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Skipper on Piazza HR: 'I was playing first base'

Martinez was with Braves for emotional moment in New York after 9/11
September 11, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS -- The images of Mike Piazza extending his arms and hitting a long home run to center field are indelible -- etched on the minds of baseball fans, and Americans overall, as the Mets' catcher hit the first homer in New York following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The images of Mike Piazza extending his arms and hitting a long home run to center field are indelible -- etched on the minds of baseball fans, and Americans overall, as the Mets' catcher hit the first homer in New York following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Nationals manager Dave Martinez had a different view than most.

“I was playing first base [for the Braves] when Piazza hit the home run,” Martinez said Wednesday before Washington’s game in Minnesota. “To hear those people cheer and to hear the fans -- for that split second, I can remember just really forgetting what had happened, but not really. But for the fans, it was an unbelievable kind of breath of fresh air. This country has been through a lot, and we stuck together. To be a part of that and be a part of this country, I’m just really happy to be an American. For those people that lost lives, my heart goes out to them always.”

The Twins held a memorial prior to Wednesday’s game that featured first responders standing with the Nationals and Twins along the first- and third-base lines. Minnesota also recognized members of the 133rd Airlift Wing out of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Joint Air Reserve Station and the 148th Fighter Wing from Duluth, Minn., which both joined the security efforts during the Sept. 11 attacks.

Harold A. Schaitberger, the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, threw out the ceremonial first pitch as the Rogers Family Foundation -- an organization founded by Twins pitcher Taylor Rogers dedicated to caring for the mental wellness of first responders -- was recognized. Rogers is a descendant of four generations of firefighters.

In the final days of his playing career, Martinez made the trip to New York to face the Mets with his Braves team. Baseball was suspended temporarily across the country but returned before a game was played in New York. Martinez and the Braves played a series in Philadelphia before traveling and playing the first game in New York with the Mets on Sept. 21.

“I can remember the anthem and God Bless America. We all had red, white and blue on,” Martinez said. “We didn’t have wristbands, but we all got tape and colored it red, white and blue just to represent our country. It was kind of a somber moment, and then once the game started, it was kind of like you have to play. You have a job to do.

“As I recall, we didn’t score very many runs, and it was two teams out there really fighting to do what we felt was important, and that was to be out there for the fans and play baseball. And for that three hours, try to forget about everything, but it was hard. It was really hard.”

Atlanta led, 2-1, when Piazza stepped to the plate in the eighth inning against Steve Karsay with a runner on. He followed with a long home run to straightaway center field as the stadium erupted with cheers.

Martinez just watched from the edge of the grass of the infield as Piazza ran past.

“I just kind of stood back and just watched him drive by me like, ‘Oh wow. Just listen,’” Martinez said. “You can hear the fans. You look in the stands, and people [were] crying. There were so many people from the fire department, police department there at the game, and it was something.”

Arriving in New York, the Braves organized a visit to Ground Zero to try and lift the spirits of the rescue workers.

“It was a tough moment,” Martinez said Wednesday, choking up as he spoke.

Martinez recalled hearing about the attacks and watching it unfold on TV. With a day off in the baseball schedule, he had returned home to Florida to see his family.

“All of a sudden, the second plane hits, and I sit there watching TV and my eyes are watering,” Martinez recalled. “What’s going on here? More worried about my family than anything.”

His long career in baseball also put Martinez in Boston the day of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Martinez was coaching with the Tampa Bay Rays, who played the Red Sox that day.

Ross improving

Right-handed pitcher Joe Ross, who was scratched from his start on Saturday because of discomfort in his right forearm, is showing improvement, but Martinez said the team is taking the recovery slowly.

“He’s doing better, slowly,” Martinez said. “We’re going to take this really slow with him because of his history, but he’s doing better. He’s getting some strengthening. He threw a little bit. We’re just going to take it day by day.”

Martinez said Ross is “out for now.”

Ross has had a history of arm trouble, including Tommy John surgery in 2017. Austin Voth has taken Ross’ spot in the rotation and will start during the team’s upcoming series at home against Atlanta.