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Monday, September 27, 2021

20 years later, the enduring legacy of the Mike Piazza home run

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8:00 AM ET

  • Ryan Hockensmith

RONNIE GIES HAD been missing for almost 10 days when his wife, Carol, got two unexpected invitations for Sept. 21, 2001. One was to go to the World Trade Center with other grieving spouses and loved ones of firefighters who were believed to have been lost in the collapse of the Twin Towers. The other invitation was to the Braves-Mets game that night, the first regular-season professional sporting event in New York City since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

She wasn’t so sure about taking everybody to a baseball game — Gies (pronounced Geese) and her three boys, ages 13, 16 and 18, could barely leave their living room at the time. As much as they loved the Mets, were they ready to go to Shea Stadium and jump up and down for three hours?

But she definitely wanted to go to Ground Zero. Ronnie had been the love of her life for the 22 years they’d had together, and she was holding out hope that maybe he was still alive. Maybe he was unconscious in a hospital, she thought. Maybe he was trapped in the rubble and waiting to be rescued. Maybe.

So she went with her brother, Bob, that morning. The group moved slowly, silently, among what was left of the South Tower. When everybody else rounded the corner to move on to the North Tower, Carol made it a few feet before she stopped and turned around. She stood in one spot, and she says she felt Ronnie, in her heart, in her head — and in her hands.

Ronnie and Carol were hand-holders. From the day they met in 1988, up through the morning of Sept. 11, it didn’t matter if they were happy, mad or sad, at the beach or the mall or in their Long Island house — their hands just kind of called to each other. She often says, “We were that couple,” and rolls her eyes in mock nausea, which is how she remembers people reacting to the magnetism she and Ronnie shared.

Sometimes they held hands without actually holding hands. Ronnie was a member of New York City’s special operations firefighting unit, and he would leave for his job in the morning and kiss her goodbye and hold her hand for a second in the kitchen. Then he’d walk out the back door and they’d have one more exchange. He’d stand and look back at her, and they’d both raise a hand. It was a half-wave, half-long-distance air hand-hold. “That probably looked very silly to anybody who saw it,” she says.

As she stood where the South Tower used to be, she says she felt a pull. Bob noticed his sister had stopped, and he came back to her. “Ronnie’s down there somewhere, right here,” she said, pointing down. “And he’s not coming home. I’m a widow, Bob.”

She left the World Trade Center site that morning with a spackle bucket filled with chunks of steel and granite. She thought for sure that would be the only thing she ever had from the scene to remember Ronnie. She also had noticed a measure of relief in herself: “I just felt it in that moment that he had died and that he hadn’t suffered.”

On the drive home, her brother gently asked about the Mets game. Gies worked through the question: Was the city — the country, really — ready for a sporting event just a few miles from the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history?

She wasn’t the only one wondering that.


ON THE WAY to Shea Stadium, Mike Piazza spent the whole ride thinking it was too soon. The Mets had swept three games in Pittsburgh from Sept. 17-19, and Piazza struggled badly. Not on the field — he had two home runs and four RBIs against the Pirates. But inside, he felt empty. He’d grown to love New York, being a New Yorker, being a Met. He wasn’t sure how he or his teammates would possibly be able to play with the destruction just a few miles away. It didn’t feel right.

Throw in that the Mets had closed to within 4½ games of the Braves and there were real pennant stakes to the game, and Piazza was afraid he wouldn’t even be able to function that night.

“We just didn’t know if we should be there,” he says. “To be a professional athlete, you do have to muster up a certain sense of emotion to play with intensity. And at that point, all of our emotion was drained.”

The Braves felt the same way. Before the game, Greg Maddux went out and sat in the visiting team bullpen. He occasionally did that on days when he didn’t pitch, but on Sept. 21 he wanted to talk to Mets security, cops, firefighters and other first responders around the bullpen.

As he sat there in his uniform, two hours before a baseball game, he wavered on the importance of the game that night, too. He listened to them talk about the agony of losing loved ones and coworkers, but he was struck by the different level of pain in their voice about the uncertainty. There was so little finality, for so many. “They just wanted to know,” Maddux says. “Even if the news was terrible, they wanted to know for sure what happened to the people they loved.”

But Maddux ultimately was swayed by something else he heard in the bullpen: The players may have been wrestling with whether to play or not, but those New Yorkers, the ones with a void in their guts, needed the game. “It was such a tragedy that happened. All the lives that were lost,” Maddux says. “It was nice to pay your respects and start moving on again. Something good finally happened — there was a baseball game people could go to, and things were going to start to get better.”

