 7 p.m., and uniformed policemen carrying flags from different first-responder agencies went onto the outfield. The public address announcer stated, “We return to our national pastime in part to demonstrate that America can — and will — carry on.” The audience erupted in applause as they marched to the mound, shouting “U-S-A.”
“Before the game, it was a strange scenario, an emotional tug of war,” Piazza recalls. “And then the bagpipes came out…it was very hard to concentrate.”
During the pregame ceremony, Diana Ross’ heartfelt performance of “God Bless America” set the tone for honoring first responders. ALLSPORT/Getty Images/Ezra Shaw
Kevin McDonough, an NYPD investigator, hardly ate or slept in the weeks after 9/11. Almost every day, he worked 16-hour shifts. He alternated between regular police duty, stints at Ground Zero, and mortuary assignments. He also attended as many funerals as he could with his bagpipes.
In the year 2000, he joined the NYPD bagpipe band. He had always admired the sound of bagpipes but had never attempted to play them. As a young NYPD investigator and as an NYPD bagpiper, he studied fast and worked his way up. He adds, “I liked how we honored our fallen and wanted to be a part of it.”
He was both thrilled and anxious when he had the opportunity to perform on the field with 50 to 60 other bagpipers that night. The throng transformed into a library as they started to enter the stadium and play “America the Beautiful.” The sound of the music, as well as the way the bagpipers stoically marched themselves into a moving rectangle, caused others to gaze quietly. For the first ten seconds, no one made a sound.
However, some mild clapping quickly grew into a deafening scream, and by the time the bagpipers got to second base, they couldn’t hear the instruments they were playing from six inches away. “It sent shivers up my spine,” recalls McDonough. “It was one of the greatest honors of my life that night.”
Diana Ross then sang an emotional rendition of “God Bless America.” She began her performance at a microphone stand set up behind home plate, facing the audience, and as she progressed through the song, she gradually moved passed the four umpires stationed behind home plate, stopping halfway between the plate and the pitcher’s mound. Hundreds of police officers and firemen poured onto the pitch, forming rows across the infield. The bagpipers stood like statues behind second base as she wound down. Piazza was seen chewing on gum and trying not to weep, but he finally broke down.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, Piazza hits a two-run home run to put the Mets ahead of the Braves and give baseball one of its most memorable moments. Getty Images/AFP/Matt Campbell
Throughout the pregame, shouts of “USA” erupted in the bleachers, and Gies wept. But, after ten days of feeling numb, there was something about sharing her sorrow with 40,000 other people that helped to remove some of the weight. The lads did not weep; instead, they sat quietly watching. However, as the first pitch neared, her heart began to warm as the lads began to participate in the chanting.
The match was just a few minutes away. From the base lines, players rushed toward the center of the diamond after Marc Anthony performed the national anthem. The police and firemen exited the center field fence on foot. The bagpipers started playing “Amazing Grace” in the backdrop, still placed on the first blades of outfield grass.
The bagpipers then shifted gears and pursued the police and firemen outside the stadium boundaries. The Mets entered the field while the Braves returned to their dugout.
McDonough walked straight to his vehicle and changed into his uniform in the parking lot. He loaded his bagpipes into the backseat of his car and headed to a Long Island landfill. That night, his duty was to sift through the rubble that had been hauled away from the World Trade Center site by dump trucks. Detectives like him would lay everything out on the ground and search by hand for clothes, wallets, and anything else that could contain DNA. “The aim was to find loved ones and provide closure,” McDonough explains.
The game started as he drove out of Flushing. The Mets had won nine of their previous ten games to put pressure on the Braves, so even with the uncertainty and gravity of the night, it was a game that both teams wanted to win.
A Mets-Braves game featuring Bruce Chen vs. Jason Marquis would have smelled like a 9-8 runfest under normal conditions that year. The Mets had pounded Marquis in each of his four appearances that season, and the Braves had pounded Chen earlier in the season, scoring seven runs in two innings.
On Sept. 21, though, both teams seemed to be slow at the plate. Before the Braves went to their bullpen in the bottom of the eighth, the game was tied at 1-1. Between innings, Liza Minnelli sang “New York, New York,” while relievers Steve Reed and Mike Remlinger pitched a 1-2-3 inning against the Mets’ 7-8-9 batters. Then, in the top of the eighth, a Jordan line drive off Armando Benitez drove in Cory Aldridge to make it 2-1 Braves. Piazza was scheduled to appear in the following frame.
Gies was tired in the stands at that time. She has no recollection of eating, drinking, or conversing with the guys, and she has no idea whether they even ate supper. She had times when her emotions overtook her, but for the first time in ten days, she felt elevated. She was more concerned with the result of the evening than with the outcome of the game.
