It began as a strange evening at Shea Stadium.
It was the time of year when the rivalry was most volatile, with each team staking its claim for a piece of October baseball. These were nights usually filled with tense moments, chants of "Larry, Larry," and a visceral hatred of John Rocker.
This mid-September night, however, was different. On this night, baseball barely seemed to matter.
That night was exactly eight years ago, Sept. 21, 2001.
It was a mere ten days after the terrorist attacks on the 11th shook New York City, and the nation, to its core.
The entire nation had come to a screeching halt, and professional sports were no different. Both Major League Baseball and the National Football League had suspended their seasons. Baseball was returning that night, and football had yet to return.
Major League Baseball was returning that night at the urging of then-President George W. Bush, who had convinced them to resume their schedule; with the first of these games being played on the 21st.
While both the American and National leagues resumed playing games that night, the entire sports world was focused on Shea Stadium, as the Mets prepared to play the Atlanta Braves.
Major League Baseball did everything possible to honor the lives lost on 9/11 when play resumed at Shea. Every umpire, every Mets player, and some Braves players with local ties such as BJ Surhoff wore hats that read "NYPD" and "FDNY."
They showed their support of the brave New York City police and fire personnel who risked, and in many cases lost, their lives trying to save the people trapped in the World Trade Center.
There was a very touching ceremony featuring New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Liza Minnelli, and Diana Ross, which included a rousing rendition of "New York, New York," performed by Minnelli during the seventh-inning stretch.
The game was completely sold-out, including 10,000 walk-up tickets being purchased.
Still, despite MLB's efforts, watching a baseball game and cheering for a team while being only a stone's throw away from the carnage left behind by the worst terrorist act on American soil just seemed wrong.
The game was a blur. The New York crowd had cheered, but not like they had in recent seasons past for a Mets / Braves game in September.
Then, Liza Minelli made the crowd roar with her performance during the seventh-inning stretch.
The game would resume, and with the crowd emotionally spent from the seventh inning ceremonies, the spectators watched on as once again the Braves were beating the Mets late in the season.
Then, it happened.
With the New York Mets trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Mike Piazza, the undoubted soul of the reigning NL champions, stepped to the plate to face Atlanta reliever Steve Karsay with a runner on base.
With one swing of the bat, Piazza sent a fly ball deep into the Queens night and out of Shea Stadium, giving the Mets a 3-2 lead over the Braves—and, more importantly, giving the city, and the nation, a moment to cheer.
Piazza rounded the bases as the crowd bestowed deafening cheers upon him. The same crowd who had cheered with the enthusiasm of sleepwalkers for the first seven innings; the same crowd who had witnessed the horror that occurred only ten days prior; now was making Shea Stadium shake with thunderous applause, the type of applause that hadn't been seen in Flushing since a Mookie Wilson single dribbled under the glove of Bill Buckner.
Piazza crossed home plate, trotted to the dugout, removed his helmet and gave the cheering New York crowd a curtain call. The Mets' catcher, who so often came through in the clutch for his team and his fans, was now saluting the crowd, touching his heart and pointing to the sky, with what looked like tears in his eyes.
The Mets would go on to win the game, but the final outcome was meaningless. Baseball had returned, and with that return the city of New York, the nation, and all of its people were on our way to recovery.
Mike Piazza's home run in that fateful eighth inning of Sept. 21, 2001 had made a statement to every American. It reminded us what joy was, a feeling that had seemed to have died with the very first victims of 9/11.
Piazza's home run made it ok to smile again, to cheer again, to resume all the great things that make us Americans.
Even Braves fans, despite losing the game and probably hating the Mets, would find themselves hard-pressed to say they didn't at least get chills the moment they saw the ball fly over that blue padded fence. For that night—and maybe only that night, eight years ago—every American was a baseball fan.
That night, we were all Mets fans.