As the game got closer, fans began to flood in, through unprecedented levels of security at an American sporting event. Most of the 41,000 in attendance arrived by 6 p.m., and from beyond the walls of the stadium, fans and players could hear the distant sounds of the NYPD’s bagpipe band, the Pipes & Drums of the Emerald Society, warming up. Players began to meander around the field, most wearing NYPD or FDNY hats that had been put in both clubhouses. They hugged and shook hands, an uncharacteristic scene from two teams who’d shared a heated rivalry over the past few seasons. There was a mix of electricity and sadness in the ether that no one had ever felt before.

Maddux made his way toward the dugout around 6:30 and a fan yelled to him. He’d learned to just keep walking past fans in New York, to pretend he couldn’t hear. But on this night, he decided to make eye contact. “It’s nice to have you back,” the guy yelled. “But you still suck.” Maddux smiled, grabbed a ball from the dugout and came back to give it to the guy.

Carol Gies and her boys arrived a half hour or so before the game, and settled into seats right behind home plate, between the Braves dugout and the media section. She wore one of Ronnie’s blue work shirts and sat in a section designated for people whose loved ones were presumed lost on 9/11. Photographers noticed her and the kids right away, and she spent the rest of the night trying to ignore the constant clicks and flashes of photos. She felt like a zoo exhibit. “Camera after camera after camera, taking pictures,” she says.

Eventually Braves outfielder Brian Jordan came over and gave her and the boys each a hug, then pointed a finger at the group of photographers. “Leave them alone,” he said. They didn’t listen, and now Gies is glad they didn’t. The stream of photos of her and the boys would become iconic symbols of the night.

Around 7 p.m., the gates in left center field opened up and uniformed officers from various first-responder departments walked into the outfield carrying flags. “We return to our national pastime in part to show that America can — and will — go on,” the public address announcer said. They marched to the mound and the crowd rose, chanting “U-S-A.”

“It was a surreal scene before the game, an emotional tug of war,” Piazza says. “And then when the bagpipes came out…it was really difficult to focus.”


IN THE WEEKS after 9/11, NYPD detective Kevin McDonough barely ate or slept. He was working 16-hour shifts almost every day. He rotated between normal patrol duties, or down at Ground Zero, or shifts at the morgue. He also played bagpipes at as many funerals as he could.

He’d joined the NYPD bagpipe band in 2000. He always loved the sounds of bagpipes and hadn’t ever played them. But he learned quickly and worked his way up, both as a young NYPD detective and as an NYPD bagpiper. “I loved the way we honored our fallen and I wanted to be a part of that,” he says.

When he had the chance to play on the field that night, alongside 50 to 60 other bagpipers, he was excited — and nervous. As they began to enter the stadium and play “America the Beautiful,” the crowd turned into a library. There was something about the sound of the music, and the way that the bagpipers stoically marched themselves into a moving rectangle, that made people stare silently. Nobody made a sound for the first 10 seconds.

But then some light applause turned into an overwhelming roar, and by the time the bagpipers reached second base, they couldn’t hear the sound of the instruments they were playing six inches from their ears. “It threw a shiver up my spine,” McDonough says. “That night was one of the great honors of my life.”

Diana Ross followed with a gut-wrenching version of “God Bless America.” She started out at a mic stand set up behind home plate, facing the crowd, then as she powered through the song, she slowly drifted past the four umps, stationed staring out from home plate, and stood halfway between the plate and the pitcher’s mound. First responders spilled onto the field, dozens and dozens of cops and firefighters in rows all over the infield. As she wound down, the bagpipers stood like statues behind second base. Cameras showed Piazza chomping on gum, trying not to cry, but eventually he broke down.

The “U-S-A” chants kept breaking out in the stands, and Gies cried throughout the pregame. But she had spent 10 days feeling numb, so there was something about finally feeling the grief with 40,000 other people that lifted some of the heaviness. The boys didn’t cry — they just watched, silently. But her heart began to warm as the first pitch approached because the boys started to join the chants.

The game was just minutes away. After Marc Anthony sang the national anthem, players poured into the middle of the diamond from the base lines. The cops and firefighters walked back out the center field gate. In the background, still planted on the first blades of outfield grass, the bagpipers began to play “Amazing Grace.”

When they were done, the bagpipers pivoted and followed the cops and firefighters out beyond the stadium walls. The Braves headed for their dugout and the Mets took the field.

McDonough went directly to his car and changed into uniform right there in the parking lot. He put his bagpipes in the backseat and drove to a landfill on Long Island. His job that night was to sift through debris that dump trucks drove out from the World Trade Center site. Detectives like him would spread everything out on the ground and go through, by hand, looking for clothing, wallets, anything that might provide DNA. “The goal was to identify loved ones and try to provide closure,” McDonough says.

