STILLWATER, Oklahoma – The New York Mets couldn’t practice. Former Oklahoma State University star Robin Ventura and his major-league teammates tried, but it was impossible to focus when they knew what was happening around them.
Boxes packed with disaster relief supplies filled the parking lot outside Shea Stadium. Weary firefighters slept on cots in the locker room, still dressed in their boots and work pants so they were ready to return to Ground Zero at a moment’s notice. Smoke and soot extended far beyond the wreckage, leaving New York City in an unrecognizable state of disarray.
Baseball was not a priority only a few days after Sept. 11, 2001. After a futile attempt to practice for about half an hour, manager Bobby Valentine had a different idea. The Mets, including Ventura, joined the relief effort, stuffing boxes with water bottles, food, antiseptic solutions and other vital resources.
“You didn’t really think too much,” Ventura said this week. “Somebody would kind of tell you what to do. It was kind of chaotic, organized chaos, because there were so many people there and doing a lot of things that you didn’t ask a lot of questions.”
Twenty years have passed since the day when al-Qaida operatives crashed airplanes into New York City’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing 2,977 people, including the death toll of those on a fourth hijacked plane that crashed in a field. Ventura, now in Stillwater again as an assistant baseball coach and OSU student, reflected on where he was when he heard about the attacks and how he experienced New York City’s response to the tragedy. Sports initially seemed insignificant while the nation grieved but eventually provided something necessary, a way for people to experience fleeting but significant moments of joy.
Between work shifts, firefighters sometimes practiced batting on the field at Shea Stadium, turning to baseball as an escape from the devastation that surrounded them every day at Ground Zero. On Sept. 21, 2001, during the first baseball game in New York City since 9/11, Mike Piazza sealed the Mets’ 3-2 victory against the Atlanta Braves with a home run, giving the full crowd a reason to applaud and cheer.
Only 10 days earlier, Mets third baseman Ventura had been in a hotel room in Pittsburgh, holding a cup of coffee and watching TV to catch up on recent news. It was his typical routine, but that morning, Ventura couldn’t believe what he saw on “The Today Show.”
“You’re thinking it’s a movie,” Ventura said. “Then you start seeing everything that was happening, and you just kind of go numb, and it’s surreal.”
He and his teammates, who were staying in Pittsburgh for a road series, gathered in the lobby, trying to figure out their course of action. Hijackers had taken over four airplanes – two crashed into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, one hit the Pentagon and another was somewhere near the Mets in Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania plane ended up crashing in a field after passengers attempted to take control of it from the hijackers, but the Mets had no idea that would happen. Their hotel was adjacent to a federal building, potentially endangering them, Ventura recalled, so they relocated to a suburban motel.
“They just kind of hid us out there, and you didn’t know what was going on,” Ventura said. “So all the flights were canceled, and we didn’t know what we were gonna do.”
The next day, at the end of an eight or nine-hour bus ride back to New York City, Ventura did not return to his stadium as he knew it. Shea Stadium, where the Mets played before upgrading to Citi Field, had been transformed into a staging area for 9/11 relief efforts. People were constantly rushing around the parking lot, and fire trucks had arrived from nearby states. From that point, the Mets’ season was completely altered. They met with kids whose parents were victims of the attacks, wore specially designed baseball caps to honor first responders and sometimes even visited Ground Zero.
It was Ventura’s third season with the Mets, and the whole team pitched in to help the city heal – even guys who hadn’t previously been embedded in the New York community.
“There was guys that had only been there two weeks, and they were doing the same thing we were,” Ventura said.
Now, 20 years later, Ventura is sometimes reminded of that emotional season. Maybe it’s the scent of coffee, he said. When he picks up a cup of morning joe, it brings back memories of that jarring day when he looked at his TV and observed the unthinkable. He isn’t sure where his Port Authority ball cap is, but he said he knows he has it somewhere, keeping him connected to New York and its first responders.
Baseball couldn’t mend a mourning city. It couldn’t replace any lives that were lost. But the Mets, as well as the New York Yankees, had a prominent role in bringing humanity to New York after the tragedy, leading relief initiatives and drawing people together.
“That is the weird part,” Ventura said. “There’s a lot of things that I don’t remember about my years in New York, but that, it’s like snapshots. It’s like little frames that you remember.”