Franco, Zeile tour 9/11 Museum sports exhibit

Former Mets recall baseball's role in days after Sept. 11 attacks

September 6th, 2018

NEW YORK -- A sport can mean so much to a city and its fans. In the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, baseball was much more than just a game to the city of New York. The Mets took a step into uncharted territory to help with the healing process of the rescue workers of that dreadful day.

On Thursday -- nearly 17 years later -- two former Mets who were very involved in that healing process, John Franco and Todd Zeile, took a tour through the National September 11 Memorial & Museum led by New York City Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro and executive vice president and deputy director for museum programs Clifford Chanin. The tour ended in the "Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11" exhibition that just opened in June.

On the day of the attacks, the Mets were in Pittsburgh. Not able to fly back to New York, the team took a bus that took them eight hours. When they got to the George Washington Bridge, the entire left side of the bus shifted to the right side to just stare out the windows.

Lights and black smoke filled the air and the burning smell of electrical wires planted an everlasting memory in the minds of the players. A wave of silence took over, and from the bridge to Shea Stadium you could hear a pin drop. Nobody said a word.

The Mets knew what they had to do. They were going to go to ground zero to support the rescue workers.

"I remember it was something that we felt like we wanted to do, but we weren't sure how it was going to be received," Zeile said. "At that point we were like, 'Hey, we're baseball players. This is not our familiar zone.' But when we got there, we were just overwhelmed with how embraced we were to be a vision of something sort of normal or New York-centric that took the minds off what was going on in that immediate moment."

The players went down to ground zero and handed out hats and T-shirts and talked with some of the rescue workers who had been working countless hours after the tragedy.

"When we see guys who have been down here for one, two, three days straight and the grief on their face," Franco said, "and the smile that we gave to them, [it] made us feel like we were part of the recovery in just helping them forget for a second. So it was very important for us to go down there."

While they were there, some of the civil service workers exchanged hats with the Mets players. In their next game against Pittsburgh, the Mets wore hats given to them by members of the NYPD, FDNY, Port Authority, EMS and more.

"We wore them when we got back to Shea and it was something by that point that was really critical for us because it was an added connection to the people that we had gone and seen and spent time with and families that we had tried to give some sense of encouragement through that time," Zeile said.

When they returned to Shea Stadium, there were heavy debates over whether it was too soon for baseball to return to New York City. There had been many team discussions and player discussions with Major League Baseball and the Players' Association about when the right time would be to start playing again in New York.

"We had started playing outside of New York and we all felt it was time," Zeile said. "We felt we were safe and we felt it would be something symbolic that would be welcomed by the city."

Symbolic was exactly the right word for that day. Fans greeted each other with hugs and tears during an emotional national anthem, and Mike Piazza stepped up to the plate in the eighth inning and launched an iconic two-run home run that brought virtually everyone in the place to tears.

"I remember looking in the stands and seeing people hugging and crying and kissing each other," Franco said. "We were doing the same on the bench. I get goosebumps talking about it now.

"I think it's very important for the two and a half hours that we played that game, we put a Band Aid on something. But I think that's something that I know I will, and my teammates probably will never forget."

While the former Mets walked around the Museum, they reminisced about the times they spent at ground zero and the friendships they made with the rescue workers and their families as well as their teammate's emotional homer. Both Franco and Zeile were overwhelmed by the new exhibition and are proud to have been a part of it.

"People say that all the sports figures here are heroes," Franco said. "But we're not the heroes. The policemen and firemen that lost their lives and the rescue workers, those are the heroes."