Sept. 11 tragedy never far from Zeile's mind

September 11th, 2020

NEW YORK -- Recently, former Mets infielder Todd Zeile moved apartments from Midtown to Lower Manhattan, so that he could walk to his job as an SNY analyst at 4 World Trade Center.

Being downtown daily does not dull memories that still feel fresh after 19 years. As the player rep on the 2001 Mets, Zeile was one of the strongest, loudest voices in the clubhouse following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. He participated in one of the first cap exchanges between Mets players and FDNY firefighters, famously saying that if anyone didn’t want the Mets to wear service agency hats on the field, they would have to “come down here to try to rip them off our heads.”

Zeile was also one of the masterminds behind the Mets’ decision to donate a day’s salary -- nearly half a million dollars combined -- to Rusty Staub’s New York Police & Fire Widows & Children’s Benefit Fund.

So yes, Zeile remembers that time well. He isn’t likely ever to forget it.

“I get chills even thinking about it right now,” Zeile said. “I walk by it every day. I ride bikes around this area. There is something that I feel a connection to this area, as I’m sure thousands of people do in some way, shape or form.”

As Zeile spoke on his cell phone, he walked by FDNY Ladder 10 on Liberty Street, steps from the World Trade Center. It was there that Zeile and his teammates traveled days after the attacks, uncertain of their role as the city tried to account for the toll of devastation.

When American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower, the Mets were in Pittsburgh at a hotel attached to a government building. As a precaution, the team evacuated the city, moving to a suburban hotel as it awaited word on what to do next. Eventually, the Mets chartered a bus back to New York, where a police caravan escorted them over the George Washington Bridge.

Midway across, the bus driver stopped. Everyone leaned over to the right side, where they saw a vacancy in Lower Manhattan’s skyline.

“I remember seeing lights shining up in the air, smoke billowing,” Zeile said. “I could smell the smell of electrical fire all the way uptown on the GW. I think it was the quietest I’ve ever heard a bus of 25 guys in my life. The only thing we could really hear between that point and the next 20 minutes of getting to the stadium was the sound of emotion. Nobody spoke. Just everybody kind of in their own thoughts.”

Days later, a group of Mets players made their first of many pilgrimages to Ground Zero. They were nervous, afraid of being intrusive in an active recovery zone. They felt like they did not belong. But when those players arrived and realized what it meant to the firefighters to see Mike Piazza and other Mets stars on site, their trepidation vanished.

Over the ensuing days and weeks, Zeile, Piazza, Al Leiter, John Franco, Robin Ventura, Bobby Valentine and Jeff Wilpon formed a group that frequently visited NYFD firehouses. Countless other players have joined on those pilgrimages as the Mets continue to make them even today, visiting at least one firehouse annually on or around Sept. 11.

For Zeile, a 16-year big leaguer who spent only three of those seasons in Queens, the continued memories are deeply personal. They’ve connected him for life to the team and the city. Each Sept. 11, Zeile thinks about 2001, about the Mets’ efforts at Ground Zero, and about how much those days remain imprinted upon him.

“It’s very easy to kind of go back to that moment and remember exactly what it was like,” Zeile said. “It’s one of those moments the world stood still.”