As he pulled out of Flushing, the game began. The Mets had improbably won nine of 10 games before Sept. 21 to start breathing down the Braves’ necks so, even amid the uncertainty and the gravity of the night, it was a game both teams wanted to win.

In normal circumstances that year, a Mets vs. Braves game pitting Bruce Chen vs. Jason Marquis would have smelled like a 9-8 runfest. The Mets had hammered Marquis all four times they’d seen him that year, and the Braves had scored seven runs in two innings against Chen earlier that season.

But on Sept. 21, both teams looked sluggish at the plate. The game was 1-1 heading into the bottom of the seventh before the Braves went to their bullpen. After Liza Minnelli delivered “New York New York” between innings, relievers Steve Reed and Mike Remlinger got a 1-2-3 inning against the 7-8-9 hitters in the Mets lineup. Then, a Jordan line drive off Armando Benitez in the top of the eighth scored Cory Aldridge to make it 2-1 Braves. Piazza was due up the next frame.

By that point, Gies was exhausted in the stands. She doesn’t remember eating or drinking or talking, or if the boys even had dinner. She had moments where her emotions overwhelmed her, but she also felt uplifted for the first time in 10 days. The outcome of the game didn’t matter to her as much as the outcome of the evening.

But the kids cared. They screamed for the Mets the whole night. They used to come to games with their dad, and they never went for the Flushing scenery — they wanted the Mets to win. “I kept thinking, ‘The boys could really use a comeback here,'” Carol says.

The Braves went early to closer Steve Karsay. After Matt Lawton grounded out, Edgardo Alfonzo drew a walk to bring Piazza to the plate. He’d had two doubles earlier in the night and caught the whole game. But he still felt…off. “During the game, I just remember praying to God, ‘Lord, please help me to get through this night,'” he says. “I felt myself starting to break down. I didn’t really know if I could finish the game. Fortunately, as everything unfolded, I did receive emotional strength from everyone, and the old feelings of competitiveness kicked in.”

Karsay threw hard, and opened with a fastball down the middle for a called strike. Piazza barely moved the bat off his shoulder, and as he stepped out of the batter’s box for a moment, he thought, “S–t, I think I missed my best pitch.”

He expected a curveball on the next pitch but was surprised when he spotted a fastball coming out of Karsay’s hand. The ball was up and out over the plate, and Piazza took his long, loping swing, fully extending his arms as he connected. Karsay never turned around to look at it as the ball soared out and over the left center field wall, a most necessary shot that went about 425 feet. “There are a few where you hit it and you just know,” Piazza says.

He doesn’t remember anything after the swing. He rounded the bases a step or two faster than most of his home runs, chomping on his gum, still numb even as the stadium lost its mind.

Atlanta players were solemn as the crowd erupted for 30 seconds, enough to lure Piazza out for a curtain call. But deep down, even the Braves were cheering. “It seems only fitting that Mike hit a game-winning home run,” Maddux says. “You never like to lose, but that was one that was pretty easy to accept.”

Gies leapt up and down with her sons. They all felt a jolt surge through them. “My kids were so sad, even walking into the stadium — everything was a blur,” Gies says. “And then Mike Piazza hit that ball. I will forever be grateful to him — that was the first time I saw my children smile since their dad was gone, and it was then that I realized we were going to be OK.”

Benitez closed out the game in the ninth. Piazza jogged to the mound, still working over that piece of gum, then he went back to the dugout and collapsed in a heap for a few minutes. When he finally started taking his catcher’s gear off, a police officer approached with a mom and her three smiling boys. The Gies family introduced themselves and Piazza told the boys, “I’m not a hero. Your father was a hero.”

He looked for something to give them, before pulling off his wrist bands and handing them to Tommy. “He still keeps them in his night table 20 years later,” Gies says.

Piazza said goodbye to the Gieses and took off the rest of his equipment. He showered, left everything in his locker and took a big deep breath as he left the stadium at close to midnight. “I didn’t keep anything from that night,” he says. “I thought it was an amazing moment, but I didn’t think people would still be celebrating it 20 years later. I would have kept the bat, the gloves, the uniform.”

He pauses for a moment. “The uniform…that’s a whole other story.”


YEARS AFTER THE game, right before the start of the 2016 season, New York tabloids lit up with news that Piazza’s jersey was up for sale in an auction. The Mets had inexplicably sold Piazza’s 9/21 jersey among a group of others to a private collector for $20,000, and now the iconic uniform was up for grabs to the highest bidder.

Fans — and Piazza — were livid. “I asked the Mets, ‘Why would you sell my jersey? Good…lord,'” Piazza says. “But it is what it is. It was a glitch. I’m willing to chalk it up as a mistake.”