The animosity between the Mets and the Braves had been simmering for years, but the players came together on the field before the game in a mood of unity that pervaded the night. “You never want to lose,” Maddux admits today, “but it was a fairly easy one to swallow.” AFP/Getty Images/Stan Honda
The youngsters, on the other hand, were concerned. Throughout the night, they shouted for the Mets. They used to go to games with their father, and they were never there for the Flushing landscape; they were there to see the Mets win. Carol adds, “I kept thinking, ‘The guys could really use a comeback here.’”
The Braves turned to closer Steve Karsay early in the game. Edgardo Alfonzo earned a walk to bring Piazza to the plate after Matt Lawton grounded out. He’d already had two doubles and had caught the whole game earlier in the night. But he still had an uneasy feeling about him. “I simply remember praying to God throughout the game, ‘Lord, please help me get through this night,’” he recalls. “I could feel myself beginning to crumble. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to complete the game. Fortunately, as events developed, I had emotional support from everyone, and old competitive emotions surfaced.”
Karsay was aggressive in his delivery, starting with a fastball down the center for a called strike. “S—t, I believe I missed my best pitch,” Piazza thought as he walked out of the batter’s box for a little time.
He was expecting a curveball on the following pitch, but was taken aback when he saw Karsay throw a fastball. Piazza took his long, loping swing as the ball was up and out over the plate, completely extending his arms as he connected. As the ball flew out and over the left center field wall, Karsay never turned around to look at it, a crucial shot that traveled approximately 425 feet. “There are a couple,” Piazza recalls, “where you strike it and you just know.”
After the swing, he has no recollection of anything. He circled the bases a stride or two quicker than most of his home runs, chewing on his gum and remaining numb even as the crowd went crazy.
As the fans exploded for 30 seconds, the Atlanta players remained somber, luring Piazza out for a curtain call. Even the Braves were celebrating on the inside. Maddux adds, “It seems only appropriate that Mike hit the game-winning home run.” “It’s never fun to lose, but it was a fairly easy one to swallow.”
Gies and her boys jumped up and down. They were all hit by a shock of electricity. “Even going inside the stadium, my kids were so upset — everything was a haze,” Gies recalls. “Then Mike Piazza hit that home run. I’ll be eternally thankful to him because it was the first time I saw my children smile since their father died, and it was then that I knew we’d be okay.”
Anthony Scaramucci, a high-powered investment banker turned White House communications director, played an unexpected role in restoring Mike Piazza’s Sept. 21 jersey to its rightful position. ESPN’s Kyle Dorosz
Benitez came in to finish the game in the ninth inning. Piazza ran to the mound, still chewing on the gum, then returned to the dugout and fell in a heap for a few minutes. A police officer approached him with a mother and her three happy youngsters as he began to remove his catcher’s gear. The Gies family greeted the boys, and Piazza told them, “I’m not a hero by any stretch of the imagination. Your father was a hero in his own right.”
Before removing his wrist bands and giving them to Tommy, he searched for something to offer them. “Twenty years later, he still has them on his bedside table,” Gies adds.
Piazza said his goodbyes to the Gieses and removed the last of his gear. As he walked out of the stadium around midnight, he washed, put everything in his locker, and took a deep breath. He adds, “I didn’t save anything from that night.” “I thought it was an incredible moment, but I didn’t believe it would be remembered 20 years later; I would have preserved the bat, gloves, and jersey.”
He takes a breather. “The outfit is a completely other thing.”
YEARS AFTER THE GAME, just before the start of the 2016 season, New York newspapers were flooded with reports that Piazza’s jersey was being auctioned off. The Mets had sold Piazza’s 9/21 jersey, along with a few others, for $20,000 to a private collector, and now the historic outfit was up for grabs to the highest bidder.
Fans, as well as Piazza, were furious. “‘Why would you sell my jersey,’ I inquired of the Mets. ‘Good…lord,’ adds the narrator “According to Piazza. “However, it is what it is. It was a hiccup. I’m ready to accept that as a blunder.”
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the Baseball Hall of Fame, and Citi Field all have Piazza’s famous jersey on display. National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum/Milo Stewart Jr.
Fortunately, there was one fan who was both angry and rich enough to track down the shirt from the Sept. 21 game. He was a wealthy Wall Street executive who had brought his kid and two other boys, both of whose dads had perished in the towers, to a suite to watch the game. He couldn’t believe the Mets had let such a valuable piece of baseball history go, and vowed to purchase it back. And he succeeded, raising $365,000 to recover Piazza’s No. 31 jersey from that night. What was the name of the Wall Street tycoon? Anthony Scaramucci is a member of the Scaramucci family.
Scaramucci adds, “I didn’t want to see that jersey leave New York.” “Mike Piazza had made it clear to the rest of the world that New York was still standing, surviving, and that it was OK to rejoice and go on with life despite the terrible tragedy of September 11. To me, the shirt represented getting back on your feet and recuperating.”
Scaramucci and two friends purchased the jersey and promptly gave it to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the Baseball Hall of Fame, and Citi Field, where it will be rotated. Scaramucci, who served as President Donald Trump’s director of communications for 11 days in 2017, adds, “I’m friends with the Wilpon family…but I simply believe it was a mistake.” “You know my track record: I’ve made massive blunders, so I’m not going to hurl pebbles at other people. The fact that they sold it didn’t upset me all that much. ‘Let’s get it back,’ was all it was. By the way, when Fred [Wilpon] found out it was we who were purchasing it back, he was overjoyed.”
However, the club welcomed Piazza in an Italian restaurant in New York City before handing him the jersey. Scaramucci informed Piazza he had a surprise for him when he came, thinking it was just a celebration of his Cooperstown induction. He gave Piazza a zipped plastic bag with the Sept. 21 shirt.
Scaramucci adds, “You should have seen Mike’s face when I brought it in.” “I touched it, and I let him to touch it as well. Nobody else, though.”
Carol Gies clutches her late husband’s Ground Zero-recovered helmet. ESPN’s Kyle Dorosz
Piazza was one of baseball’s top hitters in September and October of 2001, batting. To finish the regular season, he hit 352 with six home runs and 19 RBI in 88 at-bats. But it wasn’t enough: the Mets faltered late in the season, finishing 7-7 and six games behind Atlanta.
Piazza now admits, “We sort of hobbled to the finish line.” “Perhaps the gravity of that night had taken its toll on us. All things considered, even though we missed the playoffs by a few games, that season was a tremendous success in the eyes of the public. I don’t believe there were many folks who were disappointed.”
Carol Gies and her boys, on the other hand, were not. She describes that night as a fresh beginning, a paragraph break in her life. The Gies family started to move on during the following two months. Gies claims she began to see her boys laughing more and more, and in October, they conducted a memorial and burial for Ronnie, despite the fact that his corpse had never been found.
Then, shortly before midnight on Dec. 7, Gies was in the living room with her eldest son, Tommy, when the front door was knocked on. Several of Ronnie’s fire department buddies, as well as the family’s priest, arrived with shocking news: Ronnie’s corpse had been discovered in the debris by recovery crews. “By that time, I’d worked through all of the grief,” Gies adds. “I was just so thrilled to have Ronnie come home at that moment.”
She sat down with her boys and asked if they wanted to go to their father’s funeral home and say their goodbyes. They all drove over when the vote was unanimous. Ronnie’s body had been crushed, but Gies believes it a miracle that he was discovered alive. Everyone took turns telling Ronnie how much they loved him, and Gies requested for a private time at the conclusion. She yanked the American flag from the corpse bag and drew her palm along the edge of the bag, where she assumed Ronnie’s arm was. She adds, “I just wanted to hold his hand one more time.”
Ronnie was back, and it was the sort of heartbreaking finality she had hoped for. They conducted a second burial for Ronnie Gies a few days later, burying him in Merrick, New York.
When Gies mentions having what she refers to as his “true funeral,” she stops for a minute and walks out of the dining room.
She’ll be carrying Ronnie’s helmet when she returns. It takes your breath away when you look at it up close. It’s crushed and damaged in places, having been yanked out from under millions of pounds of cement, steel, and agony. Tommy keeps the helmet at his home the most of the time, but everyone has mementos of Ronnie that they take with them. None of them are really owned by anybody. The things circulate but always gravitate back to Gies before she passes them around again, just as the Piazza jersey did for a short time before returning to its rightful owner. They’re attracted to one other.
Gies was given tickets to this year’s Mets-Yankees game on September 11, but she plans to remain in Merrick, where she still resides in the home Ronnie constructed for the family. Her children all reside in the neighborhood with their children. All three of her sons work for the Merrick Fire Department, the same one where Ronnie began his career. The neighborhood street sign, which now reads Ronnie Gies Avenue, is the sole major alteration.
“September 11th this year will undoubtedly be a difficult day for us,” Gies adds, before reminiscing on the game that helped her family recover. “But I’ll also take some time to be thankful for that night, especially for Mike Piazza’s home run. When he hit the ball, everything changed for us. We were able to grin once again.”
On May 16, 1998, in a playoff game against the Atlanta Braves, the Mets played their last game of the season in Atlanta. In the bottom of the ninth inning, with a one-run lead, Lenny Dykstra stepped in to pinch hit for the pitcher, Mike Piazza. In his first at-bat of the night, Dykstra hit a home-run over the right field wall—a home run so massive it would be remembered forever. In the middle of the night, Dykstra’s home run sent a chapter in baseball history to a close. From the time it took the ball to leave the park to when it landed in the hands of a fan in the upper deck, what was once. Read more about mike piazza rookie card and let us know what you think.
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