On Sept. 21, 2001, the New York Mets hosted the Atlanta Braves in a game that was more about the people in the stands and in homes across America than the players on the field. Just ten days removed from the single greatest tragedy in our country’s history, the baseball diamond served as a beacon of hope for a reeling city and nation, and the home team delivered in grand fashion. In the bottom of the eighth inning, with the Mets trailing 2-1, catcher Mike Piazza hit a long, two-run homerun over the centerfield fence that lifted the Mets closer to their rivals in the playoff race, and lifted the spirits of Americans everywhere who were seeking some semblance of normalcy in the midst of disaster. As Piazza rounded the bases, fans cheered and waved American flags high above their heads, a reminder that our country would persevere and prosper in the future, but never forget its past.
But while the players in uniform lifted the city on the field, it was the men and women in uniform off of it who were the true heroes of the evening. In honor of the hundreds of FDNY firefighters, NYPD police officers, Port Authority police officers and other first responders who perished in the rescue efforts at Ground Zero, and the thousands of others who were also present, the Mets defied Major League Baseball’s uniform policy and dawned first responder baseball caps throughout the game; an iconic tribute to the real heroes of New York.
The night, which had began with tears and frowns, ended with cheers and smiles. Yes, New York had won, but the final score was irrelevant. The city had regained its spirit, and that was a victory in and of itself.
Flash-forward a decade later, and the Mets were once again in a peculiar position, hosting a Sunday night baseball game on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. The venue had changed, (the Mets moved from Shea Stadium to Citi Field in 2009), but the painful memory of the World Trade Center attacks remained, culminating in a somber candlelit — electronic candles, that is — ceremony prior to the contest. In front of a crowd of over 33,000 people, 204 New York City first responders joined the field with players and coaches as bag pipers set the tone before a stadium-wide moment of silence. The ceremony was done with grace and gave proper recognition where it was due, but when the players took to the field moments later something was missing.
Gone were the first responder baseball caps that had become a rallying symbol for the Mets and the city of New York in the concluding games of the 2001 season. In their place were the Mets’ standard caps with an American flag stitched on the side, similar to every hat worn by every other team on the day.
Confusion — the Mets had worn the first responder caps during the pre-game ceremony — turned to outrage after the game when it was learned that an MLB policy had kept the Mets from following through with the tribute. In an attempt to calm the waters, Joe Torre, the MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations, explained the league’s reasoning to the Associated Press.
"Certainly it's not a lack of respect," Torre said. "We just felt all the major leagues are honoring the same way with the American flag on the uniform and the cap. This is a unanimity thing."
Unfortunately, Torre and the rest of the league failed to recognize that on this day, unanimity was not necessarily a good thing. Sunday was not about the MLB or the sport of baseball in general, but was instead about honoring and paying tribute to the thousands of people who lost their lives ten years ago. To make matters worse, the hats that the Mets were required to wear are now being sold by the MLB ... at the steep price tag of $36.99. That raises the question: was unanimity at the core of the MLB’s decision, or was the choice merely financially driven?
Unsurprisingly — considering the Mets were involved — money did come into play in the team’s final decision to obey the MLB’s request. Threatened with a fine and already in financial muddy water with the league, the cash-strapped Mets decided to follow orders and left the first responder caps in the dugout prior to taking the field. Some Mets players, including star David Wright, wore the hats in the dugout at the bottom of each inning, but all in all the gesture felt somewhat empty.
And yet, on this day, there was no playoff race. No must win game. No point in worrying about a fine or possible suspension when the off season awaits just a few weeks down the road. Just a dark cloud loomed over the stadium on Sunday, a memory of a tragic morning that to most New Yorkers feels like just yesterday.
So how did the sport get lost in the storm?
The MLB and the Mets have taken a step back since 2001. Sure, the product on the field has diminished — particularly that of the Mets — and so has the fan base, but on Sunday that was beside the point. What truly mattered on the tenth anniversary of September 11th were the people in the stands and in the streets of New York, who will forever remember the attacks, and the thousands of first responders who risked it all and experienced the tragedy firsthand. If the MLB and the Mets want to win back their support group, they must understand their fans’ wants and needs and reciprocate that support when necessary. Unlike that day ten years ago when Mike Piazza and the Mets hit a homerun in helping to heal New York, this year’s effort was a near strikeout.
Now, the only thing more unfortunate than the situation itself has been the aftermath. On a day where sports were supposed to take a backseat to more important issues, “Hat Flap” became yet another black eye on the MLB’s worsening image. Throw in Commissioner Bud Selig’s harsh words towards the Mets after the team went public with the issue, and the league has a full-blown controversy that has started to overshadow the nice gesture it was attempting to make.
Baseball is desperate for headlines now more than ever with the NFL season in full force, but the MLB picked a bad day to make them on Sunday. Once it understands that its issues are of far less significance than that of its fans and this country as a whole, it may win back some of its supporters, but until that day, here’s to football.