But fortunately there was one attendee from that Sept. 21 game who was both upset and wealthy enough to chase down the jersey. He was a successful Wall Street guy who’d taken his son and two boys whose fathers died in the towers to watch the game from a suite. He couldn’t believe that the Mets could have let such a prized piece of history go, vowing to buy it back. And he did, rallying $365,000 to reclaim the Piazza’s No. 31 uniform from that night. The name of that Wall Street guy? Anthony Scaramucci.

“I didn’t want to see that jersey leave New York,” Scaramucci says. “Mike Piazza had let everybody in the world know that New York was still standing, surviving, and that it was okay to celebrate and try to live your life despite the unspeakable tragedy of Sept. 11. To me that jersey was a metaphor for picking yourself back up and recovering.”

Scaramucci and two friends bought the jersey and immediately donated it to be rotated between the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the Baseball Hall of Fame and Citi Field. “I’m friends with the Wilpon family…but I just think that was a mistake,” says Scaramucci, who spent 11 days as President Donald Trump’s director of communications in 2017. “You know my career — I’ve made colossal mistakes, so I’m not throwing rocks at other people. It didn’t bother me that much that they sold it. It was just, ‘Let’s get it back.’ By the way, when Fred [Wilpon] learned it was us buying it back, he was very grateful.”

But before the buyers handed over the jersey, the group hosted Piazza at an Italian restaurant in New York City. Piazza thought it was simply a celebration of his Cooperstown induction, but when he arrived, Scaramucci told him he had a surprise. He pulled out a sealed plastic bag and handed it to Piazza: the Sept. 21 jersey.

“You should have seen Mike’s face when I brought it in,” Scaramucci says. “I touched it, and I let him touch it. But nobody else.”


IN SEPTEMBER AND October of 2001, Piazza was one of the best hitters in baseball, hitting .352 with six home runs and 19 RBIs in 88 at-bats to end the regular season. But it wasn’t enough: The Mets faded down the stretch, going 7-7 to finish six games behind Atlanta.

“We kind of limped to the finish line,” Piazza says now. “Maybe the gravity of that night took a toll on us. All things considered, the way people look back at that season, even though we missed the playoffs by a few games, it was a huge success. I don’t think too many people were disappointed.”

Carol Gies and her sons certainly weren’t. She talks about that night as a paragraph break in her life, a new start. Over the next two months, the Gies family began to move on. Gies says she saw her boys laugh more and more, and they officially laid Ronnie to rest when they held a memorial and funeral for him in October, even though his body had never been recovered.

Then, on Dec. 7, just before midnight, Gies was in the living room with her oldest son, Tommy, when there was a knock at the front door. It was several of Ronnie’s fire department friends, plus the family’s priest, with stunning news: Recovery teams had found Ronnie’s body in the rubble. “I’d worked through all of the pain by then,” Gies says. “At that point, I was just so happy to have Ronnie come home.”

She sat with her sons and asked if they wanted to go to the funeral home and say goodbye to their dad. The vote was unanimous, and they all drove over. Ronnie’s body had been crushed but was found intact, which Gies considers a miracle. Everybody took turns telling Ronnie they loved him, and at the end, Gies asked for a moment alone. She pulled the American flag off the body bag, and let her hand drift down along the outside, to where she thought Ronnie’s arm must be. “I wanted to touch his hand one more time,” she says.

It was the kind of devastating finality she desperately had prayed for — Ronnie was home. A few days later, they held a second funeral for Ronnie Gies, laying him to rest in Merrick, New York.

Gies pauses for a moment when she talks about having what she calls his real funeral, and she ducks out of the dining room for a moment.

When she returns, she’s carrying Ronnie’s helmet. It steals your breath to look at up close. It’s smashed and scratched in spots, pulled from underneath millions of pounds of cement and steel and pain. Tommy keeps the helmet at his house most of the time, but everybody has items to remember Ronnie that they carry around with them. Nobody really owns any of them. The same way that the Piazza jersey may have gone away for a little while before it came back to where it belonged, the items circulate but always gravitate back toward Gies before she passes them along again. They’re magnetic.

Gies was offered tickets to go to the Mets-Yankees game on Sept. 11 this year, but she thinks she’s going to stay in Merrick, where she still lives in the same house that Ronnie built for the family. Her kids all live nearby, with their kids. All three of her boys are Merrick firefighters, for the same firehouse that Ronnie started out in. The only big thing that’s changed is the neighborhood street sign, which now reads Ronnie Gies Avenue.

“It’ll be a hard day for us on Sept. 11 of this year, for sure,” Gies says, before reflecting on the game that helped her family heal. “But I’ll also spend some time just feeling grateful for that night, and for that Mike Piazza home run. Everything changed for us when he hit that ball. We could smile again.”

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