I had just started eighth grade on Sept. 11, 2001.
That whole day remains a blur. I remember my school did not share what was going on with the students, so I only started hearing about the terrorist attacks once I arrived home and saw my parents watching the nonstop news coverage.
At 13 years old, I couldn’t fully grasp what was happening. After seeing the images of the iconic twin towers collapsing, I was confused, upset, and angry. But most of all, I was scared.
This was all happening so close to home. The nation was reeling from the attacks, and it seemed no one knew where to turn. All I knew was that things were far from routine and that the country needed something to rally around.
At the time, I had been following along as the New York Mets attempted to make a late-season push to the playoffs. Just the previous year, the Mets appeared in the World Series, but 2001 overall was a disappointing year for the orange-and-blue faithful.
Following the attacks, baseball — and all sports for that matter — were put on hold. The country needed time for wounds to begin healing before focusing on mere forms of entertainment. Yet for some of us, we needed exactly what sports can provide — a distraction from one of the darkest days in our history.
In what was the first professional sporting event in New York City following the attacks, the Mets hosted the rival Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium on Sept. 21. Players and coaches embraced on the field beforehand, with Mets players wearing special NYPD, FDNY, and other first responder organization caps.
As uplifting as the pregame ceremonies were, it was a moment in the bottom of the eighth inning that lives on 20 years later as a lasting image that helped in the city’s recovery. Mets perennial All-Star catcher and Brooklyn diocesan hero Mike Piazza stepped to the plate with his team down 2-1.
Pitching at the time for the Braves was reliever Steve Karsay, who grew up 15 minutes from Shea Stadium in College Point and starred on the mound for Christ the King H.S., Middle Village, from 1986-1990.
Piazza took a 97-mph first-pitch fastball on the outside corner for strike one. Karsay then tried to sneak in another heater, but this time Piazza jumped all over it, crushing it off the stadium’s camera tower in straight-away center field for a go-ahead two-run home run. The Mets hung on to win the ballgame, which was a huge lift for the city.
The iconic moment has since been referred to as the “Healing Power of a Swing.” Over the years, I’ve had the chance to speak to both Piazza and Karsay about that night.
“I remember specifically on the first-base line when I first heard the bagpipes and I started to cry, I was saying to myself, ‘Please God, let me execute and do my job,’” Piazza said. “It was very tough to hold it together emotionally at that time.”
As for the home run, Piazza felt a greater power as he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth to deliver the healing swing.
“I truly believe that was divine intervention,” he said. “That was God, or at least the Holy Spirit, working through me to calm me down.”
On the flip side, Karsay of course did not want to give up a home run in that spot. Despite the emotional pregame ceremonies, the Braves remained focused on squashing any hopes that the Mets could contend for the N.L. East crown.
“After he (Piazza) hit it, it was the kind of emotion that rivals the loudest cheers I’ve ever heard on a baseball field,” Karsay said. “To have that moment uneased the crowd. During the game, it was tense. You could just feel what that home run meant for the healing of New York City.”
Karsay understood the magnitude of the moment. Seeing what that home run meant to so many people looking for an escape from reality helped the Queens native embrace the “Healing Power of a Swing.”
“If there was any time to give up a home run, that was the time,” Karsay said.
As we reflect back on this moment 20 years later, it’s a reminder of why we love sports. Piazza’s homer turned the attention away from the horrors of ground zero — even if just for a short time.
It was even more meaningful to see the firefighters, police officers and emergency response personnel cheering alongside their fellow New Yorkers despite everything going on. That was the most important part about Piazza’s healing swing: The folks tasked with being the healers during this national disaster finally experienced some healing for themselves.
This show of strength was a sign that America’s pastime could help Americans power through a tragedy. The “Healing Power of a Swing” was exactly what the Big Apple needed to show how it would remain strong despite the loss and suffering all around us.
The eighth-grade version of myself still didn’t have all the answers, but after experiencing Piazza’s home run and seeing what it meant to so many people, I now knew one thing:
We were going to be OK.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at email@example